So, here’s the thing, or several things. I have been told all my life that I am a large percent Aleut, and also Apache. It has become kind of a nursery rhyme in my head. I am Jessica Rae, I am made up of seven things, Irish, English, German, Dutch. Aleut, Apache, and French, this is who I am. This is who I am.
I have been asked, many times what my ethnic background is. And so I recite, the seven things that I am, again and again. People say, oh, yes, that they can tell that I am a combination of things, they just couldn’t put their finger on what. Some say this politely, some with fascination, others with a boredom that makes me wonder why they asked.
Last September, it was one of the first things my husband’s stepmom asked me, when we first met. “Where are you from?” she asked. “I’m from Spokane,” I said. “No, no, where are you from?” she implored. My husband, sensed my confusion and stepped in. “She means, what are you, honey,” he translated. “Oh, well…” I said. “You aren’t a full blood, are you?” she asked. I was thinking that as far as I know, that I do have the regular amount of blood flowing through my body, but of course, that isn’t what I said. I told her my seven things, then acknowledged when she asked again about what kinds of Native American I am. She nodded, then said, “I knew when I looked at you that you weren’t a full blood.” And as if that settled something, she went to the table and took her seat.
I stood there, thinking, not knowing what to feel. Is that a put down? Or an attempt to understand where I came from, who I am? She’s a very nice lady, and very good to my husband’s dad. So, I’ve been telling myself for months that her comments were innocuous. And that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about my genetic makeup, it matters who I actually am, what I choose to live like, not which of my relatives chose to procreate and with whom they chose to do so.
But it’s part of my identity, all the same.
In high school I wore a multiple strand beaded leather choker. It looked like everything I wanted to be known for. It was a contrast of light and dark, beautiful in a noticeable way, and exotic looking, at least to me. When our biggest choir concert came up in the Spring, I refused my new choir teacher’s commands to take it off. It was my heritage, I said. I wouldn’t remove it. I won the battle of wills, after she took the issue to the principal. It was a part of who I am. And also something that I bought at Claire’s in the Columbia Center Mall, on a different choir trip, but neither my teacher or principal needed to know that.
Later, in college, I got a third tattoo. A feather that goes from my ankle onto my foot. The tattoo artist I chose had studied tattoos on the Aleutian Islands, and promised it would be authentic. It is the tattoo that I lotion first, always wanting it to be perfectly preserved. I look at it every summer, and notice how it looks in sandals, with more than a tablespoon of pride in my genetic heritage. It is a permanent reminder of where I came from, of who and what I am.
Except, what if it isn’t?
A few weeks ago I joined ancestry.com and have traced one of the lines on my father’s side, all the way back to 1847, when that relative and his wife made the journey to America. From Prussia. Prussia. As in, Germany, not some secret part of what is now known as America. And while their story is a bold adventure, birthing their sixth child while crossing the ocean, before landing here where they hoped for freedom, and walking over mountains with all these little lives depending on them, it isn’t, what I thought I would find.
I have heard it all my life. I am the descendant of Cochise, a distant but still somewhat honorable, Indian Princess. I have made sure to check that box on all the forms, for myself and all five of my children, though it said Alaskan Native/Native American, not Indian Princess. My husband is from Texas and we joke frequently about spending our life playing Cowboys and Indians. Being Native explains my olive skin, the placement of my cheekbones when I can find them, the connection I feel to the earth, my love of drums, sweat lodges, and smudging with sage, among other things.
But what if all of that was a lie? Because, well, that is not a part of my heritage that is in doubt. I come from a long line of bad men, and pathological liars, on my fathers side. I still have a long way to go, and a DNA test to send away for. But, what if?
What if it turns out that I am the Rachel Dolezal of Indigenous People?
I’m serious, you guys. For all of my raising my children to look only at the insides of people, at who their actions say they are, I feel a little misplaced. It could still be true. I could still have part of the genetic makeup I thought I had. I’ll be digging deeper and trying my best to find out. I’ll keep you posted, of course. But in the interim, I’ll be reminding myself that I, and not my ancestry, get to determine what I do with my life. That being kind, and honest, loving, and authentic, is more important than being any one type of ethnic. And that wherever I came from, I’m grateful to be here.