Who Are You? Who, who, who who
November 21, 2007

Incinq from BlogCatalog asked a great question about ethnicity/heritage. I started to reply over there and then realized that my own answer is so odd and lengthy, it'd simply make a better blog post.

By the time I was about five, I began to understand that there were other countries than the U.S. in a very visceral and real way. I would pore over the atlas and pull out all of the ancient encyclopedias just to look at maps. Using the encyclopedias as my maps, however, caused some interesting glitches. Think about this list for a minute:
island, England, Ireland, Greenland, Poland.

Yeah. I thought Poland must be an island. I got into a very heated argument with my mother over this about the age of five. I was utterly convinced that she was wrong and I was right. It all made perfect sense. To me, anyway.

The long and short of that, though, is that my parents were highly uninterested in our cultural heritage. I was searching for roots that they had long since dug up and tossed aside. When I asked ethnicity we were, I was told American. Okay, that's great, but that's only a part of the story. Where did we come from? And I don't mean the stork.

Unfortunately, I was not quite savvy enough to say it like that then. So, predictably, I got a book on where babies come from instead of an answer. This was a recurring theme of misdirection in our family when someone didn't like the questions being asked.

Eventually I got Mom to say that her mother's mother had emigrated from Lithuania. Excited, I asked where that was. Mom's reply was that Lithuania wasn't there any more. It had been swallowed up by Russia.

Now, you have to understand that I was about five at this time. And to my mind ... which worked in oddly logical and literal ways (as most five year old's minds do) ... this meant Lithuania didn't really count because it didn't really exist.

Frustrated that we were apparently not "anything," I began to search for a good heritage. I decided that I was Irish.

To this day I have no idea what made me choose Ireland. I recall my mother being irritated with me and telling me that we were NOT Irish. I would calmly smile and tell her, "I am." It was as if, for whatever reason, I needed roots that my parents did not. I know that both of my parents had moved some when they were kids. But I don't think they had the tumbleweed childhood I'd had by the time I started kindergarten. Six towns and seven homes by the time I was in kindergarten. Perhaps I just wanted something consistent in my life.

I know that when I was a little bit older, and I would ask again (this was a constant question throughout my childhood), Mom would sometimes recite a little ditty that her father used to say, "We're Irish and Dutch and don't amount to much." This simply fueled my Irish flame. I researched the country periodically. I aligned myself with the IRA (without any real realization of what that meant ... to my mind they were simply freedom fighters). I often growled about "the bloody English" and especially that fool, Cromwell.

I begged to be allowed to do the foreign exchange program and go to Ireland for a year of high school. My mother, ever paranoid about everything, refused on the grounds that Ireland was a land of war. I argued eloquently that the fighting was primarily in the northern six counties. I pointed out that Ireland was Catholic, so I would never miss mass. All in vain.

In the course of growing up, besides deciding I was Irish, I became very very invested in being a Texan as well. These two "ethnicities," if you will, gave me a certain grounding and identity. I adored teasing my sister about being an Okie and pointing out that Dad and I were true Texans ... whilst my sister was "just" an Okie. {Why does Texas not fall in the Gulf of Mexico? ... ... ... cuz Oklahoma sucks ... ... ... MWAhahahahaha} I periodically teased my mother for being a damyankee.

In retrospect, the reason that I constantly looked for some kind of national identity was because I wanted to belong ... and I never did feel like I belonged to my family. We always seemed like a foursome of random people who happened to share the same home. I was close to my sister and I tried to help her deal with our odd little family ... but somehow ... I always felt like an outsider ... biding my time until I could escape into my real life.

Looking for a heritage was simply looking to belong to something bigger than my life; something which with I had an affinity, something in common.

There was a third component to my search for heritage.

We lived in Albuquerque for three months when I was three years old. Dad had already been there for a while on what was to have been a temporary assignment. It dragged out for quite some time. The last time I talked with Mom about this, she had thought he'd only been there for three months before we joined him. But on thinking about the timing of it all, she thought he'd actually been out there much, much longer than that.

I was two when he left for Albuquerque on this temporary assignment and when I was a teenager, my mother would bitterly tell me how hard it had been for her to deal with me. Not because I was acting up whilst Dad was gone. But because I was depressed that Daddy wasn't there.

To understand her bitterness, you have to understand that my father was not a particularly nice man most of the time. As an adult, my mom had figured this out after about 8 years of marriage. As a two year old, of course, I had not yet figured that out. She was hurt that I was upset at Dad's absence when she was still there to hold me and play with me. I suppose it's simply a complicated thing and I don't know if you, Gentle Reader, will really understand it without having lived it.

At any rate, this was about 1971. Mom and I finally moved to Albuquerque to join Dad since it looked like this temporary gig was going to be a bit longer than that.

In 1969, a group of American Indians took over Alcatraz Island.
In 1970, a group from the American Indian Movement seized the Mayflower replica on Thanksgiving day.
In 1971, the American Indian Movement also had a group occupy Mount Rushmore.

Remember how my mother would not let me go to Ireland for school when I was a junior in high school? Because she feared it was a country of war?

New Mexico has a large native American population. Tensions were running quite high in the 70s. My mother was utterly terrified of anyone different from her ... so Albuquerque was a city of dirt and fear to her.

I, on the other hand, thought I'd gone to heaven. I was back with Daddy, I could run outside, there were mountains. And, I'm sure that given my asthma, I was feeling far better in the dry Albuquerque than the humid, wet armpit of Houston.

Mom and Grandma and I made a trip up to Santa Fe one day to see the fabled "The Mall." This trip has become legend in my mind ... I don't know how much of it I have embellished over the years, but this is my story and I'm sticking to it:

Mom was surprised that "The Mall" was actually an outdoor collection of handicrafts, jewelry and such. We wandered from booth to booth, Mom becoming more and more scared by the collection of "dirty indians" around us.

I, of course, was utterly fascinated. I can just picture myself poised over a blanket of pottery and sand paintings, all cautious and curious three-year-old style. Hands to myself, eyes sharp and darting from storied item to storied item.

And then the questions started. "What's that?" "What does that mean?" "A Thunderbird? like the planes?" "What's a yei?" "What does it guard?"

Thirty six years later, I see this poor shopkeep as a patient man. Chuckling at the bilagaana child. I like to think that I was polite and curious, waiting for his answers ... but that may simply be because I know Navajo speech can be considered slow and pondering by anglos.

During my informal schooling in the symbols used by this Navajo artist, my mother thought I was still with her. She'd gone off to look at other booths. She was always like that once she got into shopping ... focused on the next booth or store or rack. Naturally, she eventually realized that I had not placidly followed her like a duckling straggling after its mother. Naturally, she panicked and began retracing her steps. Just in time to hear me tell the patient shopkeep:

"When I grow up, I'm gonna be an Indian, too!"

Whether it's clear memory or my vivid imagination, I can see him chuckling and then swallowing all emotion quickly ... a flash of fear before the mask of nothingness settles ... and my mother grabbing my arm and yanking me away.

We argued for years after that. I was going to grow up to be a Navajo. I was quite certain of it. Mom was appalled. She finally got it through to me that I would not be Navajo when she pointed to a picture of some native Americans and asked me what colour their skin was and what colour my skin was.

"You'll never be an Indian. Look at you."

Now that I think about it, that may be why I decided I was Irish. Pale as can be ... Mom's hair was auburn and mine was beginning to carry some nice red highlights.

So, my ethnicity and heritage is really a lie, in a way. I know far more about Ireland and about the Dineh than I do about Lithuania.

And yet, somehow it seems fitting to me that my heritage is something that I've chosen rather than what I was born into. So much of my life has been about abandoning that which I found dysfunctional and unhealthy and trying to align myself with carefully chosen healthy connections.

And yet, when it comes to the holidays, I find myself craving Koogali, a family recipe passed down from Mom's side of the family ... from Lithuania.

My heritage? I think the simplest answer is that my heritage is one of contradictions and obstinance.

Which then reminds me of a line from my second novel: Coyote is a trickster.
I have a certain affinity for this trickster figure. Unfortunately, it comes from the bilagaana's incomplete understanding of the type of trickster that Coyote actually is. He's not just a benign teacher of lessons. There's a darker underside to him ... and apparently these darker stories are not really much shared with the bilagaana.

So my heritage is chosen, incomplete, contradictory and in some cases, just flat out wrong.

But it is certainly unique to me. And despite the fact that I started my quest for a heritage in order to belong, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Posted by Red Monkey at November 21, 2007 10:36 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Cheryl said:

What an interesting story of chosen heritage! If you are able to find an elderly relative at your present age, they may have facts and family stories for you. If this happens, tape record it for yourself and future generations. In dreams, I wish every child could choose their family unit. In reality though, there is a sense of pride in the knowledge that your family's heritage (and religion) provides and an appreciation of American contributions to our 'quilt'.

November 21, 2007 8:09 PM


Whimspiration said:

Who indeed.

I also say that I am American, but only because my family tree branches like Yggdrasill. I am Spanish, Italian, Scotch, Irish, English, German, and Native American (likely a blend of Cherokee and Seminole).

I adopt cultural traditions and recipes from all over, creating in my own family a sort of mashed cultural identity, which I deem very appropriate for the place this country is, and who/what all goes into it to make it what it is.

We are all people, from all places, coming together for common goals. We are a blend of the best and worst of all cultures. We are American, even if we never achieve the goals that first brought us together.

Beautiful post. Thanks for making me think!

November 22, 2007 4:19 AM


Alan said:

your heritage, my family. choice is good

November 23, 2007 10:39 PM


Claire said:

Okay first of all this captcha bollocks gets on my nerves!
But the post is worth a comment :)

When in Scotland visiting wee heather my sister, I cling to the fact that once long ago I had relatives from there. Even though most Scottish folk hate the English.

When In Ireland or just an Irish bar I love the fact that my Grandad was from Dublin and drink Guinness with the best of them.

I have been to Latvia, next door to Lithunia :)

November 25, 2007 8:38 PM
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