Mills: What is indigeneity?

Kadin Mills, Columnist

This column is the first in a two part series on Indigenous solidarity and reclamation of identity as an act of decolonization.

Indigenous identity is one clouded by a never-ending sea of gray, even for some tribal citizens. For many direct descendants like myself, there is some level of disconnect. For me, it stems from my Whiteness and tribal status — unenrolled. I have always struggled saying, “I’m Ojibwe,” since I’m not quite allowed to. Sure, I’d say, “My mom is Anishinaabe.” But never me. For me, indigeneity is my “heritage.” 

Heritage. Not identity. 

There is an underlying issue for White or light-skinned Natives and descendants. We are invisible. Today, we live in a society where we are not meant to exist. In oral tradition, the Ojibwe are plagued by the Wiindigo — a cannibalistic, forest-dwelling creature. The contemporary Native is plagued by settler colonialism.

Every reservation — every treaty and its subsequent abandonment — and every piece of legislation against Indigenous peoples seeks to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” The settler colonial state is fueled by greed and Manifest Destiny. The settler colonial state serves to kill the Indian, oppress the other and uphold its White supremacist essence. The settler colonial state is the Wiindigo.

I remember one day in the first or second grade, we were learning about history, heritage and “the melting pot” of identities that seemingly define America. Naturally, all of the kids in the class asked this to everyone else: What are you?

I remember another little boy asking me that exact question, and I went down the list. 

“My dad is maybe Russian and German,” I said. “We might be Swiss and English too… But my mom is Native American.” 

The boy said to me, “No she’s not.” I was confused. What does he mean, “No she’s not?”

A few years later, I obtained my first medicine bag at a powwow in Michigan. This medicine bag represented to me what nothing else could. It represented the feeling of the drum circle in my chest and the flashing colors of dancers in their regalia. It represented the fry-bread tacos and strawberry shortcake from the food trucks and the smell of burning sage permeating the air. Most of all it represented community, spirituality and my relationship to the strong women in my life. It was a big deal at the time to have something so sacred with which I could connect and carry. But it wasn’t something that anyone ever understood, and on a few occasions my friends made offhand comments, like middle schoolers do, but I tried not to let it get to me. 

Later on, in high school, a student in my Spanish class asked what my heritage was. I gave the usual speech, “Dad European, Mom Native. They asked me, “Oh, what tribe?”

“Ojibwe! Keweenaw Bay Indian Community,” I replied. You can imagine my surprise when he called out, “Oh my GOD you can’t say that!” Confused, I asked what he meant. He whispered to me, “The ‘I’ word.” 

College has illuminated how much I have internalized my identity crisis: how much I gaslight and manipulate and convince myself that I am appropriating a culture that defines my own family. Despite pursuing higher education — be it college, trade or university — many White or light-skinned Natives and descendants struggle to find community. It wasn’t until college that I really afforded myself the agency to express the part of my identity that means so much to me. Attending an institution with a progressive (or, let’s face it… fairly neo-liberal) student body, opens up a lot of doors for expression and exploration. 

The first faculty members I met were Indigenous ones, and some of my first connections were with other Indigenous students and descendants of tribal communities. All welcomed me with open arms, a fire pit and a bundle of white sage. I started wearing my jewelry: bone chokers, abalone and turquoise. I hung a sign reading “NIBI-BIMAADIZIWIN,” or “water is life.” And I put up my dream catchers, one of which was passed down to me, made by my great-grandma Jo. I am finally working to live the good life, minobimaadiziwin, and to honor my late great-grandmother and my ancestors.

Systems of oppression have existed to ensure “contemporary” and “Native” never exist together. These systems of oppression supported the slaughter of Arapaho women and children at Sand Creek, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the desecration of Mauna Kea and the ongoing threat of pipelines through Indigenous lands. 

The Western canon contextualizes these systems of oppression as situated within the past. American education under educates the masses and perpetuates revisionist American history that minimizes the atrocities Indigenous peoples faced and continue to face today. In American schools, we are taught that the violence against Natives ended when European settlers brought disease and war to the “New World.” Those who survived the epidemic were either assimilated or exiled from society. In reality, much of the genocide of Native peoples has occured within the last few hundred years, from the removal of Potowatomi from the Midwest to the Trail of Tears to the Sandy Lake Tragedy — an act that was perpetrated against my own family’s reservation. 

“Kill the Indian.” 

The cultural genocide continues today in a world where Tribal/First Nations are encouraged to implement cutoffs for blood quantum, and Indigeniety is only valid if you grew up on the “rez.” Blood quantum, that number you’re referring to when you ask, “What percent are you?,” is a distinctly colonial construct. When the first blood quantum laws were implemented in 1705 — and then with the Dawes Act in 1887 — they intended to limit “Indian citizenship.” As tribal members marry into settler society, blood quantum laws ensure their children will be recognized as legally mixed. After just a few generations, a family would no longer be recognized as Native, and the federal government ceases to be responsible for the removal, oppression and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

“Kill the Indian.” 

I refuse to define myself and my indigeneity by federal policy, regulation and legislation. Despite my rejection of such ideals, indigeneity is still defined by the federal government. But it doesn’t have to be.

I am the result of a process that has failed to “kill the Indian.” It is time we acknowledge that.

Kadin Mills is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.