Mills: What is indigeneity?

Kadin Mills, Columnist

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

My favorite Ojibwe story tells of Cheengwun, a medicine man, who travels to the spirit realm in a dream. There, he finds an old ookoomisan, who told him that the Wiindigo, a demonic figure in Anishinaabe lore, was killing the Anishinaabeg — the Original People. Ookoomisan, the old grandmother, collected the remaining Ojibwe children and prepared them to defeat the Wiindigo. The nameless children ran across a vast lake, representing their subconsciousness. The children were practicing to race the Wiindigo one by one. Dying one by one. 

When Cheengwun asked the children their names, they didn’t know. 

“What about your clan?” Cheengwun asked. They didn’t know that either. Cheengwun was the last to race the Wiindigo, and when he won, he gave all of the Ojibwe their sacred names. The children would cease to run atop the water and instead know themselves as Ojibwe.

Cheengwun’s journey through the spirit realm has been told of for ages, but the cultural genocide pepetrated against Native peoples has continued to thrive on Maamaa Aki, Mother Earth. Many of our grandparents grew up in the boarding school era, with the last boarding schools having closed in the 1990’s. Their languages were beaten out of them, so they were no longer able to communicate with their families. Their sacred hair was cut off, and their religions were banned until 1978. 

Abolition of the settler colonial system as a whole is central to decolonization. Abolition is not just for those of us who look a certain way or identify as people of color. Abolition is the destruction of the Wiindigo for a better world. Abolition is for our stolen relatives — our missing and murdered Indigenous women and Two-Spirit People, as well as our relatives brought to Turtle Island from Africa. Abolition is for those Native peoples who are not federally recognized. Abolition is for our youth growing up on Turtle Island telling themselves they aren’t enough. 

My great-grandma Jo was raised in a Catholic orphanage, “escaping” the local boarding schools in upper Michigan. When her father died, Mary Josephine DeCota was just a baby. Her mother had no choice but to give her daughter to the church and some family stories say she herself became a nun. Despite this, only some of our cultural teachings were passed down. Language was one of those and I remain one of the only members of my immediate family to attempt to speak Ojibwemowin. I am learning to bead. I have surrounded myself with other contemporary Natives and allies, many of whom have gone through the same struggles. 

The biggest struggle I have faced is rejection by other Native peoples. We have been indoctrinated into believing in the very systems of oppression that have torn us apart and in the strict blood quantum requirements that keep us separated. We reject our own communities and instead worship a Wiindigo system valuing blood, oil and greed. My mom, aunties and maternal grandmother all identify as Indigenous women, and they are all registered. I am not. 

The reality is that most of us no longer fit that mold of what it means to be Indigenous. I am the result of a process that has failed to “kill the Indian.” I refuse to define myself and my Indigeneity by federal policy, regulation and legislation. We divide ourselves along the lines of skin color, blood quantum, language and religion. We divide ourselves on issues like abolition when we accept that the dominant narrative of the contemporary Indian relies on our expectations and stereotypes of what it looks like to be a person of Indigenous blood or heritage. We are conditioned to question our own indigeneity as well as the indigeneity of our other light-skinned and disconnected relatives. 

We tolerate our interrogation. “What percent are you? You don’t know your language? Why don’t you know your prayers, songs or traditions? Then you aren’t really a real Indian then are you?”  But there is a reason we don’t know these things.

They were stolen from us. 

Indigenous communities and their allies must reject American hegemony, forced Christian and Catholic narratives, and other destructive and assimilative ways of thinking (like blood quantum, homophobia, faith in the so-called United States’ treaty obligations, etc.). Only then can our communities reestablish our own histories. 

It is time to rethink what it means to be Indigenous, in a time when more Indigenous people than ever are living in cities across Turtle Island. Until we recognize structures of violence and erasure as thriving and modern, we cannot truly liberate Black, brown, and Indigenous bodies. Reclamation of Indigenous identity and the rejection of Wiindigo society is the only way to live “the good life,” mino-bimaadiziwin. Only with the death of the Wiindigo will we learn our names, our languages and ourselves. By centering contemporary Indigenous voices and epistemologies, we can provide ourselves the agency to resist coloniality, to dismantle the exile of indigenous peoples in history and end the cultural genocide that continues today.

My Grandma Jo died on May 21, 2011 — ten years ago. Prior to hospitalization, Grandma Jo was taken from her nursing home to the psychiatric ward after she became violent with her nurses and doctors. Doctors said my frail great-grandmother died an alcoholic, in line with the age-old Indian stereotype. But my great-grandmother was no alcoholic. When she died, my Grandma Jo was having nightmares of the nuns from her childhood. She died in fear, afraid the nuns were coming back to torture her. 

The day my Grandma Jo died, I lost something so important to who I am. My mom called me and told me I could come say goodbye, but that it was okay to be scared. I cried, and decided not to go to the hospital. I regret my choice to stay home on that day ten years ago. 

My grandmother, Donna, tells me about her late mother, Josephine. “You need to be nosier,” Grandma Jo would say. “You need to ask more questions.”

I am asking the questions my grandma never thought to ask so that I might learn my name, my clan, our traditions and minobimaadiziwin — because indigeneity is not possible without abolition of the Wiindigo. Indigeneity is resistance.

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.