Unsettling America | Decolonization in Theory & Practice
I have an ambivalent relationship with the fact that I am part Native American. This ambivalence is in large part inherited, as my grandfather went through life largely denying that he was “an Indian.” Scarred by the inherited memories of forced removal and “education” inflicted on his mother and grandmother and by the discrimination that marked his life as a child in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he did not tell his children that they were part Native American. One year, his sister, who had been born on the reservation and was at the time residing there, told my mother and her siblings that they were Native American and had a proud ancestry stretching back centuries. My grandfather was livid, convinced that his children would be mercilessly harassed and made to feel less worthy once they returned to their home in Howell, Michigan. For decades, he refused to talk about his family’s history and how he navigated his life as a “half-Indian.” Growing up in Beirut, I knew my mother was part Chippewa, but this fact from her genealogy did not register with any more resonance than the fact that she was also part Swedish. The Indian statues, dolls, and beadwork that adorned my grandparents’ house in Michigan were as unremarked upon as the American flag hanging off the house’s facade and the never-ending assortment of Ronald Reagan (and, later, the George W. Bush) calendars that hung on the walls and the refrigerator.
As my grandfather aged, he surprised even himself with a desire to narrate his history as the life of a Native American. He would acknowledge that his life had been easier than some of his siblings because he could pass as white. He spoke of his mother and his grandmother, being called “red” at grade school, and his first feeling of complete acceptance while serving in the Army during World War Two. He allowed himself to be political about being Native American, in part driven by the need to have his children take over his cherished farm and the resistance that the US government puts up every time a new generation comes to “inherit” Native American land. His reversal came at a time when I was studying, and later, teaching the Native American genocide in courses on colonialism and law and power at Columbia University. I would visit my grandparents in Michigan and he would share with me with the Bad River newsletters he had picked up during his last trip to the farm. He would unfold centuries-old pieces of paper, allotments to my ancestors carrying the presidential seal and signatures of three different US Presidents. He showed me a series of maps of the reservation that showed its contraction over the nineteenth century as logging interests chipped away at the 1854 treaty. He was impressed by my knowledge of the Native American genocide, and by my desire to know, and ask, about his and my family. Towards the end of his life, he wanted all of his grandchildren to get their tribal membership card, but I was still ambivalent.
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