Monday, July 28, 2008

When silence ends

Not long ago I made the decision to share a personal journey that before now had been something I kept very private. Since I posted this a few weeks ago I've thought that more than just the small group of folks who read my blog might get something they can take away from this.

Why am I writing this? Because I have been silent on this topic for far too long, keeping this part of myself intimate and private. It’s not only because of recent attacks on my cultural identity that have prompted the need for me to speak out, though they were certainly a catalyst for the timing of my decision to do so. Nor is this just about me alone. What I say today, the stance I take, not only effects myself and my children, but anyone else who may be afraid to speak the intimate truths behind their own identity.

It’s never easy to know where to begin when you are dealing with such a deep a private topic as this is for me, but after giving it much thought I’ve decided to start with why I identify as Cherokee, when most look at me and assume I’m white. That is a simple answer really.

My grandfather grew up in Tennessee, far from any connection to the people of his mother, and often abused and ridiculed for being half Cherokee in a white man’s land. He dealt with this as many like himself did, by renouncing his Indian blood, and doing his best to fit in among white society. I know little of this time. He never spoke of his childhood, and my grandmother ordered me never to speak of his Cherokee heritage at all, to him or to others. She insisted any reminder would only cause him pain.

My grandmother cut my hair short, and dressed me in clothing unfit for play, all in the name of passing, to make me fit into white society. This same lesson she forced on my mother before me, the same game of pretend taught my beautiful mother to hide her shiny black hair, to wear glasses that downplayed the crescent curve of her eyes.

My grandfather was everything to me. He was my protector and my best friend. I would have done nothing to cause him pain. I’d have rather died then had him turn away from me. According to my grandmother my mother would bring his shame and disgust upon herself if he ever saw the image of his mother people in his daughter’s face. This fear of his revulsion was eventually passed down to me, too.

I won’t say I was the best student of these lessons. The more I was pushed away from any information about my grandfather’s people growing up, the more the urge to learn everything I could gripped me. This meant without proper guidance I learned many inaccurate things I am even to this day purging from my mental texts. And still with all my thirst to know, I never once asked my grandfather anything.

When I was nineteen my grandfather died. I remember running to his room as if called there, in a panic, and watching him fade away, struggling against the convulsions that shook his face and shoulders. I felt his touch deeper in that moment than I can explain, and I knew, knew that I had been a fool to listen to her, knew all this time that it had been my grandmother’s own hate that had not only silenced my questions, but silenced the stories that he’d wanted to tell me. In that moment I knew the truth and it changed everything.

I remember the funeral. I remember hating the people at the funeral home when I saw my grandfather’s body in the casket. The make-up they’d used was so pale, seeing it tore at my heart and I couldn’t bear to touch him, and still everyone kept saying “oh it looks so natural.” I hated them too then. He didn’t look natural. The makeup was one more attempt by my grandmother to hide my Cherokee grandfather under a white man’s shell.

I left as soon after as I could afford to, came back to live up north again, closer to my mother. After his death I stepped forward to claim what the mistreatment of other people had made him leave behind. Every application, every form of any kind that asked for race, I proudly marked Native American. In my family the only love and compassion I’d ever felt had been from my grandfather and mother, those linked to my though our Cherokee blood.

I felt no connection to my racist grandmother, or my absent father, None of the kin from either my father or grandmother’s side ever showed any interest in me or my mother. It was as if we three, my mother, grandfather, and I stood alone together. And at the moment I released that no matter what we’d done, what we’d given up to fit in with the whites in the family, nothing ever changed. We three still stood apart from them, forever different from the rest, seen as less in their eyes for those differences. And in many ways I found peace in those differences, in the understanding that we three were connected in way they could never understand.

I spend years learning what I could where I could, double and triple checking each bit of information best I could. With him gone and my mother wrapped up in her own drama after his death I went on alone. I don’t know how many time I feared my fair skin would forever doom me to remain alone, how many times I looked in the mirror and hated the orange skin that make me as neither white nor Indian, how many time I wished I would wake up to the beautiful copper brown skin everyone thought I should have.

Of course that was a ridiculous wish, but understanding why I was looked on with mistrust and resentment often made that desire difficult to brush aside. I knew about the fad of the 70s when everyone wanted to be Indian, as if that was the only way they could find a connection to the earth. I resented the charlatans myself not only because they stole the culture of others to make a buck, but that because of them it was rare to find a teacher in the ways of my ancestors.

As I became more comfortable with my own identity, however, the teachers found me. There are a great many things that I learned from elders not just of my own tribe, but others who fell drawn to share with me hidden knowledge. I hold what I have learned close to my heart, knowing most of it I can neither teach, talk about or even write. Just as, within the Dianic tradition there are rites and lessons I can not talk, teach, or write about as well. Breaking those vows would be an unspeakable wrong, so I still look upon those thieves and liars that have broken such promises with rage. It is they that taint the pride of those lost to the tribes, and we have to suffer for their action while they make their money without a care.

In the end this is not about the perception of others, but simply the truths within my own journey of self discovery. Many things have happened in this journey. One of the events I am most proud of was the earning of my name. Moondancer wasn’t a name I simply chose. When I was told I had to seek my name on my own I spend six years trying everything form of meditation I could find to make this happen. Sure, I had known it wouldn’t be easy, but after facing years of pain, frustration, and self blame I thought there was something wrong with me, that I couldn’t read the omens or that my ancestors didn’t want to give me a name. I even thought I had done something wrong and they were angry with me.

And then, as easy as you please, it came to me in a very vivid dream, dreams like I used to have when I was young before the abuse of my grandmother made me doubt my own magic. I had forgotten then, forgotten how connected to dreams I had always been. The same dreams that now bring me more story ideas than I think I could write in a lifetime. Perhaps if I had know to trust that gift back then, it wouldn’t have taken me six years to begin to learn who Moondancer really was.

I know Moondancer now. I am proud of who I am far beyond my cultural identity, but just as much because of it. I wear what I wear because I like it, it speaks about who I am, not just one aspect of me. I do not need to wear a false face, because in truth the body I live in now is just right for me.
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