Native American Heritage Month: A Time to Celebrate All We Are
On November 1, I changed my Facebook profile picture, from a drawing of mine, to a photo of Cecelia Chanique (1842-1924) without really knowing why. The thought had come to me earlier that I could take a photo of the old photo I had and then I’d have an electronic version, which I could post online. Maybe I intuitively knew what month it was, maybe I didn’t like my drawing very well, probably I was just very restless being stuck at home recovering from hernia surgery. Whatever the reason on the first day of Native American Heritage Month I switched my profile picture to that of the woman my family traces our Native American heritage from, the part we can document anyway.
The day after I made the change I saw the message from Indian Country Today Media Network asking what this month means to me and began to wonder how to answer the question. My relationship to my Native heritage has never been very clear to me. I was born with white blond hair and brilliantly blue eyes. The years since haven’t changed my appearance enough that anyone recognizes me as Indian or mixed or anything other than a redneck. My father’s mother and father always told us that we had Indians in our family but they never claimed to be Indian.
As a teenager and young adult I asked my grandma why we didn’t know more about our Indian tribe or language and she said, “Ryan, it wasn’t always good to be Indian.” So like my family I remembered the little I knew of our history and didn’t speak about it to anyone. I graduated from Humboldt State University with a minor in Native American studies, and must have had close to a 4.0 in those courses, without ever outing myself to my fellow students or professors as Indian. If someone had asked me directly I would’ve told them, but they never did.
For my part, I didn’t want to be one of those white people who claimed to be descended from some Cherokee princess. No matter how funny Charlie Hill is when promoting Generakee. I also didn’t want to be one of those mixed blood Indians who pounded their chest about being Indian but acted whiter than the white guys.
Over the years I’ve continued to research my family history, and with the help of my cousins, I know much more today than I did in the late ‘90s—although, at the same time I don’t know much more.
What does it mean that Cecelia Chanique was from the Saanich Tribe on Vancouver Island and that she and her parents came to live with Chief Semiahoo near what is today Blaine, Washington; that she’s buried on the Lummi Reservation near her third husband Joe Toby or that my great-granddad Ben Beach was born on the reservation? What does Native American Heritage Month mean to an English, Scottish, Welsh, German, Coast Salish mixed blood?
For me, Native American Heritage Month means it’s time to celebrate the fact that we’re here and that we remember as much as we do of our past. It’s time to stop wondering if we’re Indian enough and begin to own ALL of what we are. It’s time to celebrate that while it has very often been hard and dangerous to be Indian over the past 500 years it is better now than it has been in a long, long time. And it’s time for me to stand up and take my place as a small part of this great, diverse, confusing, wise, funny and enduring people. So, if you see me on your reservation I’m not from the government or the Mormons and I’m not looking to steal land, that last piece of frybread on the other hand, that you should keep an eye on.
Ryan J. Barber was born in Juneau, Alaska in 1976, the third generation of his mother's family to be born in Alaska. He grew up in Tenakee Springs, Juneau and Haines, Alaska where his family still lives. He started school at the University of Alaska Southeast and graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in speech communication and a minor in Native American studies. Since 2004 he has lived in Taiwan and taught English as a second language. Fully aware of the irony that he is now teaching Taiwanese children the same language that was forced on his Scottish, Welsh and Coast Salish ancestors.