I’m American Indian-I’m a Unicorn.

eagle-motorcycleTy NolN,
Tempe, AZ.

I’m from a traditional family and have braids. I dance at Powwows, and participate in our Longhouse Ceremonies. The photograph is from when I used to do modeling and is from a calendar photo shoot, on Motorcycles. I’m on a 1935 Indian motorcycle, because one of the “gimmicks” of the calendar was “an Indian on an Indian.” I used the term “Unicorn,” because with Unicorns and American Indians, for so many Americans (and I find the same thing when I’ve traveled internationally)–everyone knows what they think Unicorns and American Indians look like, but they don’t believe we actually exist. I feel in the perception of a lot of non-Native people, particularly if they don’t live near a reservation, we are a fantasy, and exist in a vaguely historical way, but not as part of their contemporary reality. For many Native Americans, if we don’t have braids, or don’t dress in a more traditional manner, we’re usually perceived as another ethnic group–in my case Asian or Filipino. Whenever I’m in Hawaii, I’m even assumed by the locals to be Chinese-Hawaiian, and because I have long hair, I’m also thought to be a Native Hawaiian Rights Activist. One of my oddest experience was going to Florida to attend college, where the racism I encountered was directed to me not as an American Indian, but for being thought Japanese. Later, when I was in graduate school, one of my professors was Japanese-American who was very upset and shared with the class that over the weekend he had gone clam-digging on the Oregon coast, so he was very casually dressed. He stopped to eat at a restaurant and it became obvious the staff was ignoring him. He finally said in a loud voice, “I’m not leaving until I’m served.” A waitress came over and said, “We don’t serve Indians here.” When he said that, those of us who were Native, laughed–no Asian-American students in the class did.

Once, I was in Germany, and waiting in line to check into my return flight home, when a very official looking employee came up to me and asked, in German “Do you speak English?” I replied, “Fluently.” She asked for my help, and explained they had a traveler they were having problems with in communicating, since he didn’t speak German, and asked if I would be willing to help. They took me over to an elderly Japanese gentleman. I told them the only help I could offer was to order him food at a Japanese restaurant, but I wasn’t Japanese.

It’s a very odd experience to spend a great deal of my life as either being seen as not exactly “real,” or as something I’m not–I often wonder how often people actually see “me.” One morning I was in downtown L.A., waiting in front of my hotel to be picked up by someone from the L.A. Unified School District, where I was consulting. People kept coming up and asking if I were in a movie.

When I was young, an elder came to me and said, “The minute you step off the reservation, you have to think of yourself as an ambassador. When you leave the reservation, White people won’t look at you and think, “There’s (and she used my Indian name). Instead, they will look at you and think, “There’s an Indian.” And it won’t matter how much education or how well-dressed you are. They will look and you and what you do, and they will think, “That’s what an Indian does.” Over the years I’ve so often thought of her words, and how much of a burden it is I share with a lot of other non-Whites. We belong to a “collective,” and are seen and viewed as representative of that Collective. Part of White privilege is being raised to always think of oneself as an “individual,” and then getting upset to discover a lot of people will see Whites as part of a Collective as well, and that Collective doesn’t always have a positive image. I now live in Arizona. When I first moved here, I was surprised to have White strangers come up me at the bus stop or in stores, and ask if I spoke English. At the height of the anti-immigration sentiment here, many of us who are American Indians were very concerned, because when it comes to racial profiling (and the Sheriff of the county where I live has been found by a Federal investigation as guilty of racial profiling–we know most law enforcement officers probably won’t be able to tell the difference between American Indians and people they perceive as “illegal aliens.”


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