For most of society, the American Indian is conceived of as strictly an historical figure. People maintain images of Tonto or the Crying Indian walking alongside the highway in buckskin and feathers. And if they do allow the Indian to exist in modernity, he or she is relegated to an impoverished, alcohol-soaked cultural outpost – a Diane Sawyer interview subject.
This antiquated stereotype seems benign but, in reality, it severely limits the ability of Native Americans to be successful — and be perceived as both Native and successful — in modern American life. What follows is an exhausting struggle for legitimacy.
For most modern Indians, one’s heritage is always in question. The revelation that you are Native is always met with pejorative questioning: “Are you *really* Native American?” People will ask. “How much?” Without the slightest understanding of one’s enrolled status, particular tribal history, or connectedness with (or participation in) tribal government and culture, the general public will expect to hear a story from your time on the reservation or to see you wearing turquoise and feathers with your business suit to prove your “Indian-ness.”
I understand that the identity of Native Americans is complex. And there is often a lot that the general public does not understand about the varied tribal and federal laws defining what it means to be Indian. But I hate that I often feel less Indian because I am middle-class, because I come from Oklahoma, where reservations are not the norm, and because I wear gold studs that I bought off Amazon (not turquoise or beads that I purchased at a pow-wow). It does not matter that I have a CDIB card (a derogatory card that proves that the US government accepts the validity of my Indian bloodline) and that I am an enrolled member of both of my tribes. No one ever asks if I vote in tribal elections, am informed of tribal issues, or connect deeply with my tribal culture. It does not matter that I am an Indian law attorney that works daily to protect and properly assert tribal sovereignty in the modern legal context. No, I just look like your normal, modern woman so I can’t possibly be native. Natives can only exist in poverty or in the past.