There is undoubtedly a peace of mind that comes with knowing where we originate as people. This is especially crucial in societies that have enforced conformity and demonstrated apathy towards underserved demographics. Identity is an aspect of our lives that gives us purpose and a sense of belonging.
My Native American identity journey was initially akin to an adult who meets their biological family after learning they were adopted as an infant. Having spent most of my life away from Native culture has led to moments when I feel disconnected to my Seminole heritage. I have gone through periods in my life when I did not feel as if I was Native enough, but as years passed, my perspective has gradually evolved.
In October 2017, I went to a United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) conference in Cherokee, North Carolina, specifically to learn community development strategies that other Native American tribes have implemented amongst their people. While there, I was able to network with Tribal citizens from the Saint Regis Mohawk, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and the Catawba Tribe, as well as others. Many of the Tribal citizens looked vastly different from the images the U.S. categorizes as Native American. This experience, along with many either, has led me to realize that a Native American cannot be classified as Native based on appearances alone.
As a Seminole with African ancestry, I come from two lineages that have undoubtedly experienced the most traumatic events of any other race in our country’s history. Due to circumstances in my life, my experiences were primarily in relation to my African-American heritage. In recent years, tt has been a blessing to have fellow Tribal citizens and others knowledgeable about Seminole history teach it to me. Similar to instances involving immigrants in America, my Native people were shamed and encouraged to suppress their heritage and pride as Natives in order to fit in. Some Seminole elders have told me that they did not teach their children Creek and Miccosukee because they did not want their children to have the same negative experiences they endured throughout their upbringing outside of the reservations. Tribal members from my generation have expressed that they got into many altercations for simply being Seminole. Being able to learn details about Seminole history, including details about ancestors from several generations ago, is priceless.
The USET conference had a tremendous impact on me in many different ways, but most notably it was amazing to witness the strides Tribes are taking to elevate us as Natives. There have been many times in my life, in school and at other events where I felt isolated or as if I did not fit in due to differences. I carried that mindset even when I began working for the Tribe. My defenses were always up to protect myself from those awkward stares and uncomfortable questions I would receive. Now, I do not feed into that because I know that I am doing my best to ensure our Tribe’s longevity. I take it as a serious honor to help carry the torch our ancestors have left for us.
As the next generation of Natives rises, it is important that they are guided and pushed to be stronger and better than previous ones. It may be challenging, but is our duty to help mentor them so that they hardships we faced they will be able to overcome. Due to our growing diverse background as Natives, we can provide advice to the next generation that ensures they will never encounter situations they cannot overcome. By doing this, we can help mitigate obstacles that our people may face as well as ensure that our people will always have an unwavering sense of self-understanding.