In 1954, Mrs. Walking Eagle from Brockton, Montana, made me an Indian ceremonial quilt soon after I was born. She told my mom she wanted to give it to me because I was a “cute little white baby.”
I was raised on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana. I am an enrolled member of the Sioux Tribe. My paternal grandmother was Mary St. Pierre, fluent in French and Sioux, and daughter of Lizette La Charite. Lizette's mother was Red Blanket, daughter of Chief Smutty Bear.
After all these years, I am still white. I am also a legal Indian.
Elizabeth Warren apparently is a non-legal Indian. A putative Cherokee. The rash of press surrounding her identity — her "genes" — resonates with me for reasons I can't quite pinpoint.
But it has something to do with getting this question on so many occasions over the last decades: "How much Indian are you, anyway?"
It's not the question as such but more the tone, which is always polite. However, the pitch is always a few degrees insincere.
It is not really a question. It is a statement. It means “you are not really an Indian" or "you are not a real Indian" or some variant.
Still, for years I would always faithfully answer the question — until finally the same person asked me (and I answered) at least a dozen times over a 10-year fairly close acquaintanceship.
I stopped answering it. Now, I just say "enough to be enrolled." "Enough so that my federal tax obligations are governed by US v. Montana."
The "part-Indian" thing just bothers some people. It has nothing to do with political parties or political leanings. It is something more personal and deep-seated. It is akin to brooding.
I know now that my acquaintance suspected, indeed believed, that I have reaped benefits for which I was not deserving. That I should never have been admitted to Harvard Law School or Oxford University? Maybe I didn't deserve that appellate clerkship? That I probably squandered the Sioux Tribe's annual $75 per capita Christmas allowance on Mad Dog 20-20? Or, worse, that I spend it all on one four-ounce glass of Opus One?
And the brooding turns to a boil and becomes so bold that the rich, the white, feels emboldened to scream “Pocahontas!” from his soap box, no more than a couple hours from the Little Big Horn.
It feels so strange to me that the intended insult was hurled in Montana — the home of seven great Indian reservations. The University of Montana hosts the Payne Family Native American Center, the first facility in the nation built to accommodate a Department of Native American Studies.
Mrs. Walking Eagle was right — I was surely born a white baby. But I have always been proud of my Indian heritage: my dad’s stories as a child of Chief Drum giving him candy, of hearing the harmony of the Sioux language down by Smoke Creek, of his great Uncle meeting Sitting Bull, and Sitting Bull’s refusal to ostracize dad’s Uncle Henry because he was part white.
The question “how much Indian are you” didn’t matter to that great chief; rather, he said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
The words of a leader.