Although I have a diverse cultural background, I have always identified myself as a proud Native American woman. My family is from the Pueblo of Isleta, just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My grandfather was born and raised in Isleta, speaking our native language of Tiwa before learning English. I am blessed with the dark, striking features of my mother, features which identify me as Native. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time at our family home in Isleta.
Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood were spent at the apron strings of my great grandmother, my Granny Shapop. Standing at 4’ 9”, my Granny Shapop was one of the most formidable people I have ever encountered. She taught me to respect my elders and the land we live on, to always work hard, to pray to the Virgin and to indulge on apricot empanadas whenever possible. Most of all, my Granny Shapop taught me to be proud of my Native heritage. I have a deep respect for where we have been as a people, and how we got to where we are today. My Indian heritage has defined who I have been for most of my life, that is, until I became a mother.
I left Albuquerque for San Francisco right after high school, but I clung to my Native roots to forage an adult identity for myself. I kept track of tribal affairs from 1,100 miles away, went to church every Sunday and made beans with ham hocks regularly. Then I fell madly in love with the fair-haired grandson of Hungarian immigrants and got married. My mother always says that Indian blood is thick, so I expected to produce dark-haired, dark-skinned babies. Instead, our children have their father’s fair skin and European features. These are not Indian babies.
When I wanted to register the birth of my firstborn with the tribe, I learned that my children would not have enough Indian blood to be recognized tribal members. In Isleta, tribal membership, which is a controversial issue in native studies, requires you to be at least one-fourth Isleta. I have the minimum amount, which means that my children, with one-eighth Isleta blood, do not qualify. Ritual dances, which are held regularly, are a large part of the culture of the tribe. They are like prayer services for specific purposes and only tribal members may participate in them. I realized that the culture that I have most identified with my entire life, a very part of who I am, cannot be fully shared with my family. How was I going to raise my children?
Because of extensive exposure to Spanish beliefs and customs hundreds of years ago, our Native beliefs are closely intertwined with Catholicism. My husband and I baptized our children in the Catholic church and try to raise them as children of a modern generation not bound by cultural constraints. Although we moved back to New Mexico, I found myself spending very little time in Isleta. The business of raising children makes nearly everything else fall to the back burner. The identities of “mother” and “wife” took precedence over that of “tribal member.”
When the time came to register my son for kindergarten, one simple section on the registration paperwork troubled me greatly: “Ethnicity (choose one.)” Choose one? There was a box to check for Native American with a line to supply the Certification of Indian Blood (CIB) number. Since my children do not qualify for a CIB number, are they not Indian at all? What ethnicity do I check? Hispanic? Caucasian? I was floored. I knew that the main purpose of the question was for funding. Are Indian kids worth more to the school district? Less? I ended up classifying him as “Caucasian with some Hispanic decent” and walked away feeling like I failed.
Following the registration debacle, I felt I needed to reconnect with my heritage. But how was I going to do that? I started to think of my own childhood, the time when I felt the most involved in tribal life. Then it hit me. It wasn’t my participation in dances or my tribal I.D. card that connected me to my tribe. It was the special time I spent with my Granny Shapop. Everything that I learned about being Native came from my Granny, my mother, and the rest of my family. Just because my children can’t be tribal members doesn’t mean that I can’t teach them how to be Native. The core values of my Native culture are values that my husband and I already share and strive to teach our children. Those values are things like respecting the earth, respecting one another, and the importance of family. As they get older, we can talk more about the history of our people and customs but for right now, they’re learning everything expected of such young children. So what do you know? It seems we’re raising Indian babies after all.
© 2011 – 2013, Jamie Stevens. All rights reserved.