I am of Swedish, German and Welsh decent and was a raised in a liberal Presbyterian tradition. My husband is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and affiliated with the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. He was not raised regularly practicing any denomination of the Christian religion.
We have two daughters, ages fifteen and ten. Both are enrolled members of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Both have attended private Catholic schools in our neighborhood for much of their education, although we recently moved our oldest daughter to public school, as it was a better fit for her.
Raising bi-racial, bi-cultural daughters, who are culturally both Indian and “white,” has posed many challenges. My husband and I embrace both of our cultures and traditions, and are raising our daughters to do the same. While it is easy for our family to find the strengths and beauty in both of our cultures, we continually find the need to help our daughters develop the tools needed to navigate the challenges they face within their educational, social and community environments. While our family maintains an ongoing dialogue about issues of tolerance and intolerance, it is impossible to prepare a child for a world where there are so many stereotypes, and so much hatred, insensitivity, ignorance and indifference by the dominant society to learn more about other cultures. Some of the issues my kids have faced have been surprising and saddening to me.
Recently, my 9th grader took a test in her Social Studies class on Indians in Minnesota and the history of the American Indian Movement. She had been struggling in this class, and yet she finished this particular test very quickly and received a perfect score. The teacher, who was aware that she was a Native student, thoughtlessly accused her of cheating and further questioned her knowledge of the subject matter. My daughter had to explain to the teacher that she knew the information on the test because it is part of the fabric of her life. She learned her history through the discussions and experiences she has had with her grandparents, aunts and uncles. It was their history, and thus her history. She did not need to memorize the names of the Minnesota Indian reservations from a study guide; she knew them because they have relevance to her life—like how every Thanksgiving, her dad purchases wild rice from his friend who harvests rice on the White Earth reservation. When my daughter explained all of this to her teacher, the teacher did apologize. However, she could not take away my daughter’s internal frustration of being doubted and forced to justify her existence as a student and as an Indian.
When a peer of my younger daughter recently found out that my daughter was Indian, she felt the need to tell my daughter, “You’re an Indian, and now I am scared of you because Indians are scary!” This same daughter, as part of her school’s long standing Thanksgiving tradition was instructed to make a Thanksgiving project that was to be a shoebox diorama of the big Thanksgiving meal or a Thanksgiving scene. The teacher handed the students clothespins and gave them a bag of colored feathers from the craft store and told them their homework was to make Pilgrims and or Indians.
She came home that day devastated. It was not hurt or anger that she felt, but pure confusion. Due to how she has been raised, this project had no cultural relevance to her, and was deeply offensive. Making a Pilgrim has no potential adverse effect on her peers, but seeing her classmates make crude imitations of Native people, using only twisted stereotypes as their guide, has everyday relevance to her. The teacher obviously had no knowledge of the significance of Indian regalia and what it meant for Indians to wear feathers. She certainly was unaware that in the Winnebago tribe, where my children are affiliated, in order to wear or own Eagle feathers, you must go through a special ceremony that involves the support of your family and community. Needless, to say, for my daughter to be told to make an Indian out of a clothespin and a feather, made no sense to her, and it felt extremely insensitive.
Through my children’s eyes, I have seen how the continuation of negative stereotypes, incorrect assumptions, and people not taking the time or effort to understand cultural context have led to many painful experiences for my children— and thus for me. These experiences and challenges have made the Tolerance in Motion project a passion for me. I clearly see how essential this work is as it opens up ongoing discussions about how to better understand one another, and to encourage people to look inside their own hearts where we usually find that we are more alike than different. All of us want to feel safe and understood. Tolerance is a building block to create empathy, and empathy leads to the ultimate goal, which is acceptance.