Who Do We Think We Are?

by Jill Falcon Mackin

Image Source: Czarina Conlan Collection, Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society, #2554.

Living in the most racially charged era since the Civil Rights Movement, we as educators might ask ourselves what we are doing to make things better. At a time when state violence in the form of police brutality on Blacks and Native Americans is a prevalent issue, institutional campaigns to celebrate diversity are important. Still we have to ask ourselves, are they reaching anyone in a meaningful way, are they going deep enough to make a difference? Graduate student instructors recently discussed the issue of lack of diversity in Montana’s classrooms and communities. How do we teach diversity when we live in a society that we experience as more-or-less one-dimensional?

We might take a lesson from the history of the American West. From the 1870s to the early 1910s, Montana newspapers were full of accusations against the “Canadian Cree” claiming they were essentially squatters in U. S. territory. Rounded up time and time again by the American cavalry, their Red River carts and all their belongings burned to the ground, they were put in rail cars or forcibly marched to the U.S.-Canadian boundary line and given a stern warning never to return. In a short period of time, they or their relatives might have experienced the very same treatment from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Indeed settler colonial society wanted to clear the land of the “Canadian Cree,” but why were they in such a no man’s land when other tribes were being swept away to reservations?

The answer comes in their mixed heritage status. The ones whom law enforcement and the newspapers called “Canadian Cree” were people of mixed heritage living in band groups following a seasonal round, a complex inter-ethnic society with French, Cree, Assiniboine, Scottish, Ojibwe, and other ethnic elements. The conundrum of where they belonged was grounded in a scientized notion of tribes and a system of blood quantum identity. The “Cree” did not fit well within the colonial system of sorting by tribe, a system some have said was always designed as a termination policy for Indians.  Whether the “Cree” shunted back and forth across the Montana border were any more or less mixed than any other band groups of the Northern Plains remains a point of debate. Intermarriage amongst tribal groups, Ted Binnema articulates in Common and Contested Ground, was commonplace, a source of biological and political strength. Examining historical records, such as The Jesuit Relations from the seventeenth century, Richard White observes that the intermarriage of Europeans and Native Americans has been ongoing for four hundred years or for as long as there have been historic marriage records. In this light, the mathematical equations of blood quantum become something only MIT students can discern, in other words an artificial and absurd measure of racial identity.

These days more and more people are submitting their DNA samples to National Geographic and Ancestry.com for a deeper look at the markers of their ethnic make-up. Recently, a friend of mine received his test results back and found that the family lore that he was primarily Irish was truly a falsehood.  He discovered that he was a grand mélange of ethnicities, including a good bit Jewish, something never before mentioned in his Catholic family. It can be fascinating to examine the ethnicities with which we identify and those that comprise our “historical reality.” In some cases, viewing DNA test results is disquieting. April 25th marked the 64th anniversary of scientists’ discovery of the double helix. Can genetic science, the same field that brought us scientific racism and  eugenics, bring something to counter the postcolonial haze of heritage?

Who are we really? Honestly, it’s more complex than we think. Neo-materialists, like environmental historian Tim LeCain, are now asking the question, “What are we?” taking the conversation one step further into the field of epigenetics, in which scientists are determining that not all of the DNA we carry is human. We are products of our environment, the very environment that humans pump chemicals and effluence into everyday. Epigenesists recognize that our DNA is not a given but part of a dynamic system in which our relationship with our environment can change the genetic markers we pass on to our children.

By now you are probably wondering what all this has to do with diversity in the classroom. Returning to our original dilemma, “How do we teach diversity when we live in a more-or-less one-dimensional society?” we can see the conundrum in our assumption that this in fact a one-dimensional society. Montanans are more diverse than we assume, as are most people. Ernesto Che Guevera, himself a student of postcolonial issues of race and justice, had a deeply held belief that our hemisphere is one singular mestizo race. The problem we need to contend with is not our ethnic or physical make-up, but our thinking, our identification with who we really are. The first step to racial empathy may be a more accurate sense of personal identity, a debunking of what Edward Said called “Orientalism” (the way we construct the ‘other’) through asking hard questions of the historical record and applying them to our classroom instruction, acknowledging that our ancestors are the proverbial “Canadian Cree,” whoever they are.

We should also ask ourselves why we do it–why do we whitewash the historic record and assume, based on outward appearances that we are lacking in diversity? Why do Montanans have the idea that this place, especially the most rural communities of this place, are racially one-dimensional? My family is a mixed heritage family with its own legacy of “passing” for white—white washing history, conflating ethnic heritage to deny a painful construction of the “other” that was cast our way. My mother, the daughter of a second-generation German immigrant father and an Ojibwe-French-Cree mother, grew up with her nine siblings in the small eastern Montana community of Nashua. Their outward looks exhibited enough racial ambiguity that she and her siblings were often ridiculed. It’s unclear if it was my grandmother, Cecilia Falcon, whose protection of her children encouraged forgetting, or if it was the social environment that created a climate of racial amnesia. Probably a combination of both.  My mother has colored her hair blonde since my earliest childhood memories. Even as my cousins and I have found the space to identify with our native community, my mother’s generation, still seeking to protect the family, questions our rationale.

For the sake of those who hide their identities to protect themselves or others, is there a way we can make a safe space for ethnic identification of all kinds in our classrooms and communities? In doing so can we confront and even embrace the invisible inter-ethnicity to which the historical record and DNA science attests? There is a lot on the line. Acknowledging who we are, abundantly diverse as individuals and as a whole, right down to our DNA—human and non—presents an opportunity to reframe our relationship with one another and all our relatives in the natural world.  Whether we know our actual genetic make-up or not, there is work to be done in parsing out our relationships with one another and the place to which we belong. When we throw a “white blanket” over our classrooms we are contributing to a cultural narrative that embodies negative power dynamics, which conceals differences amongst people and obscures geo-political relationships to place that are essential to our cultural identification with our non-human relatives.

At its most basic level, education is about ‘seeing together’ with our students. Here are some ‘seeing’ ideas. Invite students to reflection and ownership of their heritage and their sense of place. Teach students to see the inter-ethnicity of the past and the illusions of the present.  Encourage students to participate in community relationships that build cultural identity over homogeneity. Above all, know your own story in its complexity; sit with it; let it shape your thinking about who we really are.

Jill Falcon Mackin (Ojibwe) is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Montana State University where she focuses on indigenous foodways, food security and sovereignty.

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