Wanda was the cutest little girl. Her chestnut brown hair curled under just tickling her earlobes. Her face lit up as she giggled showing her missing two front teeth and her favorite toy tucked under her arm. This moment would be saved forever, as it was picture day at school. “Vite, vite, on s’aligne pour le photographe!” yelled the teacher. The two dozen eight year old’s scurried around taking direction from the photographer. Wanda was one of the taller kids in class, so she was stuck in the back row. Her round chubby brown face stood out in the sea of white that surrounded her, but no one seemed to know the difference.
Some days I wish I were Indian. I think t would be really cool with long brown hair, carefully tied into two neat braids.
Her mother had always wanted a little girl. Someone she could dress in frilly pink clothes, comb and braid her waist length hair that she would surely have since her aunts had such a beautiful hair. But her mother was also progressive thinker and taught Wanda she could be whatever she wanted to be. For Wanda that meant being a boy, or tomboy at least. No pink, no frills, no dresses or long hair. Most days she carried around her baseball mitt, but today her mother let her bring Jupiter, her favorite doll, to school for picture day.
These are the basics. To be Indian you need something brown like, buckskin looking, a simple shift will do and be sure that it’s short so you can see the Indian princess’s legs and the obligatory knew high moccasins, a belt, some fringe, then add some feathers and silver and turquoise and maybe some a light tan and voila! You’re Indian!
I'm not sure what I was thinking the day I decided to cut my hair. My hair was down to the middle of my back. Most days I wore it up in a ponytail, or as I recently figured out how to do a bun. Some days as I lazily put my hair up, I wondered when I became a librarian. At first I had grown my hair, or just not cut it because I was on a show, and I braided my hair for each into two neat braids, but after 6 weeks of that and then a traveling show, you've tricked yourself into believing that you are really Indian since you've pulled it off for this long and you can't stop the charade now.
Lights up on a solitary figure, on stage the pow-wow grounds. She is dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, a t-shirt with writing, a big rodeo belt buckle and cowboy hat, turquoise drips from her ears and neck, large stones of varying sizes are on her fingers, silver and turquoise bracelets weigh her arms down). Wanda “Check this out (as she surveys the grounds) look at all these Indians, who’d a thunk it, that there that many Indians in L.A. I bet they’re mostly Mexican. (as she says this a black person walks past in full regalia) WTF? Huh? How does that work? (she wonders as she stares at the colourful costume with feathers walk away) AS she gets ready to enter the grounds, a dark figure hovers. Long black straight hair tied neatly in two braids, dark “Terminator” like glasses and black trench coat, black cowboy boots, jeans and a t-shirt that reads I.M.
I confirmed my suspicions today, I am not really Indian. Maybe that’s why all those Indians I see at the pow-wows at home are covered in silver and turquoise so it will be easier to be picked out of the crowd and there won’t be any doubt then. Mental note gotta get me some. The really huge pieces too, the ones that look like a huge boulder is on your hand instead of the precious stone carved from hundreds of years in the earth. I am not Indian. I was out shopping and a man with the prettiest hair asked if I needed help. Of course I did, I was buying make-up, does this face look like it comprehends make-up? Anyway, the whole time he is helping me choose foundation, I feel so pale and bland next to his rich, dark skin. He offered two pots of some beige and tawny concoctions and asked if I had planned to get darker. Was this an assault on my indianness? Oh no, he can tell I'm a phony; soon I will hear the whoops of the Indian cops coming to take me away for fraud. I stood in shock for a moment and replied "of course I want to get darker, this is just my winter coloring" I quantified to him.
What I really wanted to do though was ask "so what tribe?” but I didn't. In that single moment I felt like I only image others do when they're curious about my nativeness.
So instead I stared at his ruddy skin, that reminded me of my dad, his roman nose, his flat-ironed hair that was so pretty I wanted to touch it. I tried to catch his eye in the hopes that he would ask, but didn't. I was in there a total of 10 minutes. I feel brushed off and put away by him, I want to feel this kinship with him, but I am embarrassed to ask him, in fear that he finds me out.
Growing up she was the overly tanned kid in all the class photos. The dark kid with the round face and eyes dark as coal, with crater deep dimples. Looking back on my class photos now I notice how I stand out, but then, I was just another kid, these were my friends and no one thought anything of it. Some may think that growing up in a small town limits you, like you are going to be singled out because of your differences, but that was never the case. It wasn’t until I moved away from home, that I realized how different I was and what the world would dish out. (who is keeping her out? Where are they? What makes me an outsider? Is it education or internal?) I am fortunate enough to meet people who know about their culture and heritage, I know nothing, safe a few choice “swears” in Ojibwa. I feel left out. (Who decides? What kind of Indian does she want to be? Does she want to be accepted by all the Indians? Is it white v. brown? Mistaken for being Mexican. Are there not other people like her that want to find out now? Roles of being a card carrying Indian. Why isn’t the treaty card enough? Who belongs/who decides? What are the rules? Certain customs, language. What do the “they” do to keep me out.) I want to learn more, but how, isn’t it too late? And why is it that I think these people are less Indian than I am? Well it’s because they’re out there doing stuff and I am not. I have this need for perfection and don’t want to get anything wrong, what if I misrepresented something, and feel this backlash then they’d kick me out of the club for sure and then tear up my treaty card for sure. (If I ran into Wanda, a stranger what would she say to me?)
The day has finally arrived. I chopped off 8” of my hair, without a thought or a whimper. The stylist place a rubber band at the 8” line and sawed thru my thick mane. I caught a glimpse of the receptionist as she walked by, the look of shock and disbelief on her face as the stylist chopped. I looked at her reflection and smiled. No fear. No thought of what she was doing, or what it signified. I was not Sampson; I now had more power now. I let go of my wanting and needing to be Indian. I can’t recall the last time I cut my hair. Most of my life my hair has been short, never going below my ears, but now here I am in Los Angeles, my hair is the longest it’s ever been, long layers to my mid-back. When I played the Indian in Berlin Blues, my hair braided into to tight tails hanging from either side of me, I dare not cut my hair; I couldn’t play those parts anymore. You always see the Indian maiden in the movies, her long hair tied back with sinew and leather lace, then at night by the fire loose or when she has a fight with her lover, she is running away from him, her black flaxen hair catching the wind and her wildness. My short hair now, will no longer feel that freedom. It now hangs playfully by my ears, not being restrained in a single ponytail. Did hair make me more or less Indian? Most of my counterparts have hair that hangs below their shoulders and it is never tied back, now can they move or see, do they think that long hair is necessary? Even men have longer hair than me; they are always the bare chested loincloth-wearing braves in the movies.
If you lay very still you can feel it. Don’t move, breath very slowly, take your time. It’s like an intense shiver. Close your eyes, deep breath and listen. “Ya, ya, hey, ya…ya, ya, hey, ya….My chest shakes, just a tiny quiver, “ya, ya, hey, ya…ya, ya, hey, ya.” Next, a constant rhythm can be heard, felt. A drumbeat can be felt thumping.
I wish I had my long hair today, or maybe not. I wish my hair was long because it would make people I meet on the street think twice about me. I would be mysterious ethnically ambiguous; but more likely than not, they would assume…
I miss my hair. I was hired today because I was “native American” but it doesn’t really matter, the casting tapestry mostly white. What a joke! I applaud production’s weak attempt to be inclusive, but seriously don’t patronize me. I watch the main actors at action, I look at the half dozen “families” gather, three are white, one is light black and a signal yellow, the women thin, the men jolly.
You see, I see my world in colors not ethnicities. Colors are what the world sees no matter your ethnicity. Color is what matters. You can see a person walk by on the street and get a first impression, but unless you stop and talk to the person you’ll never know. As much as “they”, the rest of the world, thinks how progressive and P.C. they are. They aren’t. No one wants to think they’re racist, but they are. No, not racist in the ugly, traditional definition of it but racist in forming an opinion or decision without knowing the whole story.
(How is the narrator racist? Misconceived assumptions?)
The summer Wanda went to stay with her aunt in the big city was, looking back, an incredible opportunity. Hey there dreamer, what’s up? Her aunt asked. Not much, it just sucks that mom had to go away for the summer and you get stuck with me Wanda answered. Oh, it’s not going to suck, I have big adventures planned for you. Your mom thought you should learn a bit about your culture this summer, so we’re going to dance, and I have the greatest costume for you!
That was just before Wanda turned 8. After that summer I didn’t see her much. I can’t remember how old she was, but this one summer, Wanda’s cousin’s from the south came to visit. This was her mom’s brother and his kids. Wanda was a month older than Jeremy yet they were years apart in maturity. Wanda had grown up surrounded by adults and you’d never guess she was only 7. She enjoyed playing with Jeremy; it was nice to have another kid around. On this summer day they decided to play dress-up. Wanda had just returned from a family weekend and had two new toy headdresses bought at some tourist trap. They each rummaged thru the costume trunk and pulled out the broad cloth costumes that were aged from time.
(What did the honks mean to the kids? Loss in not playing Indians or does that make me angry?)
When I walk into and “Indian” event, I see a rainbow of people who call themselves Indians (what is this distinction?) from the whitest white to the darkest brown. We’re not like other cultures or ethnic group, we come from a variety of backgrounds, different tribes, my people’s land in North America after all. To me Indians are brown, I mean it’s only fair right? Why should these snowflakes (powerful world, describe this, why) be allowed to call themselves Indian? They can walk through the world un-noticed, un-bothered, people may wonder what their background is, but never have the nerve to vocalize it. I am darker, even though a friend told me I wasn’t “that dark” (is there a disappointment?). I’d like to think I’m a nice latte colour, and because of the region I live in when there are other brown people and around and they need help, they look to me and say something. I wish I could help them, really I do, but why do they assume I am like them? I’m not. Just because you’re brown (be specific), doesn’t mean we share anything. (Do I associate brown with Indian? Are white people redefining what I am? What I think an Indian is? What others think an Indian is? Identify wannabees, what does it give them? Why do they want to be Indian? Why brown it sounds so racist.)
I have been wanting to write the extravaganza for years now. My first thoughts were so I could stick it to them, you know to show those wannabees what a real Indian is. There in was my dilemma. How could I chastise these people who knew more than I did and so wanted to be a part of a group that I was already a member of? I didn’t want these white people reducing what I am. It’s bad enough whenever you turn on the on the television, or a new movie comes out about us, we’re still wearing buckskin and roaming the open plains. Or the movie is set in modern times yet unrelatable to the rest of the world and it gets limited play. As a child I wanted to show where Indians are from and what their world looks like. As a child there was nothing really Indian about my life. It was pretty regular. Sure I was the brown little smiling face in all the school photos. What do you expect, not a lot of my people speak French here. Here I was surrounded by these white little faces. The innocence of childhood, no one cares what colour you are as a kid.