The Great White Tribe

native_american_dancing_shawl_mat_by_spearcarrier-d72w22z[1]It’s spring powwow season, a time I used to look greatly forward to, but nowadays my mind instead gets crowded with dark memories and unhappy thoughts. This to me is not a time of renewal. It’s a time of endings and the death of dreams and childhood wishes. All because of what I will forever consider a wannabe tribe.

See, as a child my father refused to take us to the reservation. He always said no when I begged him to teach us our tribal language – what little he knew – and staunchly refused to so much as find a powwow. This need for the family to get back to our cousins consumed me, though. So while my father handed me bows and arrows and raised us traditionally (It was the only way he knew, and it wasn’t until I was grown that I realized my childhood wasn’t like my White neighbors’.), my heart said it wasn’t enough.

I searched years upon years for my cousins. My mother told me Sioux. I went Sioux. She told me Cherokee, I went Cherokee. I was told Chippewa, I went to that. Mohegan. Narragansett. Let’s make one up.

The truth is my family knew who were were, but we didn’t know the name. My father remembered being on the reservation, and he could even tell me which one, but he had been there during a time when the rez borders weren’t so strict and you didn’t have to be a Narragansett to live on the Narragansett reserve. You just had to be family.

These days the source of the confusion is clear. I’m a Brotherton, and this is a tribe which was formed out of all the different tribes my family knew we were a part of.  So yes, we were Narragansett. We were also Mohegan. And Ojibwe (Chippewa). We are all these things, but not really. Because our tribe is Brotherton – and your tribe isn’t necessarily a DNA matter. Your tribe is your culture.

That being said, not knowing the legal and rightful name of my “classification” sent me down a lot of roads and I met a lot of people. I even traded snail mail with Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee tribe. She was nice to me, and she looked in the rolls for me as hard as she could. Then gently she told me that my family was not Cherokee, and that she was sorry. That broke my heart.

I made phone calls to the Ojibwe nation, and got treated like dirt because I didn’t know the slang insult for Whites the woman slipped up and said over the phone. (Thanks, Dad.)

Then I stumbled across a small “tribe” located about 2 hours away. I attended my first powwow with them – their spring powwow – and they welcomed me as a long lost cousin. I would join them, I decided. With excitement I told my family of this thing so close to us, and we all flocked to be near our new family.

I look back on that band now – they didn’t have state recognition back then, they were just a bunch of people (most of them folks who knew they had native ancestry but no tribal upbringing) trying to GET state recognition – and all I see is a cult. I can’t see them any differently. I have stopped trying.

A cult expects you to become a blank slate. To be just like everyone else without exception. It’s not culture. Culture grows and breathes. A cult will cut you deeply by throwing you out, or having you live under the threat of being thrown out, over the slightest thing. All to get you to conform and be more easily controlled.

I and the clan mother were like fire and water. I tried. I seriously tried. But she kept telling me all the things my father taught me were wrong. She didn’t have any rhyme or reason as to why he was wrong. He just was.

They were things like: women had no place making decisions for the tribe. Unless they were her, the clan mother, of course. (Anyone who knows Cherokee cultural history would know that’s a load of bs from the start.)

My regalia had to be just like everyone else’s. I couldn’t have anything personal about it. I couldn’t use any patterns that weren’t things she approved. All female patterns had to be of a certain old-fashioned look. No camouflage. No stripes or anything like that. Just small flowers, because that’s how she always did it.

My name – my wonderful earned name of which I was so proud of at the time – didn’t sound Indian enough for her because it doesn’t have a gender attached to it. She wanted to change my name – not because I’d earned a new name. But because my name is only Spearcarrier and not something Hollywood sounding like “Dances With Wolves”. It had to be Spearcarrier WOMAN, which would have completely changed the meaning as well as the reason behind it. We argued about that constantly, actually. That should have been the biggest red flag, that this woman didn’t know language (least of all her own) enough to know what a direct translation would be like. Or how to respect a fellow cousin’s personal identity.

They had a very “settlerlike” way of worshiping what they called the Creator. There were no ceremonies with drums or any of the things I’d seen scant details of growing up. They held church on Sunday. With a pastor. (Ironically my tribe is known as the Christian tribe because we openly adopted that as part of our culture way back when.)

I was invited to a wedding – a three day affair – and got to see a lot of things I’d only heard about. That was fun… only… the night before the ceremony I stayed up talking to a few other women in the camp. We ended up trading ghost stories because, well, that’s what you do. The bride and a woman whom I can only call Snake With A Knife were eavesdropping. By the end of the weekend, Snake had told everyone I was part of a satanic church (not true, one of the other girls had mentioned being part of one). Without being given a chance to defend myself I was exiled from the clan. I almost said, “Thanks for giving me a chance to defend myself. That was very White of you” at the time. But I didn’t sink to their level.

The day I was exiled, I remember seeing many important signs that in the old ways meant it was for the best. I was comforted by a blue heron who stayed by my side for hours, for example. The “tribe” often said that the blue heron was a sacred bird. I saw turkeys, another important bird. And… just stuff.

I also, because of their wrongs, have often been pushed to do things that educate people otherwise. Take for example my longstanding argument over regalia. I went so far as to write a paper about regalia, something I then put out as free to read. Because regalia isn’t always a uniform. It’s sometimes an expression of your journey and who you are… as well as your finery. As I go from powwow to powwow I learn more and more that people are forgetting the Medicine behind it.

The last time I saw the clan mother was at a powwow. She acted like we could just be friendly as if nothing had ever happened. Yet, the others who were wronged by Snake With A Knife were given feathers and offered official apologies through ceremony. I’m guessing this might be because those people had money. I, on the other hand, have never so much as been written an email saying “Sorry about that”. (I think if I got one now after posting this I’d just hit delete.) Considering the lack of respect on every single level I have been thrown in my direction, I am pretty sure acting like nothing ever happened isn’t socially possible. It’s not a matter of me being immature. It’s me saying, “No. I deserve better.”

All of this looks like so much petty bullshit, until you step all the way back and assess the damage done by that cult. When I was exiled, my parents didn’t side with me. They didn’t stand up for me. Instead, I got to watch the parent-child bond fade until it’s a mere sliver. My mother has made snide comments such as, and I’m going to quote, “Who was the smart witch that got kicked out of the tribe?” (Clearly my mother believes the cult over her own daughter.)

My father used to say often that they treated being a tribe like a “culture club”. Each time he put them down I wondered why he never stood up for his only daughter, the one whose childhood quest had been firmly destroyed by a rumor.

My family stopped a lot of things I grew up with. I used to be able to call my father over spiritual things – Dad, I saw a ghost! – but I can’t anymore. See, the cult doesn’t do that. The cult doesn’t do anything that goes against the teachings of the Creator. My Dad doesn’t talk to me about ley lines anymore, or the art of using sage to break things, or any of the stuff I have had to figure out by proxy were traditional Native things. He talks about the Creator now. Replace “Creator” with “Jesus” or “God”. Yes. That’s right. He doesn’t talk red anymore. It’s been bleached out of him. I can’t turn to him anymore.

I love my family, even if I don’t agree with their choice of social affiliations.  I don’t blame them for getting sucked into that group. They wanted to be near their cousins almost as much as I did. When there’s such a hole in your heart, it’s easy to get fooled and used.

But what kind of family would destroy the childhood wish of someone raised traditionally over a rumor? They wouldn’t. That’s just it. They would not.

I’ve talked to more traditional Cherokee about the matter and have been told what should have happened. 1. The ghost telling should have been respected. It’s an unspoken tradition. 2. Have these people never heard of Indian Bullshit?? Which – c’mon – young folks telling stories at midnight? No. Really. 3. If this accusation were truly a big problem, I was supposed to be sat down with my accusers and given a talking stick so I could tell my side of the story. That of course never happened. The woman who told me that was very distressed at the cult’s behavior, that they couldn’t so much as do that. I’ll never forget the waver in her voice.

That cult took away the family I had, using the need for family as a tool. It’s disgusting, really.

So this weekend is their spring powwow. I wouldn’t go now if they begged me to. My parents and older brother are there, speaking Cherokee and giving away resources to the culture club. And I’m up here, far north, considering what items I’m going to make for my culture, my tribe. My cousins. The Brotherton.

That Cherokee cult weren’t the first to use me as a scapegoat. I get given the blame all of the time, some times for things I had no idea were happening until someone pointed the finger. It’s like I have “blame her” tattooed on my forehead.

But I gave up on family years ago. I like looking at the old pictures, but I get a little anxious when I think about going to the tribal  picnic in July. (Haven’t made it yet because of finances. I’d really like to go.) Maybe it’s PTSD, but I am actually afraid of what would happen if I got too close.

What would I be accused of next?

Excerpt from Ghost in the Water

The entire incident reminded me of the Salem witch trials.  I wanted to say, “That was very white of you to exile me without giving me the chance to stand up for myself.”  Rather, I politely rephrased it to a mere sarcastic, “Thank you for giving me the chance to give my side of the story.”  Using the word “white,” although a well-placed insult, would have served no good purpose.

I was escorted off of the grounds, never to return.  When I told my parents of the betrayal, they were aghast.  Deep inside, I expected them to defend me in some way, but they never did.  Rather, they chose to side with the tribe and call me a witch.  As time passed, they grew closer to the Georgia Cherokee while I found myself increasingly estranged.

A sweat lodge was erected in the back yard one day.  Mother forbade me to go near it or the back yard. Finally it was apparent that they valued their new religion over their only daughter.   It was the last straw.  I turned my back on it all, never to be red again.


This is from Ghost in the Water, one of my rare “roots moments” when I write from my cultural perspective. Ghost in the Water can be found in There’s Nothing Romantic About Washing the Dishes.