On Being Part Native


Essay by
Sarah Emily Jordan


November 2008


Let me just say this right from the start: I do not claim to be Native American. I don't know what it is truly like to grow up Native. But, my Grandmother was Native. She passed away when I was quite young. My memories of her are pretty vague. I cannot ever recall her talking about being Native American.

Several years ago I was in Phoenix, Arizona completing my Master's degree in Counseling. I was given the opportunity to be a practicum student at an organization called Native American Connections, a substance abuse treatment facility.

I can hardly begin to tell what a blessing it was for me. I ended up being formally hired by the company, so I spent a couple of years with them.

It was a blessing for several reasons, one of which was the connection to my own heritage. It was not something I brought up much, being part Native. However, when it did come up people would jokingly ask, "Which part, your big toe?"

As I said, having a Native American Grandmother does not automatically make me a Native, or give me some special understanding. But, I'll never forget how it felt to hear the drums for the first time. It went straight to my heart, and I felt connected to Grandma in a way I never had before.

The Native American culture is incredibly diverse. I think the average American tends to lump the groups together. But, one of my favorite activities working there was to hear the cultural presentations. It was fun to learn about the different tribal histories and traditions. But, it was also fun to see how interested the group members were in each other's cultures.

I got to be a group leader often, which I loved. I also got to be the co-leader occasionally, just being there to support and back up the leader. One of my most memorable groups was a video presentation concerning the relocation of Native children into boarding schools. The presentation focused on the lasting effects of this forced re-location, including their parenting styles. Following the video a slightly heated discussion started. That is understandable, this was not exactly the United States' best moment. I was the co-leader, and content to let the leader take charge. However, she turned to me in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and asked what I thought of the video from a "white perspective". I was not usually at a complete loss for words in group, but I sure was then. The entire video I was thinking of Grandma. She was one of those kids taken from her home on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota and put into a boarding school in Oregon. There she was punished for speaking any language other than English. She did not speak English when she first arrived. I actually know very little else about her experience there. But, watching that video I thought about how that experience influenced the way she raised my father, and then in turn how he raised me. My "white perspective" was just a little bit skewed. I actually just played the no-comment card on that occasion, but the experience sunk into my heart.

We are a collection of our and our ancestors' experiences. It is so important to understand that about ourselves and about the others around us. I hope that Conservatives continue to value and grow in their understanding of minority populations in the nation. It is imperative that we give voice to any person who holds the same Conservative ideals regardless of their background.

I was privileged to hear so many life stories. Many of those stories were sad and difficult not to become emotional while hearing. In fact a lot of times it felt like my heart broke. But, I also heard about and saw experiences of redemption that touched my heart.

One of those great things about Americans is that we can heal. That was such a beautiful thing to witness, and to feel in my own heart.

I'm so grateful to have had those experiences. Somewhere along the line it came up again that I was part Native, and was asked, "Which part, your big toe?" Given the experiences I had had, and the ways in which my soul was moved, I was kind of surprised but not really when I replied automatically, "No, my heart."


© 2008 Sarah Emily Jordan

First appeared at
Sarah Emily Jordan's blog
The Conservative Independent Rant

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