(for those of you who don't know, my pop was native american. from the cheyenne river sioux reservation, to be exact; he was lakota sioux.)
one of the things i remember vividly from growing up was my friend christina's dad fascination with "traditional cultures." he was a man who did yoga well before it was cool, he was a vegetarian when we were all happily eating cheeseburgers, he was bearded when all our dads were clean shaven. it was weird, but he was like this little piece of the 70s, leftover for us to enjoy. i didn't even know incense existed before i met this man. he literally introduced me to patchouli, which to this day i have a weird love of.
one day, while doing something or another with him, he told me about an experience he'd had with the "great spirit." to me it felt like it came out of left field, but looking back at it, i imagine he thought about having this talk with me before it happened. at some point before this, he figured out what kind of brown my dad was, and then went from being totally uninterested in his daughter's exceedingly weird and awkward friend to fascinated. my dad was kind of an enigma because he wasn't around because of the navy, and when he wore short hair he really could have been a million things. real indian, from india, mexican, spanish, or native american. i knew my dad was indian, i knew in a way that i was (am) indian, but also knew that we weren't the "right" kind of indian. we had cable tv, we didn't recycle, we only went to the rez on vacation, and until my dad's dying day, he was a dyed-in-the-wool catholic. in fact, until right about the time christina's dad figured out what my dad was, i never really thought about it much. it was a weird trivia piece to throw around, like the fact that one of my grandfather's had a glass eye and my mother had an accent from the east coast.
when i was about 16, christina and i went over to her dad's for dinner. he lived downtown, and we went for a walk either before or after eating, and while winding up some alley between shops, he told me about his vision quest and his encounter with the great spirit. to him, it had obviously been a "thing." he wanted to talk to me about the "old ways," and what kinds of ceremonies my dad had been involved in (the answer: none), and what did i know about my own culture and how sad it was i wasn't very interested because here i had this cultural treasure i was ignoring. i'm pretty sure no one ever says that to an irish kid who's third generation, but maybe i'm bitter. the truth is, now as it was then, that i don't really look indian. say what you want, but that shapes ones feeling of culture and race. i'm indian enough to be enrolled in the tribe, but i look like any other cultural tourist at a pow wow. he kept going on and on about all this history and tradition i was leaving behind, and how could i call myself a catholic when they did terrible things to my people and didn't i know i had a responsibility to preserve the ways of my people?
looking back on it now, i see how insulted i should have been. i recall thinking, "how did you get to talk to the great spirit? my dad can't get a visit." i thought he was full of shit, but figured he knew what he was talking about. the way i understood the great spirit, it was this big thing, this life energy of the universe and nature, and why couldn't a white guy who covered his bald spot with a beret have a chat with it? i'd never sought it out, so what did i know?
i feel okay about being the kind of indian i am now. i know a bit more about native american culture than some people, i love my cousins, but i don't feel like i have this big cache of knowledge to protect and/or pass on. i feel as good knowing that some of my ancestors lived here, traveled in great groups hunting and camping out under the stars, as knowing that some of people were seafaring and invented salted cod around the same time. i'm a product of a mixed and crazy world, and while i don't look indian the way anyone thinks i should, i do have incredible hair.