By Pamela J. Peters
Where am I from? I am indigenous to this land. I was born and raised on the Navajo Tribal Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona, where Indian life revolves around family, clans and community, where our native language is our way of life and our elders are our teachers, our historians, our bloodline to our ancestors.
I moved to Los Angeles from my tribal reservation when I was 17. When I was first asked that question in the city, most folks would automatically think I was Mexican, South American, Asian and even Italian. Once, when I was on a public bus with a friend, I was spoken to in Spanish by an elderly lady. I told her politely that I didn’t speak Spanish. She started to yell at me for “not speaking my mother’s tongue.” My friend told her in Spanish that I was American Indian, but she didn’t listen and only looked at me with shame and continued to berate me on a public bus. My culture, my identity, was invisible.
Living in LA and being brown with dark hair and dark eyes can make one ambiguous. I was ambiguous and I was fine with it for a while — until I started to encounter racist remarks about being American Indian.
When I began sharing that I was Diné (Navajo), most folks didn’t know what that meant, so I had to say American Indian or Native American. Then I would get a slew of different responses like, “Oh, I thought all Indians were dead.” Or, “You mean like Pocahontas?”
I would also receive responses to the extreme (as if I was making up my identity): “Oh, I’m Indian, too! My great-great grandmother was a princess!” or, “My grandfather was an Indian chief.” To many people, I was a relic of the past.
It was impossible for me to explain how those types of responses were not only condescending, but also made it difficult for me to explain who I was. It felt as though they had already formed an opinion about me, and thought of an “Indian” as existing in the singular past. Today there are 566 federally recognized tribes and about 150 Native American languages still spoken in North America, and yet the image of an Indian continues to be one that comes from a colonized narrative.
Most people’s perception of Indians is limited to what they’ve seen in Hollywood films with narratives of Indians as obstacles to Western expansion. This leaves people with feelings of fear and anxiety, or perhaps even nostalgic guilt that opens up mocking and hatred toward Indians even today — as we see in team mascots, Halloween costumes and children playing “Cowboys and Indians.”
Futhermore, we celebrate a mythical fantasy reinscribed each year through reenactment of invented traditions like Thanksgiving. The problem that arises from this is that Indians like myself are seen as alien, foreign and one-dimensional — making mockery, inhumanity and appropriation perfectly justified.
This country is my homeland. It’s beautiful, but much of the history here is invisible to those who don’t understand our existence. Mass media presents us as mystical stereotypes. But United States government policies attempted to eradicate us and our culture through wars, Indian-targeted boarding schools and relocation programs meant to assimilate us.
The red dusty earth and scorching heat are reminders of lost lives, yet the fresh pine trees, sweet sage and smoky creosote bushes exhibit a life of resistance that people don’t see.
To the question, “Where are you from?” I say:
Yá’át’ééh shi Dine’é, shi’kéh, dóó táhanołtso! Shi’eiya Pamela J. Peters yinishyé. Táchii’nii nishłį́, dóó Tl’aashchí’í báshíshchiin.
Hello, my relatives, and friends. My name is Pamela J. Peters. I am from the Red Running Into the Water Clan, born [of] the Red Cheek people.
This is part of a series called #ImFrom, where members of the AJ+ community share personal stories about the question, “Where are you from?”