Growing up Cherokee and why Indigenous People’s Day means so much | COMMENTARY
By Jenna Najera
For The Baltimore Sun|
Oct 12, 2020 at 5:27 AM
For the first year in its history, the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) is celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day. This means a lot to me as a student at the college studying radiation therapy and a woman of Cherokee heritage who has often felt my history has not been recognized.
My father, John, also attended CCBC in the ’80s and has been a huge influence on me. He is a great teacher and storyteller and has spent my entire life educating me about the history of our people — the true history, not the G-rated version that is most often presented in history books and to the public. The stories of my father’s childhood and the obstacles he has overcome haunt me to this day. My own experiences with racism have been more subtle than his, but they have shaped me into who I am today, someone who is proud of her heritage and rather excited to participate in CCBC’s first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Growing up in Baltimore City in the 1960s, my father lived through the riots that engulfed the streets after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He and his siblings were often targeted because of their Indigenous background in senseless attacks by neighbors and people he thought were his friends, both Black and white. The violence got so bad that he and my uncle had to protect themselves with metal trash can lids and sticks.
My father and his siblings didn’t look like anyone else around them, and if they weren’t being brutally attacked, they were subjected to a myriad of racial slurs and threats. Even after moving into a different neighborhood, things didn’t change. Throughout his life every document my father filled out, from his library card to his driver’s license, excluded who he was. The choices were always, Black, white or other. It wasn’t until he got older that the option for “American Indian/Alaskan Native” appeared, and even that isn’t totally accurate. He felt marginalized because at every turn it was clear that there was no place for a Cherokee man. His people were not significant enough to merit their own identity, as if their place in history was no more than an obscure footnote.
My father met my mother, who was white, in the ’90s through mutual friends. At the time she already had three children, and before long, they welcomed me into the world. Typically, a family consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but my father and I weren’t permitted to meet my maternal grandparents until I was around 6 years old because of our race.
Every holiday, my mother would dress up my three older sisters and take them to her parents' house and celebrate while my father and I stayed home because we weren’t welcome there. We didn’t have the cocktail of European blood. I have memories of my sisters coming home with so many presents that they would have to make multiple trips to the car just to bring them all in. At my young age I didn’t understand why I was treated differently.
It took many years before it became clear to me why we hadn’t been allowed in their home and why they doted on my other sisters while barely acknowledging my presence. I also came to understand that I had something better than anything they brought home with them — I had my dad.
Looking back on everything that my father and I went through, I’d like to say that I wish none of it had happened, but I can’t change the past. My father is an incredible man. He’s raised me to be just like him, to accept everyone for who they are, regardless of what they look like, who they love or what higher power they believe in. It’s my fervent hope that with this new dawn of the acknowledgment of the histories, cultures and traditions of Indigenous people that the sun will set on the chapter in which we were depicted as nothing more than Halloween costumes, villains in Western-themed movies and ignorant savages. I also hope that when I speak about my heritage, I won’t be interrupted by yet another white woman telling me that their great, great, great grandmother was a Cherokee princess. Yes, this happens ALL THE TIME. But let’s face the fact that we didn’t have princesses and, frankly, no one is entitled to make up their genealogy for more likes on social media.
There are hundreds of tribes and nations in the United States that receive federal recognition, and many more that don’t. Each has its own unique history and culture; we are not all the same. But we share one commonality — we endure. Anyone that has the day off for Columbus Day, or as we prefer to call it, Indigenous Peoples Day, should take a few minutes to learn something new about the rich cultural heritage of the Indigenous people that have lived on this continent for millennia, and still do.