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       Statement about Identity

I came to my commitments to Native American food sovereignty, seed sovereignty, and environmental justice through  my upbringing. I  was raised in rural upstate New York working the land with my family and spent formative years at pow-wows, ceremonies, and food summits over the past several decades hearing stories that have shaped my values, education and career.  While in these spaces, I have always introduced myself as the person my parents had raised me to be—someone of mixed Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, French, English, Irish, and German descent and identity. According to my mother, her grandmother was a Mohawk woman who married a French-Canadian man. Unfortunately, he was abusive and an alcoholic, and my grandmother died by suicide, leaving her children behind to be raised by someone else. This was a traumatic aspect of my mom’s family background that impacted her connection to her grandmother’s heritage growing up. As an adult she wanted to reclaim her Mohawk heritage and share that with us. She took my sisters and me to ceremonies and powwows as kids to connect us to our heritage. For us, being dancers, and being invited into sweats was a way to connect with and contribute to this broader community. My dad’s family said his grandma was Mi’kmaq, which was also something we were proud of but never quite as close to. My identity within the Native community, rooted in the histories of my family, is something that shaped my entire life, even though I was not eligible for tribal enrollment due to blood quantum requirements.

As a result of recent questions about my identity, I, along with others, conducted genealogical research to verify the tribal descent that my family raised me with, digging through online databases, archival records, and census data. While it is clear that racial identifications in census records are complicated and sometimes unclear (especially since the only race-identifying options for a long time were white, black, and mulatto), we have to date found no records of tribal citizenship for any of my family members in the tribal databases that were accessed. Essentially what I am currently left with is that I do not have any official documentation to verify the way my family has identified.

I have discussed this with my sisters and my parents, who were, like me, shocked and confused about what this information means for us. Our Native identity has structured not only our family activities but how we relate to other people and they to us. I have been a fancy shawl dancer and bead worker for over three decades, something my sisters and I learned at powwows when we were young, and this has brought us great joy. I have been grateful to the people of Akwesasne who took me in called me their chosen daughter, auntie, and friend, and who put me to work. When people told me ‘welcome home’ when I would come to visit, that meant something to me. In short, this identity has shaped my entire life and guided my work. When I left home for Williams College, I helped run the Native student organization and organized the first powwows the campus had seen. While at Brown University for graduate school and later as a professor, I also helped to organize the now-annual powwow, and worked with the Native student organization there for close to two decades. Working with youth and garden projects in the Akwesasne community over the past 15 years or so has been incredibly important to me. These relationships strongly shaped my work as an advocate for and scholar of environmental justice and food sovereignty. 

Given these new revelations about my background, I have asked myself: should I have dug deeper to confirm what my parents were telling us, through official genealogical records? In retrospect, yes. When I should have done this is much harder to say. At what point do you question whether the way your family raised you is correct? In high school? College? Grad school?  As it is for many people—Native and non-Native alike—my identity was always just part of me. Since I knew I was not eligible for enrollment, locating official genealogical records did not seem important. But in retrospect, especially given the complexities surrounding tribal affiliations, I recognize that this examination should have come sooner.

Now, without any official documentation verifying the identity I was raised with, I do not think it is right for me to continue to claim to be a scholar of Mohawk/Mi’kmaq descent, even though my mother is insistent that she inherited this history for a reason. As such, I have been approaching my friends, collaborators, students, colleagues, and members of the general public, to share this information about my identity and to re-form these relationships as needed. As I have begun this process, I have been enormously grateful for the love and support I have received from the Mohawk people who call me their chosen daughter, friend, and ally, and from my friends and compatriots from across the Native food sovereignty movement. I am still the same person, with the same knowledge, skills, and commitments gained through decades of experience.  But I will accept with humility and understanding the decisions of people who do not think I belong in certain spaces. Going forward, I will continue to passionately support food sovereignty and environmental justice movements in Native communities where and when I am invited to do so.

posted October 20, 2022

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