Why I am hesitant to claim my Native American heritage

My mother was raised by her mother. My maternal grandmother identified herself as African American and there was no more said about it. Mom only knew of a handful of relatives on her mother’s side of the family. All of them lighter skinned.

Despite not knowing her father, my mother always checked the African American or Black box on slips and medical forms. But, my mother always felt that there was more to her story. She was too light for some and too dark for others.

When I was in high school, my mother came to an event. A classmate said to me, “I didn’t know your mother was white.” It was the first time I realized that my mother was not distinctly African American.

It’s not the first time mom was called out. She’s been mistaken for Hawaiian, Spanish, and Caucasian. Most ironic, she’d always get approached by local Native American tribal members and asked “Are you one of us?”

A few years before my grandmother’s passing, I saw a picture of my great grandparents. There’s no way you could convince me that they were Black. But, my mother insisted they were! After all, she never questioned her mother’s word that she was anything other than African American.

So, Fast forwardto a few years ago… My mother started a search for her father. It was a long and arduous search that started with a DNA test. All the matches on the platform for her were of Native American descent, more distinctly, the local tribe that always asked “Are you one of us?” Conclusively, mom is Native American on both sides of her parents. Literally, I went to school and befriended many from this tribe, so it’s crazy to think that we are all estranged.

Based on conversations with others in the tribe, and a wealth of proof, my mother and I became official members of the tribe.

I am excited to learn about the culture and the opportunity to share these things with my son. But, I feel like an impostor. It’s as if all of that “passing” my mother and grandmother did when it came to other ethnicities now haunts me as I try to claim and embrace my actual heritage. Granted, at no fault of my mother.

My mother, whose parents are now deceased, has no deep bond or real connection with any tribal members she’s come into contact with during her search. And let’s be honest…no one is exactly jumping through hoops to help her navigate to the right lane or to fill in the blanks. Remember, my grandmother was estranged from the tribe, and who knows if my great grandparents were also. There’s certainly a disconnect and no life-line for my mother nor I to cling to going forward.

At any rate, I was already proud to be 100% African American before discovering my true heritage. But, now I am also just as proud to be 50% Native American. And I am just as excited to share with my son that he is also part Native American. But, I have to be fully comfortable saying it out loud, right?

Once again, impostor syndrome kicks in. What will the tribe think of me saying it? I have no idea of their customs. Will I become that flamboyant “LOOK AT ME! I AM NATIVE AMERICAN, HEAR ME ROAR!” distant cousin that no one wants to acknowledge? Even though I’m proud to have the tribal enrollment card, share the same DNA as the Chief of the tribe, and have proof of my heritage, I do not feel worthy or as if I belong. 

Furthermore, my impostor syndrome really kicked in when my son’s class did heritage week. I proudly told my son that he was of African American and Native American descent. When he relayed that to the class, the teacher became ecstatic and asked what customs he could share with the group. Oh oh… My son looked at me and I shrugged because I have no idea!

I have no idea what happened between my grandmother and grandfather. The truth remains with them. My mother currently assured me and the rest of her family that she feels highly blessed, serene and complete; knowing “Mission Accomplished” in finally knowing who her dad is, his final resting place, and most importantly to obtain a (middle-aged) picture of him. Surprisingly, when she showed me the picture, a sense of peace came over me.  His picture is below.  My mother looks like him.