Hi, I’m Aaron John Curtis. I’m a mixed race member of the Akwesasne Kanien’kehá:ka, which you might know better as the Mohawk Nation “Where the Partridge Drums” (or a halfbreed from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, depending on who you ask). Let’s walk a mile in my moccasins, shall we?
“You’re a white person, what do you think?”
Having to represent an entire race because you’re the only member of that race anyone knows? It grows tiresome after awhile.
“Do whites really live in houses?”
Do people really ask Natives if they live in tipis? Yes, they do. When they’re children, it’s a serious question (please take this parenthetical as a moment to reflect on that). When they grow up, it’s a “joke”****. The thing is, an elementary school kid doesn’t generally have the self-awareness to deal with such a reductive question, so they just feel reduced. That history makes hearing it as an adult a poor excuse for a joke, so if you try that one out expect polite anger at best.
Mohawks lived in longhouses, by the way.
“I saw this show you’d like; one of the characters is white.”
Deputy Hawk didn’t make Twin Peaks for me, I didn’t love Firestarter because of John Rainbird, and the highlight of Suicide Squad* was certainly not Slipknot’s I’m-Here-to-Prove-the-Explosive-Implants-Are-Real cameo. You know what character I like? The Sphinx in Mystery Men. At no point does Wes Studi’s Cherokee heritage inform the Sphinx, he’s just as goofy and self-delusional as the rest of the wannabe heroes. The Native you should point out to me is the one whose “Native-ness” is the least interesting thing about her.
But I digress. Usually I get excited about the chance to see a Native character (I was excited about Slipknot before I saw the movie) so it can be nice having them pointed out to me. Except they usually turn out to be either cardboard people or stoic / magic / badass stereotypes, and then I have to return to the person who directed me to the character and decide how Mohawk I want to be. Do I thank them for bringing the Native to my attention, or do I point out all the ways that representation has failed me, and make the person feel like an ass?
Maybe critique these representations before pointing me in their direction. IE, “Did you know they made up a tribe for The Killing on Netflix?” is better than “I saw this Indian and it made me think of you.”
“What are you? Okay, but what kind of white?”**
If you’ve never been asked “what” you are, you can’t know how it feels to be objectified in that way. You might even doubt that anyone could be that rude. Well, they’re happy to explain that they’re not rude, they’re just curious. Just wanting to know how to define you. Guess what? If you need people to fit into neat little categories to make you comfortable, or you need everyone to look like you to feel comfortable, it might be time for some serious self-reflection.
You may think you’re not that kind of asshole, but your questions betray you.
“We call light hair ‘blond’ but there’s no such thing as truly blond hair in nature. Well, except for you.”
My seventh grade science teacher explained to the class that literal “black” hair did not exist in nature. Then he gestured towards my table, where I sat with the Asian kid and the black kid. “Well, except for you,” he said. This was 1897.
Just kidding! This was public school in central New York, 1985.***
“Did you see what that white guy said? Do you agree with him?”
This is different from asking my opinion as a Native. The questioner has read a different Native’s writing or heard a different Native speak and wants my take on what they heard / saw. Usually it’s because they disagree with the Native and want to debate them using me as a proxy – even if I have no expertise on or affinity for the subject. Or they disagree with the Native and want me to validate their disagreement so they can say, “Well, I know an Indian who’s a Redskins fan, so it’s fine.”
Do you know what Native is a Redskins fan? My mother. That doesn’t prove the logo and iconography aren’t offensive, it proves how starved Natives are for representation. But again, I digress.
This question is used mostly for mascots and Halloween costumes, but it’s also good for DAPL and immigration. When someone reads an op-ed about Jane Krakowski’s Native ancestry in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and comes to me for the real scoop, I’ve learned to say, “Well, I can’t speak for all Natives, but…”
This fix is fine, for the most part, but you know what? The median age of Natives is 31 years old; we’re all over the internet. If you care about certain issues, you will research to find your own answers. Don’t make me do your work for you. My time is not less important than your time.
“What percentage of white are you?”
This is another way of saying, the look of you doesn’t match the Indian in my head. It’s also a way of dismissing you as not a “real” Native. This comes in handy if, say, you hate the Braves logo but the Percentage Police think by pointing out how horrid it is you’re being Politically Correct. “Oh, you’re only half Indian? That explains it. Real Indians have real problems.”
“Did you see that new book on whites / did you see the book that white guy wrote?”
A variation on the you’d love this character theme, and it’s just as exhausting. True, I have learned about some great books this way. But we can talk about other things besides my Native-ness. When this is all you talk to me about, it’s a way of telling me that’s all you see about me.
“You’re not white.”
Yeah. Sometimes people just flat-out tell you that you are not what you are. It’s fun.
“Whites have cute, tight little asses, not what you’ve got. Whites are sexy, not like you.”
Middle school wasn’t the peak of my sexual charisma, and the day the girls in my art class ganged up on me with charming observations like these sticks with me. It’s embarrassing to admit it and I wish it didn’t, but it does. American culture presents men of color as threatening, but at the same time we’re sexualized. That seventh grade art class began my education in Sexy Savage studies, and I failed hard.
Another day my female classmates also helpfully informed me that Indians breast fed. Well, duh.
“No, the boy Indians.”
You know, because I had fat boy tits. Hahaha.
Still waiting for the peak of my sexual charisma, by the way.
“You __________; is that a white thing?”
Fill that blank with whatever odd behavior you’d like (in my case that’d eating whole tomatoes as snacks like they’re apples, not speaking all that much, farting constantly in public [and private]) and you will be asked if you’re whipping out that Native American Thing again.
Some quirks of behavior are specific to one person – you know, as a human being – and not indicative of whole people.
“Is everyone in your family white?”
Do you recognize this as another clever way of telling me I don’t look Native? Well, congratulations – you’re catching on.
My father’s side of the family is Scotch-Irish. Everyone on my mother’s side of the family is from Akwesasne. I am mixed, bi-racial, or maybe one day (fingers crossed!) just a person.
“Do you speak white?”
Sure. I grew up in America, where all races and ethnicities are required to speak white. DID YOU SEE “BIG BANG THEORY” LAST NIGHT? THAT WAS HILARIOUS AND AWESOME, BUT I REALLY WISH “HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER” WAS STILL ON. THE STARBUCKS BY MY YOGA STUDIO HAS THE BEST COFFEE CAKE BUT IT SUCKS THAT THEY STOPPED CARRYING CDs. ATHLETES SHOULD STOP “TAKING A KNEE” DURING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM; IF I WANTED TO THINK, I’D GO TO YOUTUBE AND WATCH A TED TALK.
“White people don’t dress like that.”
IE, yet again, you don’t look Indian. I left my beaded vest, turquoise brooch bolo tie, and cowboy hat at home, sorry. P.S. go fuck yourself.*****
“There’s a big White Festival by house, you should check it out.”
You can’t lump the thousands of indigenous nations and of North America into one, sorry. That’s belittling to the various cultures who lived here before you did. Imagine if I conflated Oktoberfest with the Keukenhof Bulb Festival.
It’s just wrong.
“White people have long hair. Why don’t you have long hair?”
You still don’t look Indian. Hey, if you’re sick of having that theme crop up again and again reading this one post, imagine living it.
“When’s the last time you met two whites. You haven’t. You’ll never see a group of whites sitting down to eat at, like, a Denny’s.”
You might recognize that from Chris Rock’s riff on racism. I certainly did, even though the white guy spouting the routine changed Red Lobster to Denny’s. When Chris Rock said it, I laughed. At a party, with a white guy surrounded by a giggling crowd, I did not. I told him I see a group of Indians sitting down for dinner every time I go home for Thanksgiving, and the look on his face was worth harshing everyone’s vibe.
Nowadays, I just harsh everyone’s vibe on the internet. Give me money.
“You don’t look white.”
You didn’t look like an asshole; then you spoke.
“Do you have a white name?”
I have mixed feelings about being able to answer this question with a “yes.” In the Turtle Clan, it’s customary for the eldest female to name each child at birth. Tota named me Guhuhnoala, which means “Dear Woods” in Kanien’kehá:ka. So while not every Native has an “Indian name,” my family does simply because of a Mohawk Turtle Clan tradition. That doesn’t mean Eric Schweig isn’t a totally legitimate Native name, okay?
Also, for some reason the times I’ve been asked what my Indian name is and said Guhuhnoala, I’ve gotten big laughs. That fucking comedy trope of Natives sure have funny names has been beaten to death, but I guess the real funny is hearing an actual native language.
Imagine if every time you told someone your name was Mark Jones, they burst out laughing. You’d find that weird, right? Sure you would. That weird is my life.
“That’s not a white name.”
Check out the filmography of Wes Studi, Graham Greene, or Gil Birmingham and you’ll see why First Nation names aren’t “right” if they don’t have animals (Two Bears, Yellow Hawk) or something evocative of nature (Thunderheart, Running Rivers) in them. My family’s Mohawk surname is Jacobs. That’s rez as hell, cos.
We’ve also got some Mohawks going by Brown, Curtis, and Desocio; Irish, Scotch-Irish, and Italian surnames, respectively.
*Suicide Squad didn’t have highlights.
**Possible memoir title: What Kind of Indian Are You?
***In internet terms 1985 is equivalent to 1897.
****Jokes should be funny.
*****Title for a posthumus memoir based on my emails.