Last weekend at Norwescon, I went to a panel discussion on “Finding Diverse Voices in SF&F.” Afterwards, while discussing the topic with someone, overwhelming shame swept over me when I recalled a childhood experience. I’m still unpacking the meaning, and felt it worth sharing.
But first, to grasp what I wish to convey I must provide some context, so don’t get ahead of me.
As a child, I didn’t have a connection with my father (the reasons are irrelevant) so my relationship with my paternal grandparents was deeply significant, since Grandpa and Grandma filled a gaping hole in my life. Decades later, I still recall childhood summers and spring breaks, going fishing and camping with them, trailing alongside my grandfather while he took me on his rounds at the mill where he worked as a security guard, and canning tomatoes with my grandmother in the kitchen. Also significant to me was that my grandparents were Native American.
Neither were full-blooded, but both had been eligible to sign onto their tribal rolls and chose not to, for reasons which were too complex for a young boy to understand. Grandma came from Arkansas and had Choctaw roots, while Grandpa was from Oklahoma with a Cherokee background.
Though they were not proud of that heritage (another whole topic), neither did they hide it. My grandparents’ heritage was profoundly significant to me and so it was that, around age 10, I found myself at a ceremony honoring Native Americans.
I can’t recall exactly what brought me to this gathering of hundreds of kids; just that I was still in elementary school, so it likely was a school field trip. In any case, the leader called for all kids who were Native American or had any Native American ancestry to step forward to the center of the ringed assemblage. I proudly thought of my grandparents as I joined the group in the middle.
That moment was shattered when the leader walked over, hauled me to my feet and declared with a loud voice, “You are too white. You’re lying, you don’t have any Native American. Go back and sit down.”
My soul was branded with shame while hundreds of people watched me return to my seat, crying. The lesson I carried from the circle was that I had no right to my grandparents’ heritage. From that moment, it was something forbidden, destined to remain outside of my unworthy grasp—a part of my grandparents that could never be a part of me.
My mind accepted this decree, but my spirit said otherwise. I was drawn to read whatever I found about Native Americans, and my soul was deeply moved when I read “Ishi: Last of His Tribe,” and “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” broke my heart with outrage. Though I couldn’t explain why, I always felt like an alien in my own culture.
Over the years, I often felt a spiritual presence; that the Spirit of my grandparents’ Native American heritage watched over me and visited on occasion through vivid dreams and visions. One example was years ago, at a business party during a conference in Arizona.
The host arranged for a Navajo dancer to provide entertainment, but for me it was much more. As those around me drank and talked, I watched entranced while he performed an elaborate ritual involving concentric rings, which dropped one by one until he let the remaining one fall at the end.
Afterward, I mustered my courage while he packed. My profound shame protested that I had no right to inquire, but I felt compelled to approach the man. “I sensed something very deep behind your dance, but I’m not sure exactly what. Can you share with me what it was?” I asked.
The dancer paused and looked at me with surprise for a few moments, then responded, “The various rings represent aspects of the Great Spirit; the sky, the wind, the earth and sun, plants and animals, and mankind. Together everything makes up the web of life, but every time one falls, the web weakens, until finally the whole web collapses. We do this dance hoping that people will see and understand.”
Then he looked at the oblivious people partying around us, and wistfully added, “But no one ever sees it.” I responded, tears in my eyes, “Don’t give up, brother. Someday, some of them will.” In that instant, I felt a sense of kinship.
And so, the other night when I was talking in the corridor, the vivid experience of shame I felt as a child in that circle again washed through me, as if I was there once more—so visceral that it was everything I could do to hold back the tears. Without realizing it, I had carried this pain my whole life. In fact, I now see that the middle third of The Archivist is largely an auto-biographical metaphor of my inner struggle.
As the power of that shame dissipates, I now yearn to explore my Native American heritage. I can’t say where that journey will take me, but I will no longer deny that which is a part of both my physical and spiritual DNA. No, I did not grow up on a reservation nor suffer the degrading experiences that many Native Americans have endured—that has been their path, which I respect and I know what I am not. But, finally, it is time for me to explore what I am.
Our society excels at telling people what they can, and can not, be. I have known numerous gay and transsexual friends over the years, who have struggled with their identity. They, too, walk their own path but I grasp more deeply their conflict, when your spirit tells you that you are something, which society says you can not be.
Long ago I learned not to let others define who I am. What I learned the other night was that, just as importantly, I can not let others define who I am not.