What Does It Mean to Be Indigenous?
What does it mean to be Indigenous? That’s a complicated question, one addressed and turned over by countless Indigenous thinkers and scholars and leaders. It is complicated, in some part, because there are likely as many ways to identify as Indigenous as there are Indigenous people out in the world. For some, it’s all about language and tradition. For a few, it’s about blood. But for many, like myself, the root of our identity is in something else.
For most of my life, my relationship with my own Indigeneity was complicated. I was one of those kids who got saddled early with a “gifted” label. This came with its privileges—in first grade, my reading was so advanced that I was allowed to take two books instead of one and I was allowed to get my books from outside of the children’s section if I wanted to. I got to take special classes and got special assignments. But I also got looked at differently. Classmates were often staring at me, saying “you seem white” or even “you sound white” because of the way that I spoke. I didn’t understand that education in Indian Country has always been complicated—that for a long time, it had been a way to rob us of our identity and supplant a new one. The only thing I knew was my experience, and the message from that came through loud and clear: I could be “gifted,” or I could be Indigenous, but I could not be both. I made my choice and left, trying to make sense of myself in a non-Native world, wondering why nothing ever seemed to fit right.
It was my parents who showed me what was missing. It began with my mother, who asked me one Thanksgiving how I could put so much energy into fighting for justice for everyone else—for Black folks, for LGTBQ+ folks, for immigrants, for poor folks, for the land and the water and the air—while putting none in for my own people. When my father came to pick me up from the train station a few days later, he said, thoughtfully, “I guess I always figured you would go home eventually.” I didn’t get the impression that they were disappointed in me, but it did make me realize that maybe I was not living up to be the sort of person they believed me to be. That made me wonder what sort of person I was, and if I was even living up to my own self-image.
When I came to College of Menominee Nation, I was still in the early stages of working through those questions. I had this whole idea of me: I am Jasmine, I fight for the people and for justice, for the children of the future, for the land and the water and the air. But I didn’t know how being Menominee fit into that, not really. It wasn’t until I really began to revisit and unpack our history as a people—as wanderers, as dreamers, as resistors—that any of it began to make sense. I found myself in the fight to keep what was ours, not through brute strength but through diplomacy, cleverness, and tenacity. I met other Indigenous intellectuals, thought-leaders, knowledge-keepers, resistors, scholars, smarty-pantses. I learned that the things that got me into fights as a youngster were things that got me respect as an adult. I learned that I did not have to choose between being a Menominee and anything else—that I am both, have always been both.
Since then, I have made a promise to myself and to my people that I will never leave again. I don’t mean that I will not continue to wander, but that everywhere I do wander will be space that I inhabit as a Menominee woman, as an Indigenous woman, as a proud part of my peoples’ history.
Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.