Playing Indian Princess

A few years ago, I found a photograph of myself as a little girl, maybe six years old, sometime in the mid-80′s. I looked staged and despondent in a YMCA Indian Princesses t-shirt, adorned with a dyed “headdress” and plastic beaded necklace with a headdress charm. I’m sure the photo was taken at one of the seasonal Indian Princess father-daughter camping trips I went on throughout my youth. The photo was taken by my adoptive father. The YMCA Indian Princesses (and Indian Guides) was designed to instill family virtues, develop father-daughter bonds, and promote self-esteem through various outdoor and cultural activities across the U.S. Adrienne K of Native Appropriations writes extensively about it here:

What the Indian Princess program really does is appropriate Native culture through dress-up. The program perpetuates offensive stereotyping and enables white, suburban middle class fathers to live out their ludicrous warrior fantasies. In my youth, it created a space for my adoptive father to play up my ostensible authenticity and remind everyone in the program that I was a “real” Indian.

His real Indian.

He loved “Indian culture.” We watched Dances With Wolves on laser disc. Harmless (except that it wasn’t because cultural appropriation is never harmless). I still harbor feelings of guilt and shame for being unwittingly complicit in stereotyping/generalizing/displaying overt racism, but I didn’t have the tools or resources to do anything about it back then. The funny thing is, I know many youth of color understand cultural appropriation—youth of color are intuitive, observant, understanding. But youth of color growing up in white communities with white parents are forced to take on a different kind of challenge with a confusing dearth of resources at their disposal. For all of the complex identity grappling I experienced as a young transracial adoptee, I still more or less got it. However, I couldn’t do anything about it. Who was I supposed to go to? The “chief” of my [insert stereotypically fake name here] tribe?

I played the Indian in Thanksgiving plays. I don’t know how my elementary school teachers came to know my background or if it occurred to them that maybe I had more questions about adoption other than race. Or that I couldn’t conceive of these two lived experiences as mutually exclusive. Their desire for me to become a pedagogical tool and a provision of difference became reality and I did not openly object. Secretly, at night, I imagined what my tribe was like—where were they (here in California?), the way they looked, and if I, too, looked like them. I wondered if there were other half-white, half-Native kids like me. And if they were adopted.

I knew more about my birth mother than my birth father. She had a history, a story, a skin color, and a name. My birth father was diminished to “Indian.” That wasn’t enough for me. In my wistful fantasies, never did my fictive Native friends look like Indian Princesses. They told me stories about their life and what it was like to be a Native kid playing with other Native kids. One imaginary friend was mixed, just like me, but had the same color and body shape. She always wore cut-off jeans and a hoodie. I wanted her to be real.

Over two decades have passed since I was their Indian Princess. Since stumbling upon the photograph, I’ve tried to make sense of how I was appropriated and what it felt like. See, back then I didn’t know that I was deer clan in the Seneca Nation. I didn’t know that my birth father grew up thousands of miles away from me, but I knew Kevin Costner wasn’t the honorary Native my adoptive father wanted to believe in (or wanted to be). Although I couldn’t possibly entertain the specific, tangible details about my identity that I can now, I knew that my adoptive father’s claim to Cherokee blood didn’t constitute my identity. Even as a child, I could sense cultural appropriation in visceral, tactile ways.

Yet trying to impose understanding onto my past experience is futile and so, too, is thinking about how I should have reacted to my role as a novelty—as an overgeneralized and problematic representation of a real Indian Princess. Instead, I’ve made an attempt to have a conversation with that six-year-old kid.

She questions why no one objected to the cultural/identity appropriation on her behalf. She questions why no one helped her find a community or asked her how she felt about Thanksgiving. She told me that youth have strong identities, too. She told me that I don’t have to be Native if I don’t want to. She told me that it’s ok to feel angry and used and that it’s also ok to posit my voice across my communities.

I have since found a safe (albeit largely virtual) community where I can retroactively object and position myself as a progressive voice for understanding and, thus, change the harmful reasoning surrounding the cultural appropriations of young transracial adoptees. I simply want my ways of being and identity to cut across my many communities—to solicit a broader understanding of cultural appropriation and the violence enacted upon those appropriated.

To my teachers, the YMCA, adoptive parents, and adoption agencies, here is some advice from a six-year-old Native adoptee on cultural appropriation:

  1. I understand more about my own identity and cultural appropriation than you might think. I have a voice. Please provide me with a safe and comfortable space to use it.

  2. I am not a novelty or a mascot. Do not dress me up to fulfill your Dances With Wolves role-play fantasy. Cowboys and Indians is not an appropriate game to play. Stop perpetuating stereotypes in a space of knowledge production and exchange.

  3. It has occurred to many six-year-old transracial adoptees that we would like to play with and talk to other transracial adoptees who understand what we are going through. We do not have the resources to facilitate this and build our own community yet. Please understand our isolation and the anxiety it may cause.

  4. Do not assume that I should or will play an (or the) Indian in the Thanksgiving play. And why haven’t we learned about colonialism and genocide? We should. Likewise, Columbus Day is not a glorious holiday. See comment re: colonialism and genocide.

  5. Some adoptive parents may not think critically about racial-identity politics. Loving/supporting a culture and an individual’s complex identity is not the same as promoting it or fabricating its authenticity.

I never doubted the love I received growing up, but the violence of cultural appropriation sometimes trumped it and left me struggling for breath, for words to understand what it meant for me to be Native. My own voice has been silenced for too long. Now, I identify as a trans/biracial-adoptee, and I wish that the violence of cultural appropriation was no longer an issue, but it is:

Reconciling my own Indian Princess dress-up photo may serve as one way to demonstrate the embodied violence of cultural appropriation, its persistence, and the need for continued brazen and experiential dialogue between appropriators and appropriated.

~ Sarah Grant, guest contributor