15 min read

The Almost NDN

On life as an urban NDN struggling to be more "Indianer" than you.
The Almost NDN
Photo by MJ Tangonan / Unsplash

“Do you guys know that my husband is an Indian?” my wife, a non-Native from Vermont, asked her Kindergarten class in East Texas at the beginning of a week studying about American Indians.

Each child looked at one another with the same level of fear and surprise on their faces. With jaws gaping open, the children screamed, “Ahhh, is he gonna get us?” The bravest boys of the bunch quickly stood up and displayed their ninja punches and kicks, learned from Kung Fu Panda which was the big movie at the time, while stating that they would protect the class from the “Indian.” This is a surprising reaction in general, but even more so since all of those kids had already met me and had gotten to know me.

Soon after the initial shock died down, questions flooded the classroom: “Does he live in a teepee?” “How many buffalos has he killed?” “Can he teach me to shoot a bow and arrow?” “Can he ride a horse?” “Where does he live?” “How many Indian wives does he have?” “Does he speak Indian?” With each child sitting on the floor with their legs crossed (unceremoniously called sitting “Indian style”), my wife addressed each question as accurately as possible.

“No, he does not live in a teepee. He lives in an apartment with me. He has not killed any buffalos, and he does not know how to use a bow and arrow. He cannot ride a horse. He does not have any Indian wives because he’s my husband so he’s married only to me.”

“Well,” one boy though out loud, “then he’s not a very good Indian.”

This fact is, unfortunately, true.

I am not a very good Indian.

I do not know how to hunt buffalo. In fact, buffalo scare me and I don’t know how to hunt anything. The only animal I ever tried to hunt was a rabbit, but that didn’t turn out well because I didn’t want to kill a rabbit. I liked rabbits then and still do today. So instead of aiming at the rabbit, I aimed slightly to the left of the rabbit so that I wouldn’t kill it when I shot.

Everyone thought I was a terrible shooter, which may be true regardless of my bunny pacifism. However, the reality is I didn’t want to kill a rabbit or anything else. I couldn’t say all of this to my friends because I was twenty-five years old then. What would they think that this fierce Indian couldn’t hunt a tiny rabbit? I think they already understood that I wasn’t a very good Indian without me ever having to say a word.

When we went hunting we used rifles instead of bows and arrows. I once tried shooting an arrow from a bow. I hit a fake deer right in its heart-circle the first time I tried, but then my arms quickly devolved into shaky, spaghetti-like noodles with each subsequent draw. Rifles are better because they don’t involve as much upper body strength. Bows, on the other hand, do. I found out that day that I do not have the proper amount of upper body strength to be a good Indian.

I have, though, actually ridden a horse: once. So technically, I can ride horses as long as it involves another person walking beside me leading the horse, ready to catch me at a moment's notice. What I learned from that first ride on a horse is that I do not have the balance, courage, or groin it takes to stick to it. Or maybe I just do not have the know-how to properly sit on a horse without feeling extremely scared and uncomfortable.

Watching old movies with Indians on horses, some of them could do special Indian tricks while riding on their horses; they could do amazing things like standing on the horse and shooting an arrow from a bow. If one were to ask me to do Indian stuff while riding a horse, whatever that may be, then I would have to decline for both the horse’s safety and my own.

But mostly my own.

I have spent the night in teepees, which gives me some believability as an Indian. Every year, my uncle would bring his teepee to the Little Shell Pow Wow in New Town, North Dakota, during the second weekend of August. This weekend-long event draws in hundreds of Indians from the surrounding region as well as many non-Natives (mostly white people) hoping to get a glimpse of the Indian way of life on a real reservation. I’m sure the casino now attached to the pow wow grounds is also a major draw, appealing to many visitors who would otherwise have never heard of or skipped the pow wow. Most of the Indians who travel a significant distance to Little Shell bring tents or RV’s to sleep in during the weekend. My uncle, along with a few other “true” Indians, brings his teepee.

I have helped my uncle set up his teepee; taking the long wooden poles from his trailer and leaning them against one another so that the force of each steadies the others. We then drape the hide over the poles and my uncle attends to the details of tying things together. I’m usually bored by this point and playing with my nieces and nephews.

Muggy summer days give way to cold fall nights during August in North Dakota. Because of this, teepees are perfect lodgings for North Dakota’s bipolar weather. The canvas flaps on the lower part of the teepee can be tied up to allow a draft, and sometimes small animals, to drift through on a hot day. Conversely, the top can be opened so that a fire can be lit inside the teepee, warming it up more than bodies could. The best Indians know how to set a campfire in their teepees without smoking themselves out.

The Little Shell Pow Wow drums on late into the night throughout the weekend as Indians from all over North Dakota and the surrounding states gather together to dance, to observe, and to snag. Snagging, coincidentally, is another Indian rite-of-passage that I never took part in; mostly because I wasn't good at it and Indian women scare me.

Many other people from other cultures know a similar form of snagging as “hooking up.” The Indian way is similar except for the fact that it’s done while circling the pow wow grounds. The arena where the dancers dance and singers sing is a circle enclosed by covered benches and spaces for lawn chairs brought by individual Indians. The weaved, multi-colored lawn chairs complement the silver benches and, when the music begins, become filled with dark and light-colored Indians laughing, talking, and watching pow wow dancers perform. Vendors selling jewelry and food and other novelty items line the outer edge of the pow wow circle, creating an almost carnival-like atmosphere. This is the backdrop for snagging.

Indians of all ages, from the young to the probably-too-old, participate in it. The goal of snagging is to cruise the pow wow circle looking for a cute girl or guy. Once you spot one, you make your introductions, usually by trying to catch their eye. Much preening or bravado is displayed when one is in full snagging mode. Once eye contact is initiated, one must start the seducing process. First base usually doesn’t take long since that's what most people, especially teenagers and all the divorcees, are already looking to do. The evidence of these rendezvous is physical. Hickies adorn the necks of the betrothed, as though some sexual vampire took them by night but restrained from the actual kill.

On any given pow wow night, you’ll find many an Indian making out in the hidden corners of the pow wow grounds. For those who make it past first base, they take the girls (or boys) back to their tents or RV’s. The real Indians have a teepee to take their snag to. Teepees don’t shake, rock, or knock, but they’re not soundproof either. Most of the time, the drumming of the pow wow is enough noise to ensure near privacy; especially for the quick, passionate Indian-love that snagging produces.

The best snaggers finish by the time a traditional drum song ends. Then, they're back to the pow wow grounds, circling and looking for more prey; though this time the prey takes the form of an Indian taco and some soda. I forewent the whole game of snagging and put all of my efforts into two Indian tacos. That Indian taco habit, in and of itself, is very Indian and beats out blood quantum any day.

To belie my physical Indianness, I do not speak either of my own languages: Hidatsa nor Arikara. I know one Hidatsa word, “dosha,” which means “hello,” but autocorrect believes I'm trying to say “dishes” whenever I try to write it so I never do. I also feel a bit pretentious using it; like I’m a tourist in another country trying to strike up a conversation with the locals using a language dictionary. I have an app on my phone that helps people learn the Hidatsa vocabulary, but I've never opened it; a fact that I haven't shared with my family in North Dakota, and something I will continuously lie to my aunties about until they figure it out themselves.

My cousin once bought me a CD of the Hidatsa language to help me learn Hidatsa. I listened to it but couldn't understand what was happening. I wasn't sure what was going on and was always a couple of steps behind the instructor who was quickly moving on to another word before I could figure out what he said five minutes prior. My mind does not comprehend the guttural, non-European sounds of Hidatsa. It must not be very Indian either.

Despite failing to act like an Indian (a fact more pronounced since I'm writing this dressed in a button-up shirt and sweater instead of Native regalia), I at least look Indian.

My appearance is something that is hard to overlook or overcome. I don't think it is possible, no matter how much I may subconsciously try, to make myself look less Indian. I guess I could cut off my ponytail, but I could never really do that. I once had a dream where I thought it would be a good idea to shave my head, so I did. I woke up feeling physically sick. My dark complexion, dark hair, Indian nose, and supposedly high Indian cheekbones would take months of cosmetic surgery to hide. I don't want to not look Indian anyway, so these are wasted words.

The general public often reminds me of how much I look like an Indian. I once was eating dinner at a restaurant with some friends when a middle-aged white lady walked up to our table, leaned in real close to my face as I was eating, and asked, “are you an Indian?” I said “yes,” feeling a little annoyed at the lady’s imposition. She stood up and smiled largely. “I could tell. You have great cheekbones,” she said. “Thanks,” I replied awkwardly, never having noticed how high my cheekbones may actually be. She then walked off, pleased to have accosted an Indian with the high compliment of high cheekbones. I’ve fought this intrusion by getting so fat that no one can see my cheekbones.

When strangers aren't asking me to help them get something off of a tall shelf, an interaction that makes up a surprisingly large amount of my time with strangers since I am 6-feet 5-inches tall, they are asking me if I'm an Indian.

There's something magical, it seems, when adults walk up to me excited as little children to ask their burning question. I always feel like a magician or some other sort of semi-popular celebrity; you know, someone who's just popular enough for people to recognize but still not popular enough for them to know your name or purpose.

When I answer positively that yes, I am an Indian, they regale me with stories of how they are in fact an Indian too, but they're never quite sure of what kind or how much of their DNA is Indian. Most of these interactions have them claiming they are Cherokee on their grandma's side, a fact that comprises 90% of my “I'm an Indian too” conversations. Despite hearing it a lot, and knowing it's a well-known joke in Indian Country, I think it's probably true. Most of the explorers who came to America were men. Pretty much all of the women already here were Indians, and the Cherokee were, and still are, a fairly large tribe. Put two and two together and you got a supermarket conversation between two Indians who don’t know if they are good Indians.

There is a sense of solidarity that happens between myself and another person who wants to discuss their “Indianness;” a solidarity amplified for them by sharing their story with someone so obviously an Indian. I cannot hide my physical features, and many people latch onto me because of that. They ask me where I'm from and even ask me questions about how I live and about the buffalo and about teepees or ceremonies like my wife's Kindergarteners asked her. People are just generally fascinated with Indians.

I, dressed like a “normal” human (like a white guy?) with a Starbucks coffee most likely in my hand, will talk of the old times on the reservation like I myself am an authentic Indian. I’ll share stories, what little I have, of my life on the reservation. Yes, I have some experience with Indian life, but I grew up in the city; an urban Indian lost in a hodgepodge of culture trying to figure out where I fit. But I don't want to disappoint my fans.

Contrast these meetings with the occasions where I meet another Indian who has grown up as an Indian rather than primarily growing up as some other ethnicity. There’s no talk about “I’m part this” or “I’m part that.” Rather, when I meet other Indians with similar life experiences of growing up as an Indian, whether that be on a reservation or off, we say, “I am Hidatsa/Arikara from Fort Berthold in North Dakota” or “I am Cree from Nisichawayasihk Territory in Manitoba” without any mention of blood quantum or ceremonies attended or buffalos killed.

We talk about our shared experiences and joke about our reservations, or we joke about being urban Indians and all the intricacies that come with that life. Every once in a while, you’ll come across a real Indian, an Indian who is truly involved with their reservation or community of Indians. It is in meeting these Indians that I start to feel insecure. I often worry that these and other Indians can see right through me; like I’m some sort of fake Indian in a very Indian body. Some Indians just don’t care and love talking with other Natives. Some Indians are more vocal than others at what they see to be wrong ways of Indian expression. Some Indians are more activisty (I know, not a word but relevant) and claim that one is not an Indian unless you live in community with other Indians. They say you're not an Indian unless you also take part in the ceremonies and rituals of your tribe on a consistent basis. Still, others play their whole hand on blood quantum, on how much Indian “blood” you have flowing through your clogged veins.

I was once an EMT in Albuquerque, but I lost my license because I didn't keep up with the yearly certifications and classes necessary to remain a licensed EMT. How am I supposed to keep up with the yearly requirements it takes to maintain my Indian status by participating in the ceremonies? I visit home occasionally, but I don't live in a community of Indians unless you count my children. My two kids have colorful fake tepees and non-Indian clothing with Indian symbols or pieces of Indian culture imprinted on them that would make the more activisty Indians scream, “APPROPRIATION.” I think my children are bad influences as far as answering the question of what it means to be a real Indian goes.

Really, the only reason I go home, back to the rez, is when a family member dies which means I visit more often than I'd like and it usually involves a lot of crying. I do have the blood quantum necessary to be considered an Indian at 15/16ths; I'm almost full-blooded. But that's quickly becoming discounted in the “Who's a real Indian” politics of today in favor of involvement requirements.

There is so much that goes into understanding who is an Indian, and it’s an important question that should be asked. However, just “acting” like an Indian isn't a good barometer for measuring one’s Indianness. Some years ago, a British man made the news for quitting his top-level business job to “become a Native American.” He supposedly built his own sweat lodge on his property and would dress in Chinese-made native costume, spending his days performing, or in his words “becoming,” an American Indian.

“Becoming” an Indian seems to rise in popularity at various times throughout history and among different groups, but mostly white Euro-Americans “become” Indian. There are many Indian impostors who write esoteric Native philosophy or wisdom and sell it as true, authentic Native writings, capitalizing on their novelty. These people go by impressive Indian-sounding names like Grey Wolf or Red Fox as their only name emblazoned on their book covers. I go by “Steve.”

If I write a book about Indians, would most people take “Steve” seriously? Do I need to go by my last name alone, Dragswolf? Or the more Indian-looking Drags Wolf? Or the original, very Indian Drags Many Wolf Tails? Or should I go by my official Indian name, High Eagle, in all I do to ensure that everyone understands me to be an authentic Indian who has taken part in an Indian ceremony to get my Indian name? I'll do that as soon as I figure out how to spell it in Arikara.

Other impostors with similar hyper-Indian sounding names perform dances or ceremonies for people, offering suspect, health-endangering tactics as something authentically Indian. Really, it's not hard to know if you're dealing with a fake Indian or not. The most telling difference is the name they go by. Is it solely Grey Wolf or do they have a somewhat normal (dare I say, colonized) American name? Is the only name they use Runs-With-Horses, or do they go by Trevor Brings Plenty or Sherman Alexie or Wilma Mankiller?

Admittedly, the more activisty Indians complicate this test by using strictly Indian-sounding names and not their colonial names but are easily understood to be Indian by how quickly they become angry and offended at a perceived Native slight.

It's important to know who is and who is not an Indian because people profit off of false identities that create false portraits of Native identity. Most Indians today are urban Indians fighting to understand who they are and what it means to be an Indian in their current experience off the rez. People who “become” Indian, even if it is to obtain a certain sense of enlightenment or healing, are often extremely unhelpful to us in their zeal.

What's equally as unhelpful are the hordes of Indian activists who place extra requirements on what it means to be an Indian today.

The Indian experience is difficult enough for many Indians because we do feel invisible at times within American society. Modern culture has made it so that the Indian voice is mostly ignored: marginalized beyond existence. We are relics of history; a magical unicorn that brings fear or excitement to non-Indians for a split second before they then get distracted and move on with their day, forgetting about us until the next time they spot a magical unicorn with a ponytail and high cheekbones.

A lot of us modern Indians are bound to our location outside of the reservation and cannot go home. Some of us urban Indians don't see any good in the reservation system to begin with, so why should we go back? Why should I put my children into such an environment that I’m proud to have gotten out of? The fight today isn't in keeping the reservation pure. The fight today is in keeping the idea of the reservation from becoming a reality for non-Indians just as much as for Indians. No one should want the reservation; those war camps and perpetual graveyards. The reservation should be obliterated along with all of the colonialism that created it in favor of free-standing land owned by the Indians themselves. True tribal sovereignty.

Sometimes I don't feel like an Indian, but I felt very Indian when I went home one summer several years ago. I finally went through a naming ceremony for myself and my family, something that’s been put off for years because I never spent a significant time at home. We smudged and prayed and my uncle, an overseer (I don’t know the correct Indian term) of sweat lodges for the Arikara, prayed for our Indian names and were given them by our ancestors. He laid out the bear skin, the bear being holy and important for the Arikara side of my family, where my wife and I stood with our children in our arms. We then turned to each of the four directions as my uncle introduced us to the spirits and ancestors by our new names. How Indian is that?

Afterwards, I told my uncle I was going to Dartmouth College for grad school, hoping for affirmation from a father-figure that was slightly less absent from life as my own biological dad. He said, “Whoa, that’s a good school. Did you get into some sort of Indian program?” I said, “No, I’m going for writing.” “Oh,” he said, “good,” as he puffed on his pipe and looked out over Lake Sakakawea.

I followed my uncle’s gaze over the still waters and found my kids playing on the shore with their mother close to their side keeping a watchful eye. My nieces and nephews and cousins ran around screaming and shooting each other with their water guns and playing other non-Indian games. They were interested in living life instead of worrying about whether or not they were Indian enough. I looked at my auntie who was battling cancer while living on the rez and who could care less about participating in Native ceremonies. I saw two of my cousins who are single mothers striving to be successful in life for themselves and their children. I saw another cousin of mine who is taking care of his brother’s two daughters because alcohol stole their father’s and mother's lives.

I saw all of the Pendleton blankets and Indian jewelry. I saw the fancy cars and iPads. I saw a bear skin medicine bundle. I saw RV’s with satellite dishes. I saw Indians living their lives, struggling to maintain their Indianness in a rapidly changing world. Some were heavily involved in ceremonies. Others were involved in the tribal community. Still, others lived off the rez with their families. Seeing my family together in one place was a healing moment for me. At this moment I understood what it meant to be an Indian. At this moment I understood myself; that even though I don't act like an Indian all of the time, I am an Indian. I know who I am despite not being the Indian that others want me to be. I wish to see good happen to and for Indians. I wish to fight to be a voice for my people. I wish to be an even better Indian than those activisty Indians but not a better Indian than my uncle. That’s impossible. It is in these moments that I realize, where I am reminded, that yes, I am an Indian.