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"Maybe you only look white": Ethnic Authority and Indian Authenticity in Academia

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"Maybe you only look white": Ethnic Authority and Indian Authenticity in Academia

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Abstract

The American Indian Quarterly 27.1&2 (2003) 200-202 Last fall I began work as a multicultural literature specialist at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM). I was excited to be teaching Native American and African American literature at a top public liberal arts college, and I was looking forward to my first experience working with a large Native American student population. The university offers Indian students a four-year tuition waiver if they can document their Native heritage. There is no enrollment or blood quantum requirement; a student must simply demonstrate a family relationship with someone who is or was enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. The waiver is open to Native Americans and Canadian First People, and while most of our students are from the region, we have Native students from as far away as Alaska. I self-identify as Cherokee and Irish American, and even though I do not look especially Indian with my dark curly hair and light skin, I easily meet my tribe's blood quantum standards. My family has been working for years to get the documentation that will allow us to be enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Because of my appearance and my lack of enrollment status, I expect questions regarding my identity, but even so, I was surprised when a fellow graduate student advised me—in all seriousness—to straighten my hair and work on a tan before any interviews. Thinking she was joking, I asked if I should put a feather in my hair, and she replied with a straight face that a feather might be a bit much, but I should at least wear traditional Native jewelry. As a new faculty member, I quickly learned from colleagues and from my involvement in the Native student organization that more consequential identity conflicts were common on our campus and in the town in which the university was located, especially since many of our students, like me, do not "look Indian." Yet I was still shocked when a month into my teaching a small, mixed-race group of students approached me in the cafeteria with the following statement: "We just want you to know that you're going to have someone in your Native American literature class that will have a problem with you teaching it since you're white. But we told her maybe you only look white." Maybe I only look white? What a teaching moment this could have been. I know all the appropriate ways I could have responded to this group of students. I could have talked about the limitations of the "authority of experience." I could have rattled off a list of courses I had taken in race and ethnic theory, identity politics, and multicultural literature. I could have invited the students to visit my Native American literature class. I could have detailed the countless hours spent on a dissertation dealing with precisely the identity problems this moment was presenting. But I was mad, and, in that moment, I answered not as a teacher, but as a mixed-blood Indian tired of being questioned about her identity: "That's right, I only look white!" Growing up in Montana, I had both seen and experienced the racism Native Americans face in our culture, but as a professor I expected questions about my authority as a teacher of Native American literature to remain confined to academia. I have discovered, however, that it creeps into my "regular life" as well. Many people look quizzically at me when I tell them I specialize in Native American literature, and, more often than not, immediately ask if I am Indian. When I respond in the affirmative, the quizzical look is replaced with a look of understanding, as if my being Indian somehow makes acceptable my interest in Native American literature. I recently endured one such encounter in the emergency room when the doctor treating me asked what I taught. I told him Native American and African American literature. His response? "Well, you're not Injun. And you're not the other." I often wonder what prompts such responses, which...

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