I’ve long documented my struggle with identifying as Aboriginal and connecting to my Blackfoot heritage. It’s probably the least-explored facet of my identity, and I deeply regret not exploring it more when I had the chance in Montana, where there are many resources on the history, culture, and life of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
When I was younger, I thought it would be best for me to just disregard that part of my identity. I didn’t grow up on a reservation in Montana, I don’t have a Rez accent, I’m very ignorant of the practices and beliefs of the Blackfeet (Piegan if anyone is wondering) and I am not a “card-carrying Indian”. I also experienced great anxiety when I compared myself to my full-blood cousins, who had dark eyes, black, glossy, straight hair, and copper skin, so unlike my beige skin, grey eyes, and wavy brown hair.
I thought that distancing myself from all identities would make the pain of not fitting in and not looking like my mother and cousins go away, and became obsessed with being “just Leah” during my teen years, I was big on the slogan “People don’t need labels, like soup cans”. One could consider it my “rugged individualism” phase.
My heart still ached though, and I felt somewhat empty inside. No individual is an island (though some of us are rather long peninsulas) and everyone needs to feel like they belong somewhere. I gradually began re-identifying myself, recognizing that these associations didn’t detract from my individuality, they helped form it, the way chords of music create a song. It was a matter of pride and strength, not weakness, to identify as a Jew, an autistic, a feminist.
But I was still struggling greatly with the Native question, and whether I should try to realize what part that played in the mosaic of Leah. The answer came to me on a trip to Minnesota, of all places.
While I was in Minnesota, I visited Birchbark Books with my then-boyfriend. That particular bookstore is famous for being owned by renowned Ojibwa poet and author Louise Erdrich. My boyfriend had previously given me a book of her poetry which she autographed for me, and I was excited, but nervous, to meet such a talented and amazing woman.
When I met her, she was one of those people I immediately felt warm and comfortable with, which happens very rarely for me. She treated me like an old friend, and even remarked that she felt like she had known me “for a long time, as though you and I have met before”.
Louise was beautiful on the inside and out, and her skin and hair looked like mine, the exact same shade of chestnut and slight curl, and the same sandy beige tone to her skin. She could have been my mother or my aunt.
After that, I realized that how you look or whether or not you have a rez accent doesn’t play a part in whether or not you’re legitimately native. Neither does not growing up on a reservation mean that I can’t reconnect with that aspect of my identity. I just need to go at my own pace.
Thank you Louise.