The Urban Indigenous Woman: You Don’t Look Indian & Other Microaggressions

“What are you?” a new Latin@ coworker asked me. I bristled because that phrasing always bothers me and implies that I am something other than human. I tried to be calm and replied, “I am Indigenous, or what you call Indio.” Her eyes narrowed and she said, “You don’t look Indian.” She changed the subject as if her assessment of me closed the book on my identity, firmly placing me among the white people regardless of my cultures or experiences.

I had purposely given a simplistic answer, not addressing that I am multi-racial and multi-cultural. I didn’t feel that this was an appropriate conversation in the workplace, from someone who had asked other prying questions and been difficult for me to train on the simplest aspects of the job. I will admit, I was already looking at her with suspicion and discomfort, so I wasn’t going to get into an involved explanation of my ethnic make-up. There have been many other instances when someone I was more comfortable with had asked the exact same question, exactly the same way, and returned the exact same response to my answer. I get tense automatically now when it is brought up.

Microaggressions are everyday comments that marginalized people hear or experience, whether related to race/ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability or other factors. They are often based in stereotypes, both negative and seemingly positive. For Indigenous people, some of the most common microaggressions are being spoken of as a historical in-the-past people rather than living cultures and individuals, being asked if we get casino money/free college/don’t pay taxes, the assumption that we are immigrants and don’t belong here and being told we “don’t look Indian.”

I asked friends what things have they been asked, because I wondered if my own experience was the norm or if others had very different experiences. The answers ranged from “You can’t be Native American, you’re Black” and “Do you have a (tribal enrollment) card?” to “Do you get money for being Native?”. Sadly, as with my own experience, several of my friends noted that the microaggressions from other Indigenous people were nearly equal to the number of microaggressions from non-Indigenous people. Most notably, it seems the policing of who is authentic, based on skin color and tribal enrollment, is the most shared microaggression. Though skin shade and “looks” are a common authenticity test among many communities of color, there are unique ways it plays out among Indigenous people.

We are the only people who are expected to show paperwork proof to be accepted as who we say we are. Like so many other urban Indigenous people, I do not have tribal enrollment. In my case, it is because of being adopted away from my tribe, coupled with the effects of systemic racism against Indigenous people that led most of my birth father’s family to deny they are Indigenous. I am light-skinned (also Black and white from my mother’s side), and I blend in my local Indigenous community but am often grilled online and declared “fake.” Many of my darker Black friends who are Indigenous talk about being denied by Indigenous communities due to anti-Blackness. In Black communities they are accused of expressing shame in their Blackness, trying to “exotify” themselves as something other than Black by claiming Indigenous mixture. We feel asked to “pick a side” when we only wish to acknowledge ALL of our cultures and ethnic make-up.

The reality is that there are few full-blood Indigenous people because we have long intermarried. Urban Indigenous people are more likely to have children with someone of a different ethnic background. Although I have had relationships with two Indigenous men, I have never met a queer Indigenous woman locally, despite using online dating sites. The stereotypes about who is and isn’t qualified to identify as Indigenous contribute to that difficulty, and lead many urban Indigenous people to feel isolated from others.

Microaggressions, whether from our own community or from outsiders, wear us down. They seem like little things, but they are so common and constant that they build up into larger issues that affect our feelings of safety, worth and connection to community. They contribute to our experiences being erased from the collective Indigenous experience, and may cause us to feel erased from any Indigenous identity. The long-term toll to our emotional, mental and even physical health is very real.