How frequently have you heard or said “I’m part Indian”? In case you have, then some Native American priests have something to teach you. A very touching example was advised by a doctor from Oregon who found as an adult that he had been Indian. That is his story. Listen well:
Some twenty or more years back while serving the Mono and Chukchanse and Chownumnee communities in the Sierra Nevada, I had been requested to create a housecall to a Mono elder. She was 81 years old and had developed pneumonia after falling on frozen snow when bucking up some firewood.
I was surprised that she had asked for me since she had always avoided anything to do with the services offered through the regional agencies. However it seemed that she had determined I might be fine because I’d helped her grandson through some difficult times before and was analyzing Mono language together with the 2nd graders in North Fork School.
She greeted me from inside her home using a Mana’ hu, directing me into her bedroom with the sound of her voice. She was not willing to go to the hospital like her family had pleaded, but was determined to stay in her own place and wanted me to help her using herbs that she knew and trusted but was too weak to do alone. I had learned to use about a dozen native medicinal plants by that time, but was inexperienced in using herbs in a life or death situation. She eased my fears with her kind eyes and gentle voice.
One evening several years later, she asked me if I knew my elders. I told her that my Appalachian grandfather was raised by his Cherokee mother but nobody had ever talked much about that and I didn’t want anyone to think that I was pretending to be an Indian. I was uncomfortable saying I was part Indian and never brought it up in normal conversation.
“What! You’re part Indian?” she said. “I wonder, would you point to the part of yourself that’s Indian. Show me what part you mean.”
I felt quite foolish and troubled by what she said, so I stammered out something to the effect that I didn’t understand what she meant. Thankfully the conversation stopped at that point. I finished bringing in several days worth of firewood for her, finished the yerba santa tea she had made for me and went home still thinking about her words.
Some weeks later we met in the grocery store in town and she looked down at one of my feet and said, “I wonder whether that foot is an Indian foot. Or maybe it’s your ear. Have you figured it out yet?”
I laughed out loud, blushing and stammering like a little kid. When I got outside after shopping, she was standing beside my pick-up, smiling and laughing. “You know” she said, “you either are or you aren’t. No such thing as part Indian. It is the way your heart lives on earth, how you carry yourself. I knew before I asked you. Nobody told me. Now don’t let me hear you say you’re part Indian”
She died this past year, but I would like her to know that I’ve heeded her voice. And I’ve come to think what she did for me personally was a teaching that the previous ones tell people like me, because others have told me that a Native American elder also said almost the same thing. I know her wisdom helped me to learn who I was that afternoon and her words have echoed in my memory ever since. And because of her, I am no longer part Indian.
I am Indian.