Truth In The Gray – Wisdom From My Navajo Aunt.
The truth… this one word I have held onto for so many years. Chasing it like it was an object I could actually obtain. Believing I would find something extraordinary, anything at all, once I got to it. The truth is – truth sometimes contradicts itself. Two things on opposite sides, yet both true. I did not expect that it would be in this gray area I would finally find peace.
Being raised as a Native American Mormon “Lamanite” is a contradiction in terms, but why it is a contradiction is only understood by those who have lived it. It is being both special and cursed. It is pride in heritage and pain in it being evil. It is beautiful, and it is very ugly. I had many good times that left me with beautiful memories. I also experienced things that left me with deep and lasting scars.
As I was growing up I was discouraged from learning about my Tsimshian culture. Native traditions, dance, and history was virtually non-existent. I was once told growing up, “Sarah, I raised you white. You know nothing of being Indian, you are white!” This was in response to me asking about my culture. Instead I was taught about Lamanties and how their skin was darkened as a sign of a curse. I learned about the curse itself and how they were evil, and how they could regain favor from God. I was told Lamanites were part of my heritage. Somehow that was separate from from my Native American culture. In reality this was the case for many in the church. For example, children who were in the “Lamanite Placement Program”, a program which removed Native American children from their homes during the school years and placed them in white Mormon homes viewed culture much this way. When the youth would go home for the summer they were told that if they participated in the cultural traditions of their people they would risk being kicked out of the program. It was acceptable in the church to be labeled “Lamanite”, but not acceptable to claim the traditions of your actual Native American tribe.
My mom, who converted in 1961 at the age of 19, was eventually taught that her skin would lighten as she embraced the gospel. As much as what she said to me about knowing nothing of being Indian has hurt me over the years, I know in her way she was trying to protect me. Her experience as a Native American in the 1960’s is something I will never experience. Racism was everywhere, not just within Mormonism. She found something she loved within Mormon doctrine, a story about Christ visiting Native Americans. I remember she said, “It was like nothing I had ever heard”, and the she shared a beautiful story of her conversion. Should I be angry at my mom for where she found beauty? Should I be mad at her for surviving her life how she chose? Should I be angry at her for wanting to protect me from being too Native, when she grew up in a time I will never understand? The reality is I am not mad at her for doing her best, even if it wasn’t enough. I tell my kids all the time, “Mommy isn’t perfect, but my love for you is.” Perhaps giving my mom that same gift of acceptance and love that I hope to receive from my children someday would be the most beautiful thing I could do. Because fact is – I will mess up too.
Here is another Mormon mom story (no relation to my family)- The family was also considered “Lamanite”, and the mom would not let her children play outside for fear of their skin darkening too much. So when the children would sneak out to the yard to enjoy the grass, sun, and trees, she would yell for them to get inside. Having children changed me, I am not sure I would have understood this mom if I didn’t have my own. I ache for those children and their loss of a big part of their childhood. I also understand the shame they may feel towards their own skin from a very young age. I ache for their mom, that she believed she was protecting them from cruel comments and being devalued. Whatever pain or experiences she carried, she tried to protect them from it. I have no doubt she experienced things I will never understand – in a time I didn’t live in.
I recently had a few things happen that made me feel insecure with being so public about my journey. My brave facade fell, replaced with some sadness and loneliness. I was unsure who I could trust. I tend to give away my trust too easily, believing the best of everyone. While I still am a bit this way, I also know now how much it hurts when I find I have misjudged. I reached out to a friend, who honestly would have been happier if I hadn’t bothered them lol. But they still took the time and said it like it was. Gave me facts without drama. Thanks friend, you know who you are. 😉 I realized that I needed support and to reconnect more with family. I immediately thought of one of my Aunts in Alaska.
I have this beautiful Aunt that I loved growing up. When ever we went to Metlakatla to visit family I would ask to go to my Aunt’s house. She had been raised on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She later married my mom’s brother and settled in Alaska with the family. Growing up I actually thought my Aunt was my mom’s sister and had to be corrected a number of times. I remember I would go to her house and plop in her living room. She would put on Disney movies for me and I drove her nuts watching The Parent Trap on repeat. If I was really lucky she would make her amazing fry bread. She never sent me home empty handed and gave me clothes and trinkets from her house as gifts. What she doesn’t know, even to this day, is why I loved being around her. It wasn’t the tv, food, or gifts. It was her. She had this way of saying my name as she hugged me. Part loving, part mischief. She would talk to me and ask me questions about my day. And her laugh, I loved her laugh. She always had something going on in that mind of hers that made me laugh with her – even when I didn’t understand. Half the time I was probably just laughing because her own was infectious.
So this is who I called when I realized I needed to continue healing and reconnecting. I have been working slowly on trying to rebuild relationships, but I am shy which gets in the way. Luckily I had an excuse to call, I had been wanting to ask her opinions of the Lamanite Placement Program on her reservation. She was both surprised and pleased to talk to me. We spoke a little about the placement program, but moved quickly on to other things. Instead we reminisced and laughed about times I had visited as a child. How I would play with my cousins in the trees behind the house making a secret fort. We spoke of another one of her children dancing all the time and how cute it was. We also talked about how I thought she was my mom’s sister, not sister in-law, and how she loved it and would say, “family is family.” Then I opened up to her. I told her how I still struggled with feeling like I can’t fully claim my Native heritage, how being “raised white” and “you know nothing of being Indian” would repeat in my head. I told her of my separation from my heritage through religious beliefs, things she actually knew some about but not much. She told me she was proud of me and I cried. She told me I am of the people, that it isn’t something to claim but it simply is, and I cried some more. She spoke of what it means to be family, yep… I cried. Then she spoke of love and acceptance of all my Mormon family. She said that family is family no matter what, and nothing changes that. She said that differences were ok. Her wise words were incredibly healing. She gave me guidance and unconditional acceptance. Of course then she went back to her mischievous self, laughing and joking with me which made my day. I felt some of my old strength return.
Finding my way back to my true heritage has not been easy. They are beautiful and full of love, simply waiting for me. The problem has just been me finding my way back. It takes time to heal. I am rarely at a loss for words, but I want to try to express where these past days have left me… We all have a path, and have the right to choose which way we go in life. No matter what country we are from, what religion we choose, what color our skin is, or any other word we identify with, respect of the freedom to choose our own paths should be honored.
My acceptance of individual choice does not change how I feel about other issues. It does not make it ok to teach Indigenous people that the Book of Mormon is their history and that it is factual. It does not make it ok to teach people that their skin was darkened due to a curse. It does not make it ok to teach people they have an evil heritage. It is my hope though, especially with such damaging issues, that we can at least talk about it. Not from a place of finger pointing, but from a place of change, even if that change is only a little at a time. It is my hope that this site be a place for those who need validation from Lamanite issues. It is my hope many more will simply want to learn the history and gain knowledge of all the nuances. I also hope it is possible to stand up for what I believe in while others stand on the opposite side, and find a place in the middle to meet. I hope to find some truth in the gray.