Native American Identity, Complex and Authentic

Ben Geboe | December 1, 2021

Ben Geboe (center), Coordinator of Community Health Programs, American Indian Community House, and community members at an Indigenous Peoples Day sunrise ceremony.

Native Americans are often asked about their identity in a way other Americans are not: Are you enrolled? What does that even mean? Is it fair, is it real? Where does subjective identity and registered national identity end? Is identity changeable or adaptable? Does more than one Tribe count?

Identity and Community

Membership in a recognized Native American or Alaska Native community is important to Native identity and supported by ID cards, Tribal and Corporation rolls, Land Registries, and complex genealogies. DNA testing, an affront to many, does not represent the broad and connective community and familial ties that bind Native Americans to one another.

Take the word Tipi, for example, meaning “where we dwell”, also meaning “a tent,” which is related to “tiospaye, or family unit.” Not just a tourist expression, the word Tipi comprises identity for many Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Oyate, or “peoples,” because we originate from families that are part of a Tribal entity, not the other way around.

I will share my background here to illustrate that Indigenous identity is complex and evolving. Our primary focus, however, is not on ancestry, but community.

I am an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and I grew up on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, also in South Dakota. My dad descended from the Tiospaye Wakankdiduta or family unit Redlightning. We are of the Dakota oyate or Dakota peoples and allied with the Great Sioux Nation of Dakota-, Lakota- and Nakota-speaking Indigenous Nations. Our community is called Yankton or Ihanktowan, which means ‘those who camp at the end’ of a great gathering.

We have historical ties with the Canupawaka, or Pipestone, Dakota First Nation just south of Brandon, Manitoba. My Great Grandfather, Homer Redlightning, a minister, was often there for pow-wows.

My dad was an educator and helped start Sinte Gleska University, an accredited Tribal public university. He also served as superintendent of the local high school and several American Indian boarding schools, including Haskell Indian Nations University. Dad’s career culminated with a position in the Office of Indian Education Programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

My mom worked for many years as head nurse at the Indian Health Service Rosebud Hospital on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. She is descended from Norwegians who settled in South Dakota near Dupree on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. My mom’s family came from Tysnes and Andalsnes on the coast of Norway before settling in South Dakota on illegally taken Indigenous land. This point is divisive and remains unresolved in our larger families. Both my parents, however, were very supportive of our Indigenous heritage. We often went to weekend pow wows and attended many ceremonies. Years later, my mom told me proudly that both Russell Means (Oglala/Lakota Sioux) and Dennis Banks (Chippewa), leaders of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.), knew my dad and hid out with us for a few days during the Wounded Knee uprising in Pine Ridge.

Tatanka Banks (left), Dennis Banks (center) being honored, and Dennis’ daughter, Darla Banks

Community Activism, AICH, and Research

I went to New York City in the early 1990s to pursue fine arts, then traveled further north for a short modern dance career with a Canadian First Nation ballet production, In The Land of Spirits, created by Mohawk composer John Kim Bell. I also attended one of the first Indigenous LGBT gatherings in Beausejour, Manitoba, where Dr. Myra Laramee (Cree) created the term Two-Spirit, an Indigenous expression that denotes fluid gender concepts. Returning to New York City, I became involved in the HIV/AIDS advocacy movements at the American Indian Community House (AICH) and helped organize one of the first Indigenous HIV/AIDS conferences there.

AICH, a gathering place for Indigenous Peoples in New York City, was founded by Mohawk community members from Kahnawake and Akwesasne who lived here and did iron work on construction sites across the city. I heard many stories of how those Indigenous workers would toss red hot iron rivets many stories up and use them to forge joints between iron beams, helping build New York as we know it today. These families were later joined by Indigenous Peoples from all over the United States and Canada, and together they formed the AICH in 1969.

AICH is also where I began to realize my calling to become a social worker. I started there as a Community Health Representative (CHR) serving many American Indians and Jay’s Treaty Canadian First Nation community members, who exercise their right to live and work in the United States due to a pact signed between Britain and the U.S. in 1794.

I developed a curiosity about Indigenous healthcare professionals during my early experiences at AICH. I helped people navigate health systems in urban settings, on Native American Reservations, and in Canadian First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. I helped Indigenous people request assistance from their communities of origin, and liaison with Indigenous community health programs for various needs – to get a prescription renewed, for example, or copies made of medical documentation.

I also saw AICH participate in Indigenous social justice activities. During the Oka crisis in 1990 in Quebec, Canada, AICH provided support to Indigenous communities in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. AICH supported Indigenous protests that drew attention to the James Bay Project in northern Quebec, a major hydroelectric project that altered vital traditions and ways of life for Cree communities there.

More recently I have served on the Board of the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS (IIWGHA), coordinated by the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN) in Toronto.

Indigenous academics around the world recommend research by Indigenous researchers to minimize rampant misrepresentation of our communities by non-Native scholars. As an Indigenous scholar conducting research with Indigenous community members for my PHD dissertation, I do not believe that I will automatically be more effective in this task because of my identity. I rely on the guidance of established Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to help me hone my research abilities. However, I do believe that being Indigenous is helpful in talking with and understanding the experiences of Indigenous people.

But the impact of these academic texts is overshadowed by media narratives. Hollywood, long a source of indelible stereotype and myth about Native identity, the diversity of Indigenous people is lost to monolithic portrayals. We are not defined by colonial stereotypes. Native people may align as a group when discussing land claims, stolen generations, prohibitions on language, culture, and spirituality. Yet beneath those shared agendas and experiences lie diverse and vibrant cultures, often unknown to people outside of our communities.

Look at Dances With Wolves (1990), a beautiful descriptive narrative of my own peoples, yet still focused on two non-Indigenous people who happen to encounter us during early contact days. It is an example of what I have often heard Indigenous community members describe as “another Indian film about a white man.” The issues with media misrepresentation, reinforced with each showing, rest in the presentation of information that lacks Indigenous experience.

Thankfully, there is a growing genre of Indigenous-made films about Indigenous issues. In Canada, Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s film, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger (2019), documents systematic discrimination of Indigenous children due to issues around provincial and federal Crown payment disputes. Works like this uphold Indigenous values and highlight authentic perspectives about discrimination and privation.

There are approximately 650 Federally Recognized American Indian Tribes, some of which share cultural traditions and languages while others are distinct. The most used Indigenous language in the US is D’ine or Navajo, spoken by approximately 200,000 speakers, followed by Lakota, Dakota and Nakota or Sioux, with approximately 25,000 speakers. Many Indigenous communities are reviving languages, bringing back ceremonies, regaining land and cultural items. The reconstitution of identity is an important component of reconciliation, but sometimes the loss is greater and irretrievable. Participating in community practices can help one restore a complete sense of self that is key to health, resilience, and positive living.

I strongly recommend community members and allies draw from diverse sources of information when trying to learn more about an Indigenous experience or community. I also find that information created by Indigenous people for Indigenous people provides the most authentic information, because of the priority on authentic perspectives. There is still tremendous bias about the validity of Indigenous reported experiences, as seen recently in the supposed ‘discovery of the great grandson of Sitting Bull’ through DNA research. That case highlights what many Indigenous people already know: Our perspective on heritage, ancestry, and community is still largely unknown and seen as illegitimate. Yet we remain definitive interpreters and proponents of Native identity.

For that reason, I recommend people look first to Indigenous sources for information about our communities and lives. And if you happen to be an Indigenous person, trust your experience.

The WNET Group’s new Community Connections column, developed by  Community Engagement in partnership with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, lifts up the communities and icons behind National Heritage observances.