How Much Indian Was I?, My Fellow Students Asked
By Elissa Washuta
I came into my own as a Native American woman in high school. My skin being on the fair side of plain Yoplait, I designated my dark-brown hair as the body part that would legitimize me, letting its split ends shoot for my waist. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2000, three Native Americans lived in Liberty Township, N.J.: my mom, my brother, and me, all enrolled members of the Cowlitz tribe.
In early 2003, I was a high-school senior. My only grade below an A was in gym class; on my report card, next to the B, the gym teacher wrote, “Works to ability.” After nearly 13 years of academic perfectionism, I finally got a glimpse of the payoff when the University of Maryland at College Park sent me a letter inviting me to interview for a scholarship.
Inside the honors building I immediately noticed all the dark skin in the waiting room. I sat on the couch between my parents, wondering whether I should have worn some dream-catcher earrings. My letter had said that this was an interview for a merit scholarship, with no mention of diversity. I worried that the interviewers were going to quiz me about my favorite Indian ceremonies. If they wanted me to speak in my native tongue, I would have to make something up on the spot. There was a lot of money on the line.
That day I wondered, what was so special about me that the adults would want to hand me what amounted to a sack filled with money? Not my poems, or my miniature clay sculptures of the members of Nirvana, or my gleaming transcripts. There were probably plenty of kids in the room who knew how to use their graphing calculators for purposes other than playing Tetris.
The interviewers greeted me with smiles. They asked about our drive from New Jersey and what I’d been reading. I talked about a book about Pine Ridge Reservation and my desire to work in Indian country. I told the nodding adults all about poverty, tradition, alcohol, and loss.
An ancient people in southwest Washington, the Cowlitz tribe maintains vibrant cultural practices and social and conservation programs despite its lack of a reservation land base. My Cowlitz mom, who had lived in the Columbia River Gorge her whole life, met my East Coast dad in college in Seattle, and afterward they moved to New Jersey.
I didn’t know how to talk about the histories embedded in my bones: the damming of our language that coincided with the damming of the Columbia River, my wordless conversations with the towering petroglyph woman by the water, my belly’s swell that my mother told me was an Indian thing while I battled it with Weight Watchers point counts. I thought that if I spoke the truth, they would think all the Indianness had evaporated from my family line, leaving me pale and dry. So I said, “I want to do something for my people,” and two weeks later, I received a thin letter thick with the promise of more money than I could imagine: four years of tuition, room, board, and books.
Not long after I hung my bell-bottom jeans and shower tote in my cinderblock closet, I told the kids on my floor of the honors dorm that in order to keep my scholarship, I’d have to obsess over every grade point. That money never went to white kids, they said, so I must be an undercover genius. I’m not all white, I said. What was my SAT score, they wanted to know. My GPA? Extracurriculars? How much Indian was I? The first thing I learned in college was that white boys don’t care if you’re legitimately Indian if they think you robbed them of $100,000 in scholarship money that they’d earned holding a tuba for countless hours on a high-school football field.
I threw myself into super-Indianness, taking both of the Native-studies courses offered by the university’s anthropology department. I participated in a summer internship program for Native students and scored a part-time job in tribal relations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA. If the university had wanted to reel in an Indian who could bring the numbers, I figured they had gotten what they paid for, as long as I became the Indian I had promised they were getting.
I didn’t take any time off before shipping myself to Seattle for graduate school in creative writing at the University of Washington. The master’s program offered me no teaching assistantship, and I told the program director I couldn’t sign on unless the price tag was slashed. She came through with a university program committed to serving underrepresented graduate students. After I sent over a photocopy of my tribal card to add to the application, the grant program awarded me a generous partial scholarship. Creative-writing programs are notorious for the feelings of resentment that brew when students feel like a bunch of blood-hungry dogs made to scrap over funds granted on the basis of artistic prowess, but my colleagues were supportive of my scholarship.
In my application essay, I said that part of Washington’s allure was its proximity to my tribe. I meant it. In the five years I have been at Washington, I have been attending Cowlitz general-council meetings and learning to participate. During my second year, I was a graduate assistant for the department of American Indian studies, and I now serve as the undergraduate adviser. I also teach classes that focus on Native literature and film representations of Natives.
I’d love to see more Native students at Washington and elsewhere. Native people deserve to be educated in spite of the extraordinary challenges many face because of uniquely broken educational systems wrapped up in the mangled trust relationship that sets Indian identity apart from other racial or ethnic distinctions. Native people hold an elemental piece of this nation’s life story, and universities will suffer without an indigenous presence.
Those interviewers back at Maryland would be happy with my academic career, I think. My work these days comes with a clear mission: to help the students I teach learn who we are and who we are not, and to help them—especially those who were least prepared because of their backgrounds—navigate the academic maze. I wish my students could stop worrying about money—who’s getting it, why, and how they’re going to get some of their own—so they can focus on learning to write killer essays and getting smarter than they ever thought possible.
I’ll never know why Maryland gave me a full scholarship. But is it so bad to think they wanted me? As my gym teacher noticed, I “work to ability.” I pull out all the stops in every class. Perhaps the interviewers sensed my yearning to go for broke and to stuff every synapse with academic pleasures.
From my family and Native communities, I have learned about the gifting tradition. In our culture, accepting a gift with grace and giving meaningful gifts are skills more important, and more difficult to cultivate, than learning to graph calculus problems. So I have stopped apologizing for the gifts I receive. I accept them. And now I have my own gifting to do.
Elissa Washuta is an academic counselor and lecturer in American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Her first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.