From the womb of a white mother, came forth an olive skinned infant born into two worlds.
Lena in Ojibwe Native American ribbon dress, Summer 1989
From the womb of a white mother, came forth an olive skinned infant born into two worlds. From the very beginning, I came to understand the two lives I was expected to lead. A myriad of events molds a person into a self. I would describe myself as a strong Native American woman. When I thought about how I became an individual, I concluded that it was a collaboration of three people. My Father is responsible for not only supplying my Native American genes, but also for teaching me the importance and beauty of my culture. Becoming a true woman would not have been possible without the guidance of my Mother. My strength originates from how I have dealt with struggles in my life, which encompasses both external and internal conflicts. Individually, we form an identity, but our identities are made from the stuff of others, a mixture of selves if you will. The search for identity is continuous in that once you discover and master something new within yourself, you naturally want to further this improvement by looking for the next innovation of self.
Although I am of mixed ancestral background, I have never felt white.
Lena's Ojibwe ancestors, circa 1940, Bad River Reservation
Throughout my childhood, both of my parents and nearly everyone around me identified me as a Native American. Although I am of mixed ancestral background, I have never felt white. I have always considered myself Native American and although I recognize my German blood, it ends there. I have been known to jokingly call myself a Nazi Indian. However un-politically correct that term may be, it only sheds humor on the internal crossfire felt by many biracial individuals. Naturally the internal tension between the German and the Native American inside me grew as it was continually challenged, but the civil war in my blood ceased at an early age. I attribute this victory to the paternal influence of a man with a strong identity and a great deal of cultural pride. My Father religiously taught me a dual respect for both nature and human nature. Honor your elders, give back what you take, respect yourself, and get a good education—his preaching never ceased, nor did I want it to. Love, pride, and respect although seemingly easy to attain are lifelong lessons and are the keystones of my culture. Although my Father is responsible for my traditional beliefs and for my connection to nature, my Mother played a pivotal role in shaping me in other important aspects of my life.
The unfair nature of life forced my Mother to make a choice. She could become a victim or a strong woman.
The unfair nature of life forced my Mother to make a choice. She could become a victim or a strong woman. Choosing the latter, she is now able to show me that being a woman is reliant on experience, determination, and self-sufficiency. My gender is the second most defining feature of my identity. My Mom fostered my independence and gave me a freedom that my Father would not accept. Consequently, this kept him from reading too many chapters of my book. I feel as though she has the thankless job of playing seconds to my Father, whom I love and respect so deeply that I would not dare challenge him. My Mom has endured my sharp tongue, manipulative mannerisms, and my constant defiance. She is responsible for the introduction of important ideas and beliefs, which I have now adopted as personal doctrine.
My Mother and I lived in a predominantly white community (less than .5% is of different ethnicity), which was located between two cities both of which had neighboring reservations. As a result of my geographic location, the lack of diversity and multi-cultural acceptance affected me at a young age. I endured some racism throughout elementary and middle school but was quick to silence insensitive tongues by befriending the administration. I found it extremely disheartening to feel the need to be defensive about my ethnicity instead of sharing it with others. I was forced to scare some students into respect, but would rather have earned it. Sometimes I feel as though our culture is not taken seriously mainly by misrepresentation and that being not just a Native American, but one that is female intensifies this disrespect and expectations for success are minimal if not nonexistent.
Today I am stronger than most people I know.
Today I am stronger than most people I know. My strength lies in my cultural identity, personal character, and my self-worth. I live my life almost totally free of guilt, shame, and regret. I have been witness to how these emotions tirelessly haunt a spirit or consume it entirely. The exception to my pseudo-perfect self-awareness lies in my sense of responsibility to preserve my cultural identity. The small amount of guilt I experience is due to the fear that I am disconnected to my roots. As absurd as it may sound, I have often thought of marrying only a man of Native blood to perpetuate my lineage. I know some Natives who would not consider any other option, but I refuse to impose that limitation on my heart. The guilt I feel originates from the avoidance of my reservation and those who live there. It is emotionally draining for me to visit because many of my childhood memories remain there and since it is such a small reservation, nearly every face I encounter brings back memories. Besides, I never really made friends with many Native children because my Dad usually discouraged it calling them “hoodlums and Hell-raisers.” He believed I was better than those children, better than him and that I could have something more than what the reservation had to offer. I had one Native friend whom I consider to be my soul mate. After her death, I rarely came to the reservation and never really made friends there again. Although I almost feel ashamed to admit it, there is too much stigma attached to reservations and I detest being stereotyped.
. . .there the true beauty of this world manifests itself among the bouncing feathers and grass outfits worn proudly by the dancers.
Yet, it is on the reservation that I feel all is right with my spirit. I can wander through the burial grounds and not feel the uneasiness of most cemeteries, but instead feel as though I am being protected and watched with thoughtful eyes. As I approach the pow wow grounds, I realize a full year has passed since I last experienced the intoxicating smell of sweetgrass, buckskin and campfires. The circular arena comes into view and there the true beauty of this world manifests itself among the bouncing feathers and grass outfits worn proudly by the dancers.
Experiences on the reservation remind me of my spiritual connection with and love for nature. My Father was raised Catholic, but certainly not by choice. His family continued to practice traditional ceremonies and believed in the Great Spirit, but went to Mass also. However, the nuns at the Catholic school my Father was forced to attend broke his knuckles so many times with their rulers that they probably beat out what little faith they may have instilled in him. I have experienced bi-religious conflicts like my Dad, but all were internal. At the request of my Mother I was baptized Lutheran and although I was never fully expected to adopt the religion as my own, I always felt it would have pleased her. My Dad never tried to impose any type of religion on me and for that I am grateful.
When I travel to the spirit world, I want to be welcomed and recognized.
Now, my struggle lies in regaining my spiritual identity and within that, my self-discipline. I forget to make offerings and to say thanks. I do not think with the same mindset as I once did and neglect to treat nature as a part of me. I have left the reservation and my home on Lake Superior. The farther I find myself from nature, the easier it is to forget that little girl who knew every part of the woods near her home. I was a gifted hunter, read the sky, and could make a meal in the woods. I knew the branches that broke in storms and where the animals went to die. I had an excellent sense of direction and was open to the energy around me. Now I find myself focusing on my own energy and sometimes wondering where it all goes? I think that being Native American has allowed my soul to experience intense spirituality that I may not have, had I been born into any other race. I think it is a blessing and a large part of who I was, who I am and who I want to be. I am in spiritual limbo and some days I think the answer lies amongst the pine trees of northern Wisconsin and with the lake, but other days I find myself praying to a Christian God with a palm tree outside my window. Having been separated from the pristine wilderness I had become accustomed to, I believe I have upset my natural state of balance, in a sense the pristine-ness of my soul. This assures me that being Native surpasses the simple blood requirement and is more of a state of mind or a consciousness than genealogy. I plan on having a naming ceremony with my half sister this summer. When I travel to the spirit world, I want to be welcomed and recognized. I feel as though it is the missing piece of my cultural identity and once it is in place, I can fully begin to feel part of the Native American community again.
Some have described me as an "old soul", and I guess, to some extent, that is true. I feel as though I have endured more in my nineteen years than most people will throughout their entire lives.
Both of my parents encouraged me to be independent and many times I did not have a choice due to a lack of attention or other circumstances that forced me to take care of myself. I think being Native American is my most definitive feature and I think it has brought me more strength, confidence and love than any other influence or quality. I have always been surrounded by adults and as a result have been at a maturity level that has surpassed my age. For as long as I can remember, I have been looking ahead, to the next thing—whatever that may be changes as quickly as I do. Some have described me as an “old soul,” and I guess, to some extent, that is true. I feel as though I have endured more in my nineteen years than most people will throughout their entire lives. My creator chose me to suffer and to succeed. As much difficulty as my life brings me, goodness equally floods my days. My relationships are intensely emotional, complex, and deeply affect me. I have been blessed with talents and opportunities that most people will never have. But these blessings come with a price and I have paid that price repeatedly. Success is measured by how much you have to sacrifice and now I understand that more than I have ever before.
I see that life is circular and I see the spirit world and I feel it.
I live in the past, present, and future. I am constantly analyzing who I was, who I am and who I want to be. I miss the little girl who held such a close bond with nature and how her imagination dominated her state of mind. I have understood all my struggles to be tests of personal strength and character. The challenges can be frustrating and sometimes I feel as though I am provoked or punished. But through the struggles of yesterday, today, and surely tomorrow, I see that life is circular and I see the spirit world and I feel it.
"From Pine to Palm" is Lena Rufus' autobiography written during her House Seminar at Brander Hall, Stanford University, March 2000.
Did you know Lena? Please share your stories about her in the public comments below or by private message on the Contact page. Thank you so much!