ONLY ONE  lil’  Indian that Thanksgiving

I always knew I was mixed race.

My white mother, who has a strong likeness to Reba McEntire, always spoke to me + my closest brother as if we were wonderful anomalies, like we were the 8th wonders of the world.  She claimed we had Cherokee + Choctaw lineage from her side of the family, along with a hodgepodge of European bloodlines, including something called “Black Irish.”  But she also told us were special because on top of having Mayan ancestry from my father’s side of the familia, we were also Registered as Pasqua Yaqui Indians. 

Every birthday she would tell me the etymology of my name — “Theresa” after her mother.  “Maria” after my paternal grandmother.   And “Montiel” was actually a French last name from when Mexico was colonized that we inherited when she married my Native American father.  Being a white blue collar Native Arizonian — being that she was born + raised + has never left  —  she lived in a Venn diagram of dueling cultures of literal of Cowboys + Indians.  Up until a few years before I was born, it was illegal in the state to intermarry or bear children from a Native American + Caucasian union.  So when I was born, she was eager to teach me to be proud of heritage +  to pronounce my name ethnically + in full.  Wanting me to know both sides of my history.  For me, it was a little song that I sung with my fists on my hips, “Thed-esa, Marrrria, Mon-thee-EL.”  I’m sure that I annoyed plenty o’ adults in my youngin’ days, wranglin’ them in for my full name, familial lineage story, + favorite Barbie’s name — all unsolicited. 

I used to think being two races was a special power.  I could speak some Spanish + was fluent in English. I had both Tias, Tios, A Nina + Nino, Aunties, + Uncles, PLUS Nanas, Grandma’s + a Tata + Grandpas — most kids only AN Aunt or a FEW cousins, I had DOZENS + DOZENS of each. So when my maternal grandfather referred to me as “Half-breed,” I took it literally.  To me, it was actually a point of pride for me + took as a term of endearment — like how my Nina (Spanish for Godmother) called me “Mija” (a Spanish contraction for “my daughter”).  I didn’t take the ethnic slur as malice, I often imitated Cher’s voice as she sang the song of the same name, of which my childhood mind only knew the chorus to. 

When I was in second grade + November rolled around, our class  started to prepare for
Thanksgiving. We started learning more about the history of the the holiday + I was all ears.  A story about Native Americans?! This was the first time in my education that my teachers even mentioned Native Americans. I was elated, being one of the most engaged 7 year olds in the class, I, again, probably recited my lineage to my teacher dozens upon dozens of times in those weeks; because I have a very vivid memory of her stopping me mid-sentence, by placing her hands on my shoulders squatting down to my eye level to
recount my story back to me

Later that week, it was announced that the Wednesday before we left for the holiday break, we would be having a special lunch with a Thanksgiving theme…including costumes!  In
class, we were tasked to color a line drawing of either a Pilgrim or an Indian to indicate which costume we desired. I, OBVIOUSLY, was the first in line for my Tribal coloring book-like line drawing cut out.  I took meticulous effort coloring each feather a different shade, picking just the right shade of tan for my skin, truly taking pride + putting myselfinto what I had made. 

My teacher hung everyone’s Pilgrims + Indians high around the room at the same height as the alphabet in a banner.  I remember not really looking long at anyone else’s but mine.  I was mesmerized by my own handiwork, proud of the projection of myself + excited about my future costume.  I left that day chin high + smile wide, walking home proud to my Nina’s house, to tell of the day’s coloring job + how I was getting my very own Tribal costume for our special Turkey-day lunch.  

Finally the special day came, + I remember being so excited I could hardly sit still that morning.  It was Christmas-day-like anticipation with the same agonizing crawl of time.  FIN-AH-LLY the lunch bell rung + we were released, but not to the lunch room per usual, but to a set of picnic tables outside out classroom where the teachers had laid out
autumnal colored table cloths + center pieces.  We were informed we would get our turkey sandwich lunches + our costumes if we got into line.  A queue quickly formed in front of me, so I bounced impatiently towards the back to wait for my turn to receive my regalia.   

Slowly the scene started to unfold, I saw a group of boys with black construction paper cockle hats.  Simple in design, but obviously hand made by our teachers with care.  They had either brown paper or orange paper bands to illustrate a strap with either gold paper or tin foil buckles.  Then I saw a group of girls ahead of me tying each other’s orange ribbon
closured origami-looking paper bonnets that were paired with paper doily collars to match.  The newly adorned Pilgrims started breaking off into crews — Pinta Party, the Nina Group…then the Santa Maria Squad.  Which, I KNOW, are historically wrong in both senses — but we were in second grade + all those fairy tales blurred together.

I couldn’t wait to see the amazing headdress or cape that awaited me. When it was my turn in line I was handed a brown paper grocery sack. My costume must be inside, I thought.  I opened it to notice there was a hole in the bottom. I cried out, “Miss Peterson! Miss Peterson! My costume fell out of this HOLE!”  She came by to investigate, she soothed me with a hand on the shoulder + said, “Oh no, honey…LOOK! Its upside down.” She righted the bag to show a jagged neck hole, that evolved into a front split, then two holes on each bag wall — there was some smaller snips cut along the bottom to imitate fringe.  It impersonated a vest, but looked more like armor.  It was stiff + ugly.   I turned it back + forth.  No multi-colored feathers like my drawing, no ribbons, lace, or foil — simply the
local grocer “Basha’s” logo on the back, upside down.

I was speechless + numb. She took  the “costume” from me + helped me into the apparatus + patted me on the head to illustrate to continue on.  As I walked away, I felt a wave of jealousy come over me as I saw all the other children running, playing + complimenting each other’s new attire, seeing how much time + care was taken with their costumes.  

That’s when noticed I was in a sea of Pilgrims. Left, right…only Pilgrims.   Looked back at the table my teachers both Pilgrims.   My class was full of WHITE Pilgrims.  My heart sunk when I realized I was the only non-white child in the group, + funny enough the only “Indian” in attendance.  Never before had I cared or even noticed their race before this
moment.  I suddenly flashed to all the times I had “bragged” about being Native American + a pang of guilt + shame hit me.

Just in that moment, my tow-headed friend Brandon came over.  I thought to console me, but before I could get any of my spinning thoughts out of my mouth, he asked “Why are you wearing a garbage bag?” Crushed, literally feeling like refuse, I slinked as much as I could
inside my paper shell + simply walked away, sitting at one of the unattended picnic tables.              

As covertly + slowly as I could, I removed the paper bag from around my body + did my best to fold + press the paper sack with all the parts of my body — hands, chest, booty + feet — into the tiniest piece I could. Then I stashed it underneath the bench seat.  No other child noticed my absence of costume.  No teacher acknowledged the crumpled heap at my feet. I stayed quiet for the rest of the lunch, then the rest of the day, simply disappearing home for the holiday, never mentioning the paper bag debacle
to anyone. 

But from that day, I always felt like my childhood super power of being mixed race was gone.  My Native Pride balloon was popped + for the first time the world was a little less magical in that way.  I stopped introducing myself with three names.  I stopped telling all who would listen about my amazing family tree.  I actually started omitting information about my Dad in conversation when I could help it + I did my best to say my name with a hard “T.” 

I wrestled with code-switching for years.  I didn’t have the term back in those days, I just knew I needed to augment my behavior when in certain places + with certain people.  But no matter how hard I tried, I was “not enough” — My Spanish wasn’t strong enough for me to truly “hang” with my fellow Chicanos + was considered “too white” to be a full member.  They often made fun of in front of me in vocabularies I could only pick out random words or adjectives for.   Among the white girls of my schools, I was considered as “other,” never
fully accepted because I had dark hair + olive skin. So I grew into being fine with not having a set crew of friends, always being a guest star. And like with most guests, I was usually tolerated in short doses, so I had to pay attention to cues for when I was wearing out my welcome. 

Sadly, this didn’t change much after grade or high school.  As an adult, it is still something I
wrestle with.  In the Southwest, strangers would ask me, “Where are you from?” I would say “Here.” (indicating I was from Arizona).   They would insist “No, no, no…where are your people from?”  I would reiterate, “Here.  I am a Native + A NATIVE,” (the term is a common operative in Phoenix as referring to either being Native Phoenician or Native American).  Which they often scoffed at saying “You don’t look like an Indian.  I would have taken you for a [fill in the blank of an assortment of other ethnicities].” Yet again, I thought this would also change once I came to the melting pot of the East Coast.  Sadly, I have been called “White” as a pejorative more times than I wish to count.

THankfully, years + years later, I found some vindication through terminology. Through the MFACA program, I have the words + vocabulary to describe what that episode was. Paired with pedagogical theory + the impact of that experience, I have more sensitivity for my
participants of any race. I make extra energy + effort to say + spell their names correctly.  I make sure to ask them how I can best honor + recognize them.  Because sometimes, despite someone’s best efforts or even their gaps in knowledge, sometimes we learn by seeing how NOT to do something — + for that I am THankful every THanksgiving.