Sometimes my heritage is confusing to me.
My mother’s father was Norwegian. His wife (my grandmother) was German.
My other grandmother was Irish – down to her peachy skin and Celtic name.
To hear her tell it, her husband (my grandfather) was of Scottish/Irish origin too.
To hear him tell it, his grandmother was a full-blooded Native American from the Cherokee nation – and, despite his gray-blue eyes, he loved flaunting their almond shape, along with his high cheekbones and the well-tanned skin beneath his handsomely tall frame.
Of the four grandparents, I spent the majority of my time with him.
He was retired, so we’d go on summer walks through town together, as I held his large hand and looked a mile upward to speak with him.
We’d work in the garden and yard together, with him entrusting me to operate his first riding mower as I entered into my double digits.
He’d accompany my dad to many of my ballgames, where I was sometimes a teeny bit jealous when my older cousins’ friends would run up and hug him and call him Granddad. (Okay, so I still had to learn to share.)
I felt I had a right to be possessive of him. After all, I was the one who trimmed his ear hairs. (Though my eyes were assuredly better than those of my grandmother – who’d transitioned to a large print bible – some days, I believe he asked me to do this deed simply because he thought it was safer for a kid to be wielding a sharp instrument over him in lieu of testing his wife’s Irish temperament.)
But I digress…
My father and uncle were both intrigued by their Native American heritage and, for years, searched out related artifacts.
My dad turned me into a junior archaeological librarian, as I’d assist him in organizing and tagging his finds by appropriate periods. I can recall also getting to go on “archaeological digs,” walking sandbars during the cold winter months, most often needing to be carried by my father, as my small frame would sink into the soft mud as if I were being swallowed up by quicksand. Many years later, my father and uncle were killed in a boating accident in January, out in those same waters where the three of us explored our heritage together. As much as it hurt to lose them, I couldn’t have imagined a more appropriate place for them to have been together when their spirits crossed over into eternity.
One of the gifts my father left me was a Ben Hampton print of Nancy Ward.
Awhile back, as my youngest son was lying on our couch, his head hanging upside down, he peered up at the print and inquired, “Mama, is that you?”
I was amused when I asked him if he thought it looked like me. He sat up and somberly nodded, still waiting for my answer. He was a little disappointed to hear that it wasn’t, but then he became intrigued with Nancy Ward’s story and decided to embrace that part of his heritage too. He now has a print of Five Killer in his hangout space (in which I can more easily see myself, having a “don’t tick me off” scar in the exact same spot; mine, admittedly, came from my neighbor’s cat, Herbie George, who decided to engage in a surprise attack when I thought we were in the midst of a peace treaty. I wish I was wearing his claw around my neck as a symbol, where I could then refer to him as “Cat with Nine Claws” to make him sound more intimidating. I mean, Five Killer started off as LittleFellow. Sometimes, you do what you have to do…)
I didn’t think anymore about my son’s remark of my resemblance to Nancy Ward until a few weeks ago at work. There, I have a framed poster in my office from an Eastern & Western Cherokee Council Reunion, which my dad attended (with my uncle and Ben Hampton, as I recall) & which has a montage of Mr. Hampton’s Cherokee Heritage prints. Our new secretary walked into my office, took one look at the poster and asked, “Is that you in that picture?” Nancy Ward? Are you serious? Don’t I wish? I did have a proud moment of sharing the who’s & why’s of that poster, though. And, admittedly, I do enjoy having some obvious features from that particular part of my heritage, just as I do from the many other parts of my heritage.
What I don’t enjoy are the negative connotations that people place on that heritage, just as I don’t enjoy other negative connotations that sometimes surround me. Just as my heritage may create some confusion for me, so do people who make unjust slurs against others in the name of being offended, with no regard for what offense the accuser has created. The term “Indian giver” is one such example, being bestowed upon Native Americans because of a misunderstanding in communication and trade customs; yet not bestowed upon those who came in with no regard for such customs and forced natives from their own territories under purposefully perilous conditions, providing them little means for success in prosperity or survival. (Here’s where you might need to reference the Trail of Tears.)
That savage sort of thing still happens in modern social circles – at least in the spiritual, if not the physical realm.
Invaders show up in our own private sanctuaries of peacefulness, determined to drive us out (or basically, just drive us crazy). The offenses of which we get accused only exist as excuses to control our soul’s treasure. Any gifts of grace and peace offerings we produce get scoffed at, with newly fabricated accusations made. Invaders work overtime to convince others that we want them to bestow something of greater value to us in return (basically, because scoffers over-value whatever power they believe they wield). Once our weaknesses have been explored and exposed, these conquerors – convinced they have used up anything in us that was of importance to them – push us aside, out to the margins, treating us as if we never had any heritage here at all. Soon, we feel as though our peace has become some antiquated artifact that must be dug up in pieces and put back together if it is to be discovered again.
- We see it happen in homes.
- We experience it in the workplace.
- It crops up in churches as easily as in middle schools.
- When focused on themselves, people seem to have a tendency to want to de-value and drive others out for their own selfish purposes – to steal another’s heritage of belonging.
Whenever that happens to me, I take time to remind myself of my most important heritage – the one in which I am a daughter of a heavenly King. In Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). In Christ, there is no east or west (United Methodist Hymnal, No. 548); thus we are not sent on a journey of separation from others. In fact, our God reconciles, telling us He “will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). I’m also pretty sure there are no gossipy trouble-makers in that land of peace because we’re told that, “only in the place of hypocrites will there be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51). (I can’t think of any better example of how teeth gnashing must look than to watch a gossiper in action, chewing up a gut-full of someone else’s troubles.)
No one said we had to wait for the new creation, though, to experience life’s best heritage. When Jesus walked among us in the flesh, He said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). We are expected to live in peace and harmony with this land and the beings with which we have been entrusted in the here and now. Native Americans have long understood the spirituality and sacredness of all of creation. The gifts that they gave, such as roots that seemed worthless to the white man, held great meaning and often the power of healing or sustenance. Likewise, the gifts we give of ourselves, in which we know the value and meaning, may be received by others as meaningless, with that same sort of haughtiness and open disdain.
This shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the gifts of your heritage, though – the ones that are given to you because you ARE expected to graciously share them with others. I want to encourage you not to be driven out – but to go. Go be an Indian Giver. Offer goodness when others don’t have the capacity to understand the value. Offer peace in the midst of strife. As for the scoffers…II Peter 3:3 tells us to expect them. But then we’re told: “But in keeping with His promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3:13). In my mind, that new creation will look much like Native American spirituality, full of nurturing relationships between all people, land, and all living things. We are called to be part of that new creation in the here and now.
LORD, of all the characteristics that others may see,
let them most clearly heed the heritage of You in me.