Norman native examines trials of accepting his past

Editor's Note:

Seth Prince, 26, a native of Norman, attended the University of Oklahoma, and is now a copy editor at The Oregonian, Portland. He helped copy edit the newspaper's 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning stories about problems within the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Part Choctaw and Cherokee, Prince writes about coming to terms with, and embracing, his Indian identity.

I am Indian, my family had always told me. For years, however, I let society tell me otherwise.

I lost my Indianness in the chasm separating those two views. And it has taken me much of the past decade to circle back, retracing both my and my ancestors' steps, to rediscover and begin to appreciate its importance.

I am Choctaw and Cherokee, but you would not know it if you saw me; I could easily pass as white. For a good chunk of my adolescence, as I struggled to figure out who I was, that racial ambiguity swallowed me up. I wasn't Indian or white, I thought. I didn't know what I was.

And to some extent, I didn't think it mattered. But it does. Life is full of choices. People make big and little ones every day. The choice of what element of heritage to identify with, and why to do so, is one of the toughest decisions any of us can confront.

Its ripples -- in being laughed at or laughing along with, in a cold shoulder or a warm embrace, in being told to play an Indian as a child or living as one as an adult -- are never ending.

Losing it

Like the erosion of ways of life that tribes have endured for centuries, my Choctaw and Cherokee heritage receded from my mind as I became more immersed in the white world in which I was raised.

As the child of a middle-class family in the suburbs of Oklahoma City, the only reservations I knew were any teenager's self-doubts. My hometown of Norman is thoroughly white. My well-to-do neighborhood was even more so.

Not until high school, when my classmates and I were united with kids from the east side of town, do I remember sharing the halls with more than a dozen minority students.

In my young eyes, Indians were nowhere to be seen. When I did hear of them outside my home, it was usually from friends, most commonly in the same breath as "bingo hall."

Beyond relatives, I knew of no living Indian role model I could look up to. This in a state whose license plates proclaim Oklahoma is "Native America." My father tried to keep that element of our blood warm.

But as I became a teen, wanting to get back to my friends, my room or my music, I often found myself just wanting the food, not the greater sustenance those moments offered.

Around age 13, a group of us briefly took nicknames from characters in the 1988 Western "Young Guns."

We had Emilio Estevez's "Billy the Kid" and Kiefer Sutherland's "Doc." One of us even got Dermot Mulroney's "Dirty Steve." What name did I get stuck with? "Chavez y Chavez," the knife-wielding, peyote-taking Navajo played by Lou Diamond Phillips.

My view of Indians had become so skewed that I remember thinking I would rather have been Dirty Steve -- who always lived up to his name -- than Chavez, the outsider.

A few years later came my first confrontation about being Indian. By virtue of my heritage, I was allowed a lower acceptable score on my college entrance exams.

That, my white friends were quick to inform me, was a crock. Their words stung, and much worse than the barbs we traded about one another's athletic abilities or love lives.

After being born an Indian, then having what little I understood of its meaning crumble, it came to this: Can I be Indian? The stories of my Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry came to me as if from birth. But those family stories were buried in my mind just as most of the people in them were buried in reality.

Now, when it was up to me to pay for college, being Indian helped me stand apart. A big part of me felt as if claiming my heritage would not be appropriate. Many still might make that contention. It was a Catch-22.

On one side, some thought I wasn't white enough. On the other, I feared others would think I wasn't red enough. I had come to a crossroads. I could check "white" and go on with life as I had known it.

Or I could check "Native American," and accept the responsibility to embrace and better understand my Indian blood.

I checked "Native American." I took the test and got accepted at the University of Oklahoma with scholarships. OU's school colors: crimson and cream or, to the casual observer, red and white.

A higher education

In college, I worked toward a bachelor's in journalism and a higher degree of understanding of my heritage. It's an ongoing course, but I have learned that in the native view, circles represent life's interconnectedness -- birth and death, knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness -- in a cycle that creates nature's balance.

I was born an Indian, and I will die one. But in between, I need to figure out what that means to me. As freshmen, a friend and I attended the year's first meeting of an American Indian student group.

It was a big step for me. It was a miserable failure. As we walked in it seemed as though the small talk stopped and 50 pairs of eyes turned to the two white-looking guys.

They were the Indian youths I'd always imagined -- from rural Oklahoma, elsewhere across the Midwest, a smattering of rez kids. We were preppy city boys. No one spoke to us.

My friend and I sat through the meeting, hearing of programs we knew nothing about and a blessing we could not understand, feeling increasingly out of place as the minutes ticked by.

We left as soon as it was over. We never went back. It was my worst fear come true. I felt unwelcome, as if my authenticity were being challenged. With that sick feeling in my gut, I let myself get lost in the blur of freshman year. I studied, partied, met new people and tried new things.

I did not, however, think much about my Indianness. A year or so later, though, the question still gnawed at me. In an effort to try again, I became a mentor to American Indian freshmen.

It was as good for me as it was for them. In hearing about their life experiences, I learned mine weren't so different. I grew more comfortable with my Indianness, and I got to know a small circle of Indian leaders on campus who accepted me as I was, lighter skin and all.

Meanwhile, my work on the campus newspaper led to an internship designed to jump-start the careers of minority journalists. The organization sponsoring the internship flew the 100-plus students to Washington, D.C., for a four-day orientation.

That weekend, with aspiring journalists of all colors, I again felt slightly out of place. I got the look whose meaning I had come to understand -- What's the white guy doing here? -- and the question, dripping with doubt, I had come to dread -- So, how much Indian are you?

I knew the answer; I am about one-quarter between my Choctaw and Cherokee blood. But I didn't know what it meant.

Figuring out my ancestors' stories would help me figure out my own.

Deep red blood

People die, but their stories, like vines climbing a wall, live on, growing more complicated the farther they are from the root.

Family lore has long said that my Choctaw blood runs to Mississippi. Today, however, after interviewing relatives and finding one who has traced the family line to the 1600s, I'm not so sure. What I know is that I am Choctaw.

There are two stories; both support my heritage. The differences would change my degree of Indian blood, or blood quantum. I was raised to understand that William Walker, my great-great-grandfather on my father's side, was a full-blood Choctaw who came on the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to the land that became Oklahoma.

But William may not have been Choctaw at all. Some in my family contend that he had little Indian blood and that after his death in 1895 his wife, Linda Washington Walker, had him listed as a full blood on the tribal rolls.

No one disputes that Linda was a full-blood Choctaw. So, depending on which story my family believes, William Walker's children are full- or half-blood Choctaws.

The strength of one of those children, Eliza Walker, my great-grandmother, is the bedrock of what I've always known to be my Choctaw ancestry.

Eliza, an original Choctaw enrollee who stopped speaking her native language as a child to avoid discrimination, married Jasper Prince Jr., an Irishman, in 1903 after meeting him at a church social. His family disowned him because of the interracial union. Undaunted, Jasper and Eliza pressed on.

They farmed the allotment that was one of the few benefits her roll number offered. They had seven children, and Jasper, planning for his growing family, borrowed against the land.

Then he died in 1918 at age 37, leaving his wife with a row of mouths to feed and a stack of bills to pay. A widow at 31 with children ranging in age from 6 months to 13 years, Eliza lost the land as she struggled to hold her family together. She persevered, though, serving as her brood's unbreakable bond through the highs and lows of the 60 years that followed.

She died in 1981 at age 94, a slight but commanding woman who always was the anchor of stability in the family. Death is like the toppling of a domino, each one setting off a chain reaction whose consequences may be felt only years later.

While one death -- that of William Walker -- in my father's family complicates my Choctaw ties, one in my mother's family prevented any official ties from existing to another tribe, the Cherokee. Mary Jane Lowery, my great-great-great-great-grandmother on my mother's side and a full-blood Cherokee, was 39 when a tree fell on her in 1879 in Scott County, Ark.

Her tribe had not yet been issued roll numbers, which are key to tribal recognition today.

So like a book slamming shut, the toppling of that trunk also killed any chance of documenting her descendants' ties to the tribe. I am Cherokee, but I cannot prove it.

Coming full circle

When I think back on the stories of my relatives, I can start to draw connections to my life.

Through us all run two threads: a quiet pride in and defense of our heritage. Perhaps it took me longer to grasp this lifeline than it did others, but I now have both hands firmly on the rope.

After college, I dived into a job search and then the first job itself, and shelved my family and tribal study for more than a year.

Two things pushed me to return to the topic in the past few years: First, I found myself dealing with more stories about Indians, and becoming a person co-workers turn to with "Indian questions."

Second, I got married, which leads me to think of the future more seriously for me, my wife and the children we'll someday have. I want to be able to share, as my father did, the stories and meaning and importance of being Indian.

Through it all, in reclaiming my heritage I've tried to carry on what I see as my growing responsibility to it.

One of my roles as a journalist is to push my colleagues toward more representative coverage of American Indians. That goal, like me, is a work in progress.

But it's a heavy responsibility, whether I'm thinking of relatives or of Indian journalists who came before me. I went home recently to speak at a conference in Oklahoma on the role of Indians working in the news media and how Indian people are covered.

I stood alongside many of those American Indian journalists I have long looked up to. For years questions about my Indianness led me to doubt my credibility in such circles.

But in this journey to better understand my heritage and myself, I've learned I have a role to play and a voice to add to the discussions. I have come to believe that faces such as mine, which I once questioned whether could be called Indian at all, are the faces of tomorrow's Native America.

The government's old blood quantum principle, designed to gradually assimilate Indians into white society as their degrees of tribal blood were diluted by centuries of interracial marriage, is working.

But Indians cannot let it change how we define ourselves. If we do, tribes will melt into society at large just as the U.S. government intended at the peak of its anti-Indian fervor generations ago.

As I was recently told in the course of sorting out my story, it is what is in my heart, not what pumps through it, that makes me Indian.

Today I see my Choctaw and Cherokee blood in the pictures that fill my parents' home and in the stories I hear of the people within them. I see the dark complexions, high cheekbones and distinct noses.

I feel the quiet drive, deep passion and strong spirit. We're all different, but we're also similar in many ways. We share that bond of family, and a big part of that is our Indian heritage.

"From the earliest moments of my single-digit years, there were certain things I knew," my cousin Elizabeth Prince, who was raised in the 1940s and '50s, recently told me.

"I knew my name. I knew who my parents were. I knew I was a girl. I knew I was an Indian.

"If someone had asked me to define 'Indian,' I most likely would have said, 'I am an Indian. My father is an Indian.' Indian was just one of the things I knew that I was. To me, it was a good thing to be."

Today, I'm coming to fully appreciate the heritage my father entrusted to me. Tomorrow, I hope to pass it to my children and keep the circle unbroken.

From The Oregonian, published May 23, 2004.

(c)2004, Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.