The strength of genes in my family…

Reading Nudemuse’s latest entry in which she mentions the Fat Women of Color Carnival announcement over at Fatshionista made me think of something about myself. I started wondering whether I would be or not eligible to participate in that carnival.

You see, even though I am officially caucasian, I seem to have Native American blood in me that goes back at the very least to my maternal great-grandfather’s mother (back in those days in Quebec, Native girls who’d be raised by the religious communities or grown ones who’d marry a white man would get their culture and identity erased into a totally clean slate. Gone was their maiden name (as they’d receive a new Christian name) or the info about their tribe. As the generations pass, their racial history is completely gone; even worse, many of these tribes had oral history traditions, which can only survive if they’re transmitted from one generation to the next. Who knows how much we have lost?

Anyways, because of the way that Native women were assimilated into the French-Canadian society, we have no idea who my Native ancestor was or where she came from exactly. One thing’s for sure, though: she had very strong genes. Strong enough to be passed down at least 4 generations without being too diluded (despite the French-Canadian blood among my relatives and I). She probably was a tall and fat woman — all the men in that side of the family were tall and fat (although it’s not so obvious among my direct family, as my grandfather was a blondish skinny man with blue eyes). The genes were also strong enough that my great-grandfather as a young man could have passed for my brother. I remember watching a documentary about the Montagnais (Innu) tribe with my mom, and how we noticed that several interviewed people looked like our relatives. And a few years back, my mom had gone to a reserve with a friend who officially had her First Nations status. They went to some store and my mom received the First Nations discount, no questions asked.

I grew up pretty oblivious to the notion of native blood. In fact, I only became aware of it (and so much more so in racist form) toward the end of high school, when bullies started calling me “Agaguk” (the name of a classic Quebec literature Inuit character). In a way that traumatized me more than name-callings over my weight, as for years I had a tendency to get very defensive if anyone asked me if I were Native. I’ve since learned to relax about it (as long as the person is only asking to know, not as a way to attack me, of course, but this isn’t high school anymore so it doesn’t happen).

So, I’ve come to peace with the notion of having Native blood. And even though I spent my teenage years thinking I was ugly (I remember so well being 16-17, so convinced that I’d never, ever have a boyfriend…), I now know it’s not the case. However, I do look different from most people I know, and people tend to remember me. Of course, as a teen, that was a hard thing to deal with, as we all want to conform to the masses, not stand out.

This is what I look like:

BTW, if anyone ever wants to listen to Native American music, I can never recommend enough Robbie Robertson’s Music for the Native Americans, which he made in collaboration with musicians from various tribes from throughout North America, including Quebec’s Kashtin. It’s the kind of album that brings out the creative juices in me. 🙂

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10 Comments

  1. June 17, 2008 at 7:15 am

    I’m in sort of the same situation with that, officially caucasian, but with some Native American ancestors –we have a photograph of one of the two ladies in question in our family, and she does NOT look English, and we think she was adopted. The other one had problems getting her widow’s pension after the American Civil War because of a question over her race and therefore the legitimacy of her marriage (actually, she may have been French Canadian originally –I don’t have the genealogy records in front of me at the moment, so I don’t know exactly who she was, but that whole side of the family was from upstate NY, so not far from Quebec, and there is at least one French Canadian who married into the family).

    A lot of the members of my family look just non-white enough to be made to feel it, although my mother’s generation less so because they all turned out blonde or red-headed. (although the genes for the shape of face and the propensity for diabetes have passed straight down. ALL of my grandfather’s sisters have it, and my mother. And most of us are fat, and most of us are tall.) Thanks to my father’s side, I have really really curly dark hair, and people have often thought I was African-American. My nickname in middle school was “Afro”, and yes, I inadvertantly had an afro at the time, and they were not in style then. When we gave up on the family-friend hairdresser who didn’t have any idea how to deal with hair that curly, and my mother took me to an African-American stylist, she looked at me, looked at my mother, and asked if my father was black.

    When I was in college in Chicago, African-American people on the street would address me as “sister”. And more recently, an African-American friend of a friend told me that I should stop passing and be proud of who I was. He wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t also African-American.

    So to return to the topic, I’ve been struggling for years over the same kind of question. I’ve been considering starting to answer “mixed” on forms that ask for my ethnicity, but I haven’t so far had the courage because someone might look at me and for once NOT see “non-white”, and contest it.

    Have you read One Drop, by Bliss Broyard? I found it really interesting.

    Sorry for writing a book in the comments!

  2. Deeleigh said,

    June 17, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Another not-the-whitest white person here. I’m 1/4 of that French Canadian/Native mix and half southern Italian. Personally, I think the whole “of color” thing is a little whacked. People don’t fall neatly into 3 or 4 “races.” It’s all ethnicity, and most of us – especially in North America, but other places too – are mixed. It’s all about maintaining our connection to histories of racial bias and discrimination, and that has its advantages and disadvantages. (Advantage: helps us understand the bias and inequality that still exist today. Disadvantage: casts us into roles that may be limiting or unfair)

  3. Pet~ said,

    June 17, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    I think you are beautiful! I love your eyes, you have a gorgeous smile, and I adore the soft, rounded features of your face! Absolutely BEAUTIFUL shot of you up there. I can’t believe the kids in high school made you feel bad about your Native blood! I’d have been telling you how gorgeous your Native features are. =c)

  4. Ashley said,

    June 17, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    So I’m not the only one with the “strong genes” theory!

    I’m white, very white, as is the rest of my family, though there’s a tiniest bit of native blood in there somewhere.

    Anyways, for some reason, almost everyone on my father’s side looks like my grandfather. My dad is almost the spitting image of him, and I am the spitting image of my father (so I have a pretty good idea what I’d look like were I male). All my cousins and aunts and uncles look alike, and I have one cousin who could practically be a twin. I’m not sure how far back it goes, but I strongly suspect my kids will look like me and not my husband.

  5. brigidkeely said,

    June 17, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    You are -so- beautiful and I love your smile. I know that’s one of the stereotypical things to say to a fat person, but your whole face really lights up, and you are incredibly lovely.

    I’m Whitey McWhiterson, but I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the back beyond we’re part African and part Native American, based on some food allergies, blood type weirdness, and dermatology stuff. However, everyone in my family looks super white so it’s never been an issue other than curiousity.

  6. 32-P said,

    June 17, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    I agree with Pet, your eyes are simply beautiful. Amazing to think you’ve retained that lovely epicanthic fold despite all the generations of genes juggling and mixing! Your story reminded me of my ex, who was approximately the same amount of Native as you (but in Plains Cree flavour), though he looked quite white – black hair and pale skin, but his eyes were light grey and he didn’t have any Native features. He got his Metis card aged 23, a few years after we started dating, to help secure bursaries for post-secondary education – and I made the mistake of telling my parents, who then spent the next two years tearing him down. I got dragged down in the process and would often hear things from relatives like “I can’t believe she’s sunk so low as to date a NATIVE.”
    Curiously, his sister, who also passes for white, chose not to get her card because she thought people would treat her differently. I wonder if that might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    I was very glad to read that you’ve come to a place of peace and acceptance towards your native heritage. An encouraging way to end this post.

  7. June 17, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    I’m with you on the “Officially Caucasian” thing. We’ve known for years there was Native American blood in the family, as my great (or great great) grandfather was born in the Three Rivers area of Quebec at a time when there weren’t a whole lot of white women there. Now, I’d like to know, but if you suggest to any of the family who might be old enough to know, what you’ll get is a stern talking to and “We’re FRENCH!”

    A buddy of mine who was officially recognized by his tribe, the Odawa, a few years ago introduced himself to me through a friend because he and I have the same cheekbones and eyes. The resemblance is eerie, we look like we could be siblings, and we’d never met before. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck tracking down any real documents. I strongly suspect that the family went out of their way to make sure those disappeared. And the only person willing to talk about it at all died about ten years back.

  8. i_geek said,

    June 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    The Bald Soprano: “So to return to the topic, I’ve been struggling for years over the same kind of question. I’ve been considering starting to answer “mixed” on forms that ask for my ethnicity, but I haven’t so far had the courage because someone might look at me and for once NOT see “non-white”, and contest it.”

    And they do contest it.

    My father is the youngest son of two Mexican parents- and going by photos (and the phenotypes of my dad and his siblings), they had a lot of native blood in them. Those genes were strong enough that all 16 of the grandchildren have the same dark hair and eye shape (I guess with brown eye dominance, the fact that we all got the dark eye color isn’t a big deal), and my oldest cousin is the spitting image of our grandmother (in spite of her blue-eyed Polish mother). Most of us have varying shades of the olive skin tone, too, including some cousins who are darker than their Mexican parents. However, I’m quite light, thanks to Mom (who is of European descent through and through, mostly Scottish, Irish, and Dutch). I’ve also got her exact body shape, which she got from her mother, who got it from her own mother- how far back it goes I don’t know. Yet another example of powerful genetics.

    My genes make for an interesting combo, but I look enough like my mom that people often (usually) don’t believe that I am half-Mexican. In fact, the biomed grad programs at my university have a very close-knit and active multicultural student association that I was invited to join based on my application. I went to an orientation meeting, and was asked by no fewer than four members WHAT I was, all times in a confrontational “we don’t believe you” manner. One guy even had the gall to shake his head after I told him and say “Well, I guess it’s how you think of yourself that counts.” Yeah- needless to say I didn’t go back for a second meeting. I don’t think I’ve ever had it officially contested, though. My maiden name helps, and sometimes I wish I’d kept it- not so much as proof, but as a link to my heritage and family. Sigh- too late now.

  9. nuckingfutz said,

    June 17, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    My daughter gets this.

    She’s not even mixed, she’s half-Italian, but she’s got the olive skin, the dark hair and eyes, and she’s just dark ENOUGH that people are constantly asking her if she’s mixed or they call her things like “black c*nt” when she’s getting bullied at school (UK schools are HORRIBLE with racism. srsly). Up to a point, it doesn’t bother her, but when she’s constantly having to explain to people that her biological father is 100% Italian, it gets tiring. And frustrating.

    But like brigidkeely up there, I might look like Whitey McWhiterson (ha! love that!) but I’m not 100% completely “white.” We have Native American and African American (if I remember correctly) waaaaaaaaaaay back on my mother’s side of the family. And while I was born blond and blue-eyed, I’m the only one on either side of the family with naturally curly hair. (And it’s so coarse, in fact, that when I was a teenager, I used “Black Hair” products and actually had ‘good’ hair for the first time in my life.)

    Gee… I wonder where that hair came from?

  10. June 18, 2008 at 7:02 am

    I guess I should add that I don’t have to deal with those assumptions quite so much these days, since I moved to Germany, but people sometimes now look at me and wonder if I’m Turkish (olive skin tone and darkish hair from the other side of the family, added to a hippy’s daughter’s tendency to wear kerchiefs everywhere), so I don’t entirely escape the German xenophobia, either.

    GeekGirlsRule (cool handle, by the way!): In our family, the only man who takes our native american ancestors (all women) seriously is my brother. My uncles and grandfather (and so on) dismiss it entirely. This is true of all the branches of the family decended from the earliest one of these ancestors –most or all the women know about it, but none of the men do (or will admit to it). And that’s true for branches that don’t even know about each other (or us until my mother contacted them)!


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