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TAS Voices: On Belonging and Representation

TAS Voices: On Belonging and Representation

When we marked the United States’ Indigenous People’s Day on October 9, we learned about how the way that someone tells their story, and how a story is passed through history, can have a huge impact on how a community, and individuals in the community, see themselves. Stories, whether positive or negative, are one way different communities develop and pass on identity; for example, at TAS, the identity of being a Tiger student, or a Tiger family, is a kind of story that different people and families tell as part of their identification with the school.

For Indigenous people, many of the stories told about the different indigenous groups around the world, and especially in the US, have been told about them, rather than by them. In the United States, many of these stories were legislated into limiting and destructive policies that worked to weaken Indigenous groups, especially during the 19th and 20th century. These kinds of issues are still ongoing, though groups like the National Congress of American Indians are working to advocate for the 573 sovereign tribal nations in the United States.  

For this reflection, we will focus on the Indigenous groups in the United States, and hear from Melanie Hamre, Director of College Counseling, about her experience as an Indigenous woman. For Melanie, “belonging” as an Indigenous person is a complex experience, and how different representation of her family’s identity and history, both in popular media, in government, and in her community growing up, has shaped her relationship with her identity.

Thank you for you partnership as we seek to understand and uplift the diverse identities in our community. I hope the reflections shared below are thought provoking for you.  

As you read, consider the following questions:

  • How does this story align with my own experiences of belonging, or feeling like I don't belong, with one or more of my identities?
  • If a friend or family member came to me with a similar story about representation of their identity, how might I react?
  • What emotions did I notice first while reading this reflection?

Reflection by Ms. Melanie Hamre, Director of College Counseling

When asked to write about my Indigenous heritage, I have to admit that I froze up. As someone who is Hispanic and Indigenous, thinking about my Indigenous heritage is very laden with assumptions about what it means to be Native. On one hand, Native people have faced considerable discrimination since the beginning of American colonialization, but over the past decades, an outside expectation to, “prove,” one's identity has arisen. There are many reasons for this, some stemming from government regulations, others from media and public debate. I am not a current enrolled member of a tribe (enrollment being a practice used to quantify and reduce indigenous communities over time), and I am deeply aware of moments during which prominent figures in American political life, like Elizabeth Warren, who were proud of their heritage, were publicly shamed for not being Indigenous enough. When Native American communities don’t look like how someone has imagined them, through either history or popular media, there is an even greater weight that Native people feel to define, or defy, the expectations that are pressed upon them.  

What does it mean to be enough of any one identity? This is something that many students experience while on their college counseling journey at TAS, as they seek to distill and articulate their identity as part of their application process. Many express not feeling like they are enough of anything, whether this means not Taiwanese enough, or not American enough, or that they are too much of one identity, when interacting in different spaces. This frustrating experience is also a common one at international schools, where mixed identities are the norm.

I grew up in the American Southwest – the term itself is romantic, grandiose even, but it is truly a spectacular part of the country. In New Mexico, there is a particularly beautiful co-existence of cultures, one between (in the outdated terms from my childhood), “Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos.” This beautiful mix of different groups is reflected in my own family. My father was white, my mother was Hispanic, her family having come to North America from Spain in the 1600s, and my grandfather was born and raised in what is the heart of the Apache ‘homeland,’ although it feels wrong to pin down this incredible, nomadic raiding tribe to one place.

As a child in New Mexico, and with a family that exemplified the blending of these three major heritage groups in the region, in all three of these heritages, I remember a life of celebration. We celebrated Native Culture Feast Days, which are now closely tied with the Catholic tradition of Saint’s Days. For many pueblos (the name for an Indigenous community in this area), these celebrations go back hundreds upon hundreds of years, with many aspects of the ceremonies, dancing, and rituals passed forward through time over the last 800+ years. On these days, the community comes together to celebrate, and members often gather in different homes to share meals and enjoy community in the most authentic sense of the word.

Once recent significant moment of ritual took place on October 14, 2023, during an annular solar eclipse. New Mexico was one of the best places to observe the celestial phenomenon this year, and it is a very sacred moment for the Pueblo people that necessitates specific rituals and ceremonies to connect with the larger universe. For the first time, many municipal governments throughout New Mexico published several recommendations and reminders around respecting the needs of the Pueblo people observing the rituals; for example, most Pueblo people specifically choose not to go outside to observe the eclipse, while non-Natives prefer to go outside to celebrate and document it. These shared guidelines helped everyone understand each other during this unique event.

This is an important moment of cultural sensitivity and recognition, however, it is important to remember that celebrations, rituals, and ceremonies are a huge part of the story that much of popular media, from movies and TV to history books and even some public holidays, tells about indigenous groups in the United States.

For me, this representation, though it has its roots in reality, often masks the experience of many, but not all, Native people today, particularly for those living on “reservations,” which is a term for communities that often demeans the sovereignty of Native people. And many Indigenous people do have sovereignty in the United States. There are official treaties between tribes, pueblos, peoples, and the United States government, but even the idea that an Indigenous group must be “granted sovereignty” over land that was theirs to begin is, for lack of a better term, messed up.

Sure, different tribes can generate funding through projects like casinos once they have been “granted sovereignty,” but did you know that food prices on reservations are much higher than average prices compared to urban areas, and that the price of regular goods are more volatile, even in normal economic times? There is a lack of access to quality, fresh food, like vegetables, fresh dairy. Access to medical care on reservations is virtually non-existent, with people required to drive for hours to receive basic care from a doctor. Even the land of a sovereign nation is more likely to be the site of environmental disasters related to oil drilling, dumping toxic waste, mineral mining, and climate change

A smaller but more visible example of this tension is the New Mexico state flag, the symbol of a land that I love, which bears the Zia, a symbol that was stolen from the Zia Pueblo. On the surface, the Zia has a wonderful meaning in many cultures of friendship and unity. But underlying that meaning is all the violence and pain that colonization, first by Spaniards and later Americans, brought to this land and the people who came here before us. 

I want to leave you with an example from my own identity development that will resonate with many of our alumni, and our soon-to-be graduates as they go off to college. As a freshman at Harvard, one of the first things I did was smudge my dorm room, the practice of burning sage in order to cleanse a new space. This was as much a part of my move-in process as it was to hang photos from home and set up my bed linen, and would not have been out of place at the University of New Mexico. Surprisingly to me, it shocked my roommates, all of whom had come from East Coast boarding schools.

I say this not to share a funny story, but to remind our community that when our students go away to Harvard, the University of California – Davis, or Purdue, they will bring with them the normal and celebrated trappings of their identity. From taking off their shoes before entering a room, thinking to wear a mask when they’re sick, or searching for a bubble tea or noodle shop instead of a Starbucks or Subway, the things they do to stay connected to their home and heritage might also be surprising to their peers from other countries and cultures.  

Although my experience at Harvard was eye-opening, along the way I met people like Ethel Branch, who is now the second-time Attorney General for the Navajo Nation. After graduation, I connected with people like Wes Studi, the Cherokee Nation actor and producer behind films like “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), “Dances with Wolves” (1990), and “A Love Song” (2022), who is now a friend. Before leaving the United States, I was able to meet and learn about so many incredible artists and activists for Native Americans living in the United States, many of whom have become friends and mentors. Now that I live in Taiwan, I find myself remembering Melanie from freshman year at Harvard. It is easy to feel less engaged because I am so far away, and I do what I can, from where I am, to stay connected to my heritage and community.

Some meaningful, daily reminders of my identity are the Native art in my office and home, and the jewelry that I wear every day, some pieces of which were made by my grandfather, who told me when I left for Harvard to never forget where I come from.

I hope that by sharing a bit about my identity, and how I see myself and my belonging within my heritage and the different representations of Native Americans, helps you reflect on your own identity during this month and in the months to come at TAS.