I got a lot of feedback, directly and indirectly, negative and positive, as a result of my first submission to ICTMN, "Everyone Wants to Be an Indian, But No One Wants to Be an Indian." I am very pleased with that result. I want my writing to provoke thought and conversation in a visceral way in the Native community. The fateful question has finally come up, "Who are you with no recognition or reservation to speak about being Native American?" I used to have many different answers to that one. I now only give one response.
I write about Native American topics because I am Native American. I was born into the Turtle Clan of the Northeastern Woodland People. I say it this way because I am a descendent of nearly every Grand Sachem, Sachem, Sagamore and Sunksquaw from nearly every nation from Toronto to New York along the New England coastal region. I am a citizen of the Montaukett Indian Nation but my lineage includes the Pequot, the Wampanaug, the Narragansett, the Matinecock, the Meroke, the Wabanaki, the Quirripi and many others. I am in fact, one of those living descendents of Weesoequn-Yellowfeather, better known as Massasoit, that Julianne Jennings mentioned in her piece, "The Institutional Racism Against Black Indians.: Massasoit was a title roughly meaning "Grand Sachem." This is how by direct relation to one Grand Sachem, I am related to every Grand Sachem that ever lived and is living in the region. At least the ones with Turtle Clan heritage.
I was born to the daughter of a Turtle Clan daughter on the island of Sewanahke in Matinecock country, now more commonly known as Flushing, Queens. There are statues in Queens that say, "Here Lies the Last of the Matinecock." Many of them are my relatives and the "last one" passes on every several years. The local papers make a blurb about it and some one chisels, "The Last Matinecock",one more time in one more stone, then there's a parade and some refreshments and someone tries to buy their land. That's pretty much reality of being an Indian in the New York Metro area. You are invisible, mostly by choice.
Historically, it has never been a good idea to be an Indian in New York or all of New England for that matter. It was my Grandmothers and Grandfathers who led their people during first contact with the European colonists. When coexistence gave way to war, the goal was the destruction of any trace of Native existence in the region. My ancestors chose many different ways to survive. Some travelled west and formed bands with other displaced Natives. Many blended into the melting pot of New York City and the surrounding suburbs maintaining a Caucasian, Latino or black public identity, as skin tone allowed while maintaining ties with the final group.
The groups that stayed on ancestral lands as they dwindled down from thousands of acres to meager reservations, to quarter acre lots as local authorities slowly destroyed their land base through most questionable legal methods. My family fell into the second category, living in a black neighborhood but maintaining ties with the Native community through Pow Wows and family get togethers. I was often told by my mom, all of her sisters and my older cousins that as a baby, I would often dance naked around the drum at the Shinnecock Labor Day Pow Wow trying to keep up with the men. So the way I see it, I was born a free minded and spirited Indian and I remain one to this day.
My reservation was a ghetto called Roosevelt. This was the same ghetto that produced Julius Erving, Charlie and Eddie Murphy, Busta Rhymes and Public Enemy, among others. It's the kind of town that tests you day in and day out. It was reserved for the Non Caucasian people of Nassau County by way of steering as real estate agents would only show property in the town to non Caucasians almost exclusively. This meant that when I was growing up in the '70s, the town had the full spectrum of the back middle class renaissance of the time. The town had a good mix of businesses, nearly all owned by town residents and, a mix of professionals,white collar and blue collar worker's families.
This didn't mean that we weren't in a ghetto, it was suburban but extremely segregated from the other suburbs. The invisible boundaries, that are largely still preserved, were known and read by all who bothered to look for them. There were towns you didn't go to close to or after dark because the cops might bring you back or not at all. Getting stopped by the police for walking in a group of more than two. The town name itself follows it's residents everywhere they go due to the unwritten code on Long island that dictates that the town you come from will tell people what kind of person you are. Most people would prefer not to be there but, it was my home the kind of crucible I needed.
I didn't know that I was a Native until I was about 6 or 7. I honestly though that everyone went to pow wows and had lots of people who wore regalia on special occasions. My grandmother had to tell me to stop cheering for the wrong side one day while I was watching a Western on TV. True story. She taught me a lot that day especially to never forget exactly where we are from. She also told me not to talk abut it outside of the family. After first contact, it was better to let people forget that you were Indian because it was dangerous to be Indian. She told me how she had forgotten her language because she would get in trouble by speaking it. My mother would warn me as a boy that dabbling in politics as a Native could get me in trouble or even killed. I ignored her anyway and became active in the local groups when I became an adult.
It was at that point that I became aware of my Clan's history. I was elated when I found the information and learned to say as many of the names as possible of my ancestors. I began to pore over the stories of their times caught between Manifest Destiny and the will of their people. I began to feel an obligation to learn what my responsibilities are to the Clan and Nation's traditions. I finally understood why my mother demanded full mastery of the English language of me in my schoolwork. Telling the story of my people on Turtle Island is part of the traditional role of my clan. I write because it's like breathing to me, I have to. I know the names of my Grandmothers and Grandfathers, that is why I write for a Native audience. I was born to do it from day one.
Mark Rogers is a citizen of the Montaukett and Matinecock Nations located in Long Island, NY where he is known as Toyupahs Cuyahnu (Crazy Turtle). He has served as a grassroots activist in the African American and Native communities and is a proud veteran NCO of the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He is presently working on a writing career and seeks to aid fellow veterans through his writing. See his Facebook page Toyupahs Cuyahnu/Mark Rogers for more of his writing.