In the photographs the sun is the color of amber, and it melts into our hair, the bent and twisted cypress tree, the window panes, our limbs. My sisters are shy but proud, and the buckskin dress that they take turns wearing over their jeans and sneakers encompasses those gilded limbs like it’s just waiting for them to begin dancing. There are a few photos of only me. I am not wearing the dress.
It is a traditional Hoopa ceremonial dress, the hem of which is decorated in a simple pattern of dentalium shells and hollowed acorns that click softly together with movement. A small party at my sisters’ feet. I was too young to understand the importance of the dress – the hours and years of work that go into hollowing the acorns and prepping the leather and knowing what pattern to use and the long, long history of meaning that meant so much more than textbooks could illustrate – and so I wasn’t allowed to put it on. I was allowed, however, to slip the ceremonial basket hat onto my head, it’s tight weave wrapping around my crown like a protective layer, the patterns of darker grass on lighter a sort of spell to shield me from evil. In the photograph I was three years old and my still-blond hair was a brassy red in the setting amber sun, my pale skin belying the truth of me– I was not Native, not really. Though Hoopa blood runs in my veins this photograph shows the simplicity of my reality: how I was seen versus how I felt.
I didn’t yet understand my history. I did not know the bonds that tied nor the chains that imprisoned. I didn’t yet know yet that part of being Indian is experiencing history through the land and the stories, through the hardships, through the pain, through the ceremony and life of the reservation. I did not know that knowledge was not enough. Without that physical connection there is little to recommend me for a place in the Indian world. I did not know that in that time. From the observer’s viewpoint I was just a little white girl, in dirty jeans and a white tank top no bigger than a potholder, standing outside my parents’ cottage by the sea, grinning through the melting light. I looked happily into the camera lens and brushed curling blond hair from my face, smashed childlike beneath a delicate, old, weighty crown on my unknowing head. I will always be her – suspended between, not a part of either, and entirely entwined in both.