When you are adopted, your family and its definition expands into interesting territory. At first, I made no claim to anything else than what I was...Athabaskan.
But since no one ever knew who Athabaskan were (except if my fellow conversationalist was Canadian or Russian or an Alaskan), everyone just thought I was Inuit or Eskimo.
This annoyed me as a child, because my part of the Indian family tree barely resembled them culturally. After awhile I would just accept the "like an Eskimo" comments even though my ancestors were considerably further south than the arctic circle.
It was hard for me to accept allegiance to my extended, adopted roots. Even though I was smashed into their corner as well. My Great Grandmother found it easy to claim my heritage. It made her thrice-first...she claimed English Pilgrim heritage, New Amsterdam Dutch heritage and through me Native Alaskan. All first people in the Americas. It was only natural in her mind.
Of course she was still thinking about the WASP glory years. The ancestors who carved that city on the hill, that Protestant nation of good sense. The Dutch gumption to live out their years amongst the Natives desperately trying to forestall the English encroachment.
To this day I both laugh when I recognize WASP in jokes and I cringe as well. Being WASP or related to them does not hold the allure it once had. Not even when my Great Grandmother was still alive. They were on their downward spiral. The one thing they have in common with my Native Ancestors is that they are going extinct.
And who wants to claim a background that has been iconized by hated villains such as Daisy Buchanan or Gloria Upson in popular culture?
My mother solved this dilemma by emphasizing her Irish side more than the WASP remnant. She saddled me with an Irish name which further confused everyone around me. In high school, I would just let my classmates stew with trying to put together the Native American...Irish...Italian designations. I would stifle my laughter when they came up empty.
Growing up with Irish means you have to grow up with the drunkard jokes. Unlike my Great-Grandmother being thrice blessed in her heritage I was thrice cursed. I could claim allegiance to the three biggest drunkard heritages in all the world, Native American, WASP and Irish. Its amazing how relatively sober I am. Even so, I feel the affinity for alcohol and its easy answer for dealing with problems.
Another thing growing up with Irish relatives...you get used to the DOOM. On one hand my WASP grandfather would push the stiff upper lip, gracious smiles and my Mother's side had the ALL IS LOST funks. Lets say, I totally understand Eugene O'Neill and his headspace. Hysteria R' US, indeed. And yet popular culture totally ignores the gloominess and pushes the simpleton Dances with Leprechauns stereotypes over the Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Darby O'Gill...I remember watching it during a Sunday TV special. My grandfather muttering under his breath and the rest of us ignoring him. The banshee scenes were up there with my all time greatest film induced trauma moments.
Another mixed feeling I have with the Irish is their veneration of the Kennedy clan. Then again not all feel that way. I remember my Grandmother never failing to add that they were good for nothing bootleggers. But I can still see why they were so idolized, storming WASP bastions and aping their lifestyle. Which upper class Irish never fail to follow in those footsteps. I always wondered why. Why emulate people who called you apes?
The Italian side...doesn't hold as much sway over me as the rest. If my Grandfather muttered about the Irish, you can only imagine his one sided conversations about the Italians. The one thing I remember from the Italian side is that letting everyone know how you felt was not considered a sin. This is totally anathema to the WASP or Irish way of dealing with problems. It is anathema for the Native Americans as well. I recently read that Native American culture felt that being emotional or showing emotions was low class and irrational. Hence the stone face portraits galore. But it also explains their gravitation toward alcohol. The same impetus shared by WASPs and the Irish. So being able to speak my mind was always just a far flung dream for me. I didn't understand my Italian relatives.
The food was great though and there was plenty of it. No boring baked potatoes or bland mush at the Italian table. Heaven is Italian food.
However claiming the Italian part of the family was no easier than the rest. American culture up until the 1980's was all about how Italians were incredibly violent and prone to gangsterism.
I hated The Godfather for many, many years. But now it is a relic from a more distant past, I can appreciate it now. I never forget the cannoli either....
As a young person, I never claimed common ties with any of my people. But the influences are there and as I get older they come out. All of them have been a big force in forging my personality. As an old or older person, I find that I have to make peace with the warring heritages of my family. I have to accept who they were, who they are and why I am because of them. On one hand I am Native American who were the first in America and on the other hand I have family who took land from Native Americans. On one side I have family who ruled culture and politics since the Pilgrims on another side I have family who were reviled as being of lesser stock. As you can see it all messes with the mind and I have to come to grips with it. Yet to deny any of them would be a crime. How can you deny family? It can't be done.
Labels: culture, personal