Reaching Through Time and Space: Generational Healing as a Mixed Native Mother
“If you’re really Native, how do you plug in your computer?”
It was a question I was asked at the age of eight by another kid at summer camp. She meant it sincerely. She was struggling to reconcile her concept of Native people as teepee-dwelling museum pieces with the light-skinned kid in front of her. I had nothing profound to say to her, just quiet assertions of my lived experience.
But she had put her finger on a sore spot. I knew I was mixed. I knew I looked white. I knew my dad was Ponca of Oklahoma. I knew I had a tribal membership card.
But I didn’t grow up on a reservation. I had hardly met any other Native people outside of my family. I had only been to a handful of powwows as a child, and most of those memories were very hazy.
“If you’re really Native. . .”
It echoed. Because I wasn’t sure if I belonged.
My dad was adopted off reservation at birth – a frequent occurrence during the ’50s and ’60s. The adoption was facilitated by Catholic Charities, and he was placed with a wonderful, close family. His mom was Lebanese, his dad Irish. He always knew he was adopted and Native, and when he was 18 he made the choice to search for his first mother.
He got lucky. Catholic Charities had just received a letter from her providing an opening for communication in case he decided to contact the agency after his 18th birthday. His immediate question was, “Is she Native?” I imagine the case worker looking at the last name Biggoose on the envelope. “Uhhh, yup, I think so.”
When he traveled up to Ponca City, there was no doubt. He was the spitting image of his mom. Maxine welcomed him. She got him on the tribal roll. When I was born, and then another sister soon after, she welcomed us and gave us our tribal names.
I have vague memories, with spots of clarity, of meeting her as a young child. I can vividly picture her dim home on the reservation, Maxine in her pink mumu. But I never really got to know her well personally. I was growing up hours away in Dallas, Texas. She was very sick for many years. She often remembered my birthday, but the cards were for a great-granddaughter and personalized with shaky handwriting.
She died when I was 14, her death the severing of a cord.
She was our connection to the tribe. Without her, and without moving to Oklahoma, it felt like our validation for belonging was gone.
As I grew up, I would learn bits and pieces of her story. She enlisted in the Air WACs (Women’s Army Corps) during World War II, eventually serving overseas in Germany. Maxine later re-enlisted for the Korean War, becoming the first Oklahoma woman to do so. She was one of the founding members of the local American Legion post, along with her father Ted. Ted had enlisted for World War I despite not being acknowledged yet as a U.S. citizen due to his Native blood.
It wasn’t until college that I learned about the boarding schools. Maxine had attended Haskell Institute. So did her mother. Carlisle Indian Industrial School after that for both of her parents. As data sources became more accessible, I started putting together the institutional impact on my ancestors. Both of Maxine’s parents experienced boarding schools, her mother at a very young age. Her father ran away from Carlisle after going through a year of “outing” on a Pennsylvania farm. Their parents had come down the Ponca Trail of Tears. Everywhere on the branches of my family tree were stories of children being removed from their families, early deaths, and survival despite disease, famine, and genocidal policies of the U.S. government with church accomplices.
Learning all of this was a lot of take in – especially because there was no one to explain it to me. Despite my time in the Indian Education program at school (a program provided under Title VI of the Indian Education Act meant to provide for the cultural and educational needs of Native children in the U.S.), I felt supremely undereducated when it came to the history and culture of my own people.
Then I had kids of my own.
The stakes shifted. Now knowing I had Native history, and likely trauma, is not just a matter of personal interest. I am now a mother continuing a lineage of survival. It is up to me to responsibly pass down the truth of our family including translating the traumatic. I need to understand what happened to my family line, because if I don’t I will never see its impact. To me, being a good ancestor means seeking to reclaim the stories that have been tuned low for generations, even and especially when they make me or the people around me uncomfortable.
Blood quantum rules dictate that my children cannot be enrolled tribal members, but they still meet the criteria of Native students for Indian Education due to their enrolled family members. We now live in Minnesota, a place with a rich Native history and the largest urban population of Native people in the country. This is where the American Indian Movement began in the summer of 1968 to address systemic harms affecting Native communities and people.
As I write this, two of my kids are at American Indian Freedom School getting to spend time with other Native kids and learn more about the culture and history of Native people. Freedom Schools began in the 1964 Freedom Summer for Black students but continue through Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools. Their site is the second in the country focused on providing a similar opportunity structure for Native students. But it’s still on me to teach them what it means to be not just Native, but Ponca. It’s still on me to teach them about a homeland I have never seen, and practices that I am still learning myself.
Reconnecting to my Native identity has meant being honest with my children about what I know and what I still need to learn. I’ve had to educate them about hard histories that most adults around us have not had to study. Honoring the wisdom and experience of our ancestors means acknowledging when the white side of ancestors contributed to the harms perpetrated to the Native side.
We are descended from both. Neither can be denied. This is what it means to bring healing through the generations.
Kirby Hoberg mothers 4 young kids outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ponca of Oklahoma, working in acting, music, dance, and modeling. Her writing on parenting, Native, Catholicism is on Instagram @underthyroof. Arts on Instagram @kirbyhoberg. Twitter @kirbyhoberg.
For more information on programs and movements mentioned above, see the suggested links below: