Growing up, my mother told my sister and I that she was half Native American and that we were 25% Native. she also told us to never tell anyone about this because if we did, they'd treat us badly. I don't think that would have been true. In any case, the only information we ever got about Indian culture was what we learned in school, which probably wasn't very much.
My mother had a spicy beginning. Her mom (you met her in the Marlo Thomas story, the grandma who didn't want my drawing, even in her garbage can) had met John Murray sometime between the attack on Pearl Harbor and him being a newly enlisted man getting shipped off, a patriotic window, if you will, of maybe six weeks, during which time she met him, fell in love with him, married him and got pregnant by him.
What math skill I do have has always irritated my family.
In any case, a quick summary would be BOOM, enlist, love you, goodbye, and off he went. Sometime in the next month my grandma discovered he was a Native American and that he had been married five times before her.
"Not all five at once," my mother felt the need to clarify to me, "one at a time."
My grandma also figured out that if HE was an Indian then it was possible that their baby "might come out Indian too", her theory apparently being that heritage could be determined by will or luck of the draw rather than DNA. Fearful of discrimination due to being a sixth wife and/or having a child of mixed race, she decided to divorce him, and sent him a Dear John letter.
"Because his name was John," my mother explained, "but actually that was what those letters were called so, you know, it worked out."
Newly divorced, my grandma just happened to have a new husband ready to go and he was Norwegian, like she was. He married her and legally adopted my mother, who was told at a young age (and already with jet black hair and olive skin) to say she was Norwegian. Throughout her life my mother would revise and reinvent herself but that wasn't unusual for the 1950's. It was a decade of make believe.
My mother actually met her birth father when she was in her early forties and this happy reunion was captured on a local morning talk show. Soon after meeting her father, she lost all interest in him, except to make one trip across the state in 1996 to sign up for his tribe in order to get what she called 'Indian money'.
She called me after she'd already made the trip with my older sister. My mother described how anxious she'd been to complete whatever paperwork was needed to get signed up, ensuring herself a monthly check, and that she wanted to make sure my older sister was signed up too. I wasted no time in being upset about this, my mother's chatty topic of conversation and complete weirdness in finding nothing odd about telling me how she'd driven across the state to sign up only one of her children.
A year after my mother died, this tribe contacted me by mail. How they got my address, I never knew. They wanted to tell me I qualified for an inheritance because I was my mother's daughter. I read the details and became aware of how little I knew about Native American culture.
I'm not sure if all tribes do it this way or if it was only my mother's tribe. In any case, the tribe set up a financial account for each child of a member. They opened it with a small amount and the member would then add to it. There was, the letter explained, an account set up for me and another one for my sister.
But there was a catch. This particular tribe didn't just give the kids the money. The process was that first the siblings would get the chance to publicly argue before tribal elders about which of them was good and which was bad and which deserved to be considered 'more' of a son or daughter or 'less' of one.
It sounded insane.
Further, all of the kids were welcome to have attorneys representing them. After the kids and attorneys made their case for themselves and against their brothers or sisters, the elders of the tribe would decide which kid was good or bad or better and would divide the total inheritance along those lines.
I wrote them back saying I wasn't interested in arguing and was sure whatever the elders decided would be fine. This confused the tribe and they sent me numerous letters back, re-explaining in case I hadn't understood. I sent them replies explaining that I did understand. Numerous trees gave their lives for six months of back and forth letters, a fact I'd think would bother the average Native American.
Finally a tribal elder called me on the phone. He re-explained the process and added (as incentive or warning, I couldn't tell) that my sister had already engaged an attorney to represent her and that's why they felt sure I would also want to have a lawyer.
He sounded old and had something in his voice that implied he knew things and would tell them to me if I asked the right questions. I asked him if the total amount of money was really more than the amount it would cost me to hire an attorney.
"Not likely," he said.
I asked him if the total amount of money was less than a hundred dollars. It turned out the entire sum was fifty cents. The elder also mentioned that initially my mother had claimed my sister was her only child and had admitted to my existence only after the tribe had insisted their data said she had two kids, not one. The elder heard me not sounding that surprised. I asked if my sister was aware the amount she'd paid an attorney to win was actually just fifty cents and he said No. There was a hint of amusement in his voice.
I told him it was okay with me if my sister got the entire amount. And then the elder told me more. My grandfather, the WWII Dear John, had barely been Native American. Only 8%. This conflicted with the 100% amount I had previously been told. It also meant my mom was 4% and I was 2%. So what was his heritage?
"Some kind of Spanish," said the elder, "84%, Cuban or maybe Puerto Rican. What we wrote down was Puerto Rican."
This explained my mother's coloring and temperament. And why she looked great in gold jewelry and red lipstick. And why when I got pissed off I sounded like Rosie Perez, something that had bewildered me and scared the crap out of whoever I was mad at.
My mother, it turns out, had qualified for a monthly check from the government for her 4% heritage. The amount of Native American blood needed was different then. The laws had changed in 1960, requiring a person to have a minimum of 25% to qualify. The date of the change had been six weeks before my sister was born.
"And so my sister got nothing?" I asked the man.
"Nothing," he answered. With amusement. And satisfaction.
I imagined how well my greedy sister must have taken that when she was told. I imagined her glaring at my mother who would have blamed my grandma who would have blamed the Japanese.
I was amazed to hear my mother had been clearly told she was 42% Puerto Rican (what we wrote down was Puerto Rican) in 1996 and had kept that a secret from me for eight years, not even telling me before she died.
My mother, who had thought it was so shameful when white people discriminated against Native Americans and yet felt perfectly fine having a slur to describe every other race, including Hispanics, had been told, guess what, you're one of the groups you slur. It was delicious: the greedy sister paying hundreds to get two quarters, the racist mother learning she was a minority. The tribe required two and a half years of process and eventually sent me a very official looking check for 32 cents. They had decided I was slightly MORE of a daughter than the other daughter, but just barely.
I never cashed the 32 cent inheritance check, preferring to keep it for its Good Story value. And to prove that, whatever else, I'm an heiress.
The story Heiress is from my collection, Green Shoes Mean I Love You available at: