Author: Leah Myers
It will surprise no one that I joined a book club (and proposed one too but more on that in future blogs). The book club I joined is run by the Women and Gender Resource Center at the University of Alabama. The first book upon my expression of interest on the reading list was Leah Myer’s Thinning Blood as part of Native American Heritage Month (see about the general initiative here).
Arguably, we do not know much about Native American culture in Europe, so this book was an eye-opener for me. For one, I did not know I was not supposed to say Indian as some Native Americans might find that offensive. I also had no idea about the incredible culture of the Native Americans such as spiritualism and totems. I learned that when people say that someone is not important because they are like the last person on the totem, this is wrong because this is the most important person and the person on the top is the one where the line ends. Absolutely fascinating! Another thing that fascinated me in this book was the stories and legends that the author portrays so nicely, such as the legend of salmon, which I really enjoyed reading. I also enjoyed her compelling writing and linking these legends with real life.
The book is a story of the author’s life along with what information she collected about her family writing in particular about her female ancestors. She ascribes them symbols from the animal world and wildlife, which I also enjoyed as I like symbolism. She mainly focuses on the totem of her family and how their blood is thinning and their lineage disappearing because Native American status can only continue if the author marries another Native American, which is hard due to just over 500 people left of her tribe. If she marries a white man and gets a child, the child would not be considered Native American regardless of their looks. The author’s sadness about the disappearance of her lineage is palpable throughout the book and it made me sad so I understood entirely why she might not be keen to have children herself. I also agreed with her frustration because ultimately, we often pick up a gene from our ancestors that changes our appearance and can face discrimination because of it regardless of what our documents say. For example, I picked up a different gene because I am much darker than anyone in my family and I knew exactly what she meant. She is not fully Native American and has a lot of other blood in her lineage, but she does look Native American and it affects her in life so why not develop identity and belonging and claim her heritage?
What was also interesting is the division among Native Americans themselves with her being seen as white because of choices some of her ancestors made to fit into an increasingly white society and the fact she was not raised in the reservation, does not speak her tribal language but yet, feels a connection with her origin and culture. I heard something like this before in one focus group in London where a Black woman who initially grew up in a posh area and attended private schools moved to a more working-class Black area and then got called Oreo because her way of thinking and manners were seen as white. It seems this is the curse that many ethnic minorities carry, if they remain in their own culture, they face discrimination but if they try to fit in, then they belong nowhere with even their own community rejecting them.
Another moment in the book was the author’s surgical analysis of Disney’s film Pocahontas saying how much she loved this film as a child because it was someone who looked like her who was on the screen.
I totally understand this as all research says that people, and minority ethnic particularly, need role models. The author then showed anger with Disney’s portrayal of Native Americans in that film. I originally thought, come on, how bad it can be because I am aware of antisemitism and extreme patriarchal imposition of gender roles of which Disney is well known. Then I started to read the author’s analysis of the film and I found myself kicking off. One of the songs sings about savages and this is in a children’s movie!? I genuinely believe that you have to be a savage to get children to sing along with such a gross generalization.
I watched Pocahontas too, but I was not born and raised in a country where English is the native language, so I did not sing along simply because I did not speak English regularly, I spoke in my language and would sing along to local songs. I doubt I even paid attention to the song and most likely waited for the story to continue as I am not keen on musicals. But for a child with English as the first language, it is perfectly logical that they will sing along, and this then forms a prejudice among children. Every sociologist knows how important early socialization is and that children absorb information from the world like sponges. I was horrified with this information and just as I thought I heard it all about Disney, this caught me by surprise. But then again, it is Disney, why am I surprised, I don’t even know.
The book also tells a story of Native Americans and their position in the US, again with a particular reference to women who are disproportionately victims of assault and are disappearing at a higher rate than they exist, which is another thing that shocked me (see here, also here).
All in all, this is a book anyone should read. It is very informative and educational but written in such a compelling way that you simply cannot let it go.
Thank you for reading.