When it comes to Native American identity, there isn’t one simple story. With more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, and with 9.7 million people identifying as at least part Native, each person within those tribes has their own story, their own path, whether they were raised on a reservation or off.
For Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie (Iñupiat) and Meg Martin (Saint Regis Mohawk), the subjects of the documentary I Am Still Here, defining their Indigenous identity has been a journey that won’t be over once the end credits roll. It’s more complicated than that.
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After all, Kellie grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, a city far away from her Native family’s village, a place she visited for the first time at 22 years old. And Martin, whose mother grew up Catholic, was not immersed in her Mohawk culture and chose to seek it out herself as a teenager.
“Expectations about what you should or shouldn’t be”
“I think about the journey and the experience of being somebody who is young, who is Alaska Native and feeling like there are a lot of expectations about what you should or shouldn’t be,” Kellie tells In The Know by Yahoo.
“That was my identity journey of stepping out as an Iñupiat woman of my own accord for the very first time,” the master’s degree student at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, continues, “not just as my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s granddaughter, but as Qiġñaaq myself and meeting and sensing all of these expectations of what I should be and wasn’t.”
Directed by Villanova students Jamie McClelland and Corbin Meier through the university’s student-run Watershed Pictures production company, I Am Still Here “tells the story of reclaiming, owning and sustaining Indigenous culture in a society that often overlooks it.”
With definitions surrounding what it means to be Native imposed by media, history books and even Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood cards that define your “Indianness” by blood quantum, Kellie and Martin have begun to own the process of self-definition, exploring an identity that has often been stamped onto Native Americans by outside forces (aka colonization).
“We’ve been given this picture of who we’re supposed to be by people who are not us,” Martin, a student at SUNY Cortland who lives in Akwesasne, N.Y., tells In The Know. “It’s all about reclaiming your power.”
We are still here.
The two women from two different tribes who grew up on different sides of the country share their journey of what it means to be Native over the course of the film — and how “blending in” to Western culture can also contribute to Indigenous erasure. While both women are living a modern life, they are also reaching into the past, preserving language and traditions to assert, like many Native women before them, that they in fact are still here.
“[My grandmother and I have] been talking a lot about identity,” Martin shares. “We’ve just been saying, who you think you are is exactly correct. When we start to place those barriers on us as Indigenous people, that only adheres to the colonized way. There’s tons of variations of Native people.”
Because everyone has their own journey when it comes to finding their identity, she adds, there isn’t only one “right” way.
“It’s such a colonized way of living, about having to carry a card that verifies your status as a certain race,” Martin says. “No one else would have that. And it’s crazy for people to think, ‘Oh, I need a card saying I’m white.’ That would be insane.”
For Kellie and Martin, it has been the path itself, with its own obstacles of assumed expectations and the effects of language loss and assimilation, that captured the attention of the student directors.
In the documentary, Kellie films her story in Anchorage, taking viewers on a journey over the snowy terrain and introducing them to her Iñupiat family, including her young nephews, to whom she’s trying to pass down language. Kellie even helped start Iḷisaqativut (which means “those who we are learning with”), an Ińupiaq program that seeks to reclaim the Native language.
On the other side of the country, in Akwesasne, Martin invites viewers into her home, meeting her parents, sister and great aunt, who helps her learn her Mohawk language.
In the film, we see Martin testing her Mohawk language skills with her great aunt, who is fluent. The effort to make the connection to her heritage is both awkward and imperfect but an important step for Natives who have been raised at a distance from tradition and where their Native family built their lives.
And those struggles to reconnect can inevitably bring up the question, Am I Native enough?
“I think that where some of that struggle comes from is because there’s this ideal of what it is to be the epitome of being Native,” Kellie says. “But the thing is that we can’t discount everyone who is now different than this ideal. That’s a massive amount of Native people, of Indigenous people, to now discount and say that you’re no longer Native.”
Martin agrees, adding that we can’t be shaming one another or picking out what other Native Americans don’t know about their culture.
“And really, we do need to continue to evolve even with these changes, because that is how we exist long into the future by broadening the definition of what it is and what it means to be Native,” Kellie says. “And I think that also speaks to the title of this film and why it was called I Am Still Here.”
For Kellie and Martin, as with many Native people, reclaiming their identity has been a process in both accepting themselves as an integral part of their culture and realizing that there is always more to do.
“If it means that you spend the rest of your life learning these skills as I am — I’m spending the rest of my life over time learning how to sew, learning about the food, learning about the land, learning the language,” Kellie says. “To be a Native person now, it feels like you are continuously learning.”
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