Googling "Indian": A Reflection On Identity
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw
During the last hour sitting as a speaker on a Native American Heritage Month panel, the conversation ranged from mascot wars to revitalizing culture to language to suicide prevention to education tactics to self-worth. We talked about strategies for Native youth and our own challenges navigating a world that doesn’t always see us – and it came back to one word. Indian.
A Native person with deep concern in her face asked the question, “Does it offend you when someone calls you an Indian? . . . Because it offends me,” she said, before launching into her own apprehensions. “And I wonder if it should.”
During my drive home, I tried to remember my answer and couldn’t. Was I offended? Did I feel offended because I was told she was, this young woman looking for herself? In a familiar feeling of wanting an immediate answer that I couldn’t come to, I turned to Google as soon as I got home. I decided to search the word “Indian.” A mix of photographs came up – beautiful photographs of Plains chiefs, photographs of men from India, offensive photographs of mascots and Halloween costumes. I leaned back in my chair and took a look at the word again.
In the age of Internet identity, I realized how, in many moments, we depend on a screen to tell us who others believe we are.
In the age of Internet identity, I realized how, in many moments, we depend on a screen to tell us who others believe we are. Rather than grappling with the question, I thought that someone else might be able to tell me if I was supposed to be offended by a word. I had to wonder if we sometimes lose the ability to handle a true internal dialogue because of our obsession with immediate answers. On a daily basis, who do we turn to, to tell us who we are?
What I do know concretely is that I consider myself to be a Lakota activist and educator, but who am I really at the end of the day? I live and lead a contemporary life and use Internet activism by choice, despite sometimes difficult responses from others for my beliefs. I often think of myself, most simply, as a Native girl pulling off her boots on the carpet at the end of another day trying to show the world my pride.
To Google, I am an outdated image or a descendent from a continent I have never known.
A search bar still can’t tell me what one word means or how multifaceted my experience is and neither can any person who uses the word “Indian” with hatred in their heart. It can’t tell me how I define myself or how others might define me. To Google, I am an outdated image or a descendent from a continent I have never known. But I am and always have been before the rise of Internet activism, half Oglala Lakota Sioux. With every new immediate search and answer that will never change.