Being Native American Is a Political Act

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona - A field of telescopes dots the summit of Kitt Peak, on the Tohono Oodham First Nati
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona - A field of telescopes dots the summit of Kitt Peak, on the Tohono Oodham First Nation reservation in Sells, Ariz. The 7,730-foot peak of Baboquivari is visible in the background. (John Briley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Most Americans don't think much about Native Americans, if at all, except when the fourth Thursday of November rolls around. During this uniquely American time of year we all gather around a table, stuffed turkey in the center, make each person present say something they're thankful for, and give passing homage to that one time long ago when Indians (from the Wampanoag tribe, in case you were wondering) and pilgrims ate together to celebrate the fall harvest, or something.

Honestly, for most Americans it's just an excuse to take two days off work, eat some delicious food, and watch some football. Once the day is over Americans go on with their lives, blissfully unaware that Native Americans refuse to be so easily forgotten. That's right, Native Americans still exist, despite every attempt by the U.S. to assimilate us out of existence, and this simple fact confounds people.

"You're Native American?!"

People ask. All. The. Time.

They truly can't believe it. And when I tell them about things like tribal sovereignty, boarding schools and treaty rights, they literally look at me like I'm making it up. It is an odd experience to have your mere existence so fraught with incredulity and disbelief, but such is the life of a Native American in the 21st century.

How many of you, dear readers, know that the Wampanoag tribe that interacted with the pilgrims back in the 1600s still exist today, and are in fact federally recognized? How many of you even know what federal recognition is? It's okay, you can be honest. Most other non-Natives have no idea either.

In fact, there are over 562 federally recognized tribes in this country, one of them being the Tohono O'odham Nation, a tribe anyone who lives outside Arizona has never heard of. Actually, many people who live in Tucson, the ancestral homeland of the O'odham, haven't heard of us either. Recently, I was out and about minding my own business, when some mil:gan (an O'odham word for... haha you'll have to look it up on your own) said that Tucson originally belonged to Mexico. WRONG!

Tucson originally belonged to the Tohono O'odham Nation, which still exists, by the way. You can imagine his surprise when I called him out. "I've NEVER heard that before," He told me. "I'll have to look more into that." It is exhausting, as a Native American, to be single-handedly responsible for educating the wider public about our history, but if we don't do it no one else will.

And don't even get me started on airport security. Since Native Americans belong to sovereign nations, tribal ID's are an acceptable form of identification, however no one seems to know this. Just recently I was at the airport, and when I presented my ID card to the TSA agent she gave me a surprised look.

I explained to her that I'm Native American and my ID card shows that I belong to a federally recognized tribe, and she said "Really? I've NEVER seen this before." Yes, that seems to be a common theme. One supervisor and 10 minutes later, I was finally let through. I find it ironic that Native Americans have to try so hard to prove their legitimacy in their own homeland. It is astounding how easily people forget who this country's original inhabitants are.

Yet despite every attempt by mainstream society to render us invisible, Native Americans are very thankful. We are thankful for our reservations, thankful for our cultures and languages that still persist despite systemic attempts to eradicate them, thankful for our kinship ties, thankful even for our struggles. Most importantly, we are thankful for our existence.

After more than 500 hundred years of colonization, Native Americans are still here and always will be. Please remember that when you sit down at your Thanksgiving meal this year.