Travel in America: Perspectives of a biracial blogger

Powwow dancer
A Native American participates in dance at the Winnebago (Nebraska) powwow.

As some of you know, I’m biracial. My father was Dakota (Sioux) and French Canadian and my mom was Irish and  British, with some Kickapoo heritage. It made for a challenging life growing up because one town where we lived I truly experienced racism by some people, kids wanting to fight “the” Indian (and they were always two, three or four against me. Fair odds, right?). Coaches gave me Native nicknames like Chief. Overall, I have fond memories of that town, except for those situations.

My mom once said that she had planned to raise the younger five of us “white” (there were 10 of us kids). I never understood what she meant until years after her passing when one of my older sisters, herself facing death, told me that the reason I didn’t recall ever being discriminated against in our hometown was that the older siblings got the brunt of it. By the time we came along, we were just the Trudell kids.

While Mom’s heart was in the right place as far as she was concerned, her plans would have failed regardless. Of 10 children, only two can pass for being white. Eight of us are definitely darker-skinned and have prominent Native features.

I never even knew I was Native American or different from the other kids until we moved away from Kennard. Then, it became an ongoing lesson in life.

Tim standing near Missouri River
This was my favorite fishing spot when I’d visit Santee reservation as a child.

Learning to be biracial

When you’re biracial, you never really get to be just you. You have to choose an ethnic group in which to belong. An example is former President Barack Obama. His dad was Kenyan. His mom was caucasian. He grew up not knowing the difference, similar to my childhood. Then, in college, it hit him like a lead pipe. He was told to choose. And, just like me, he had to choose the ethnic color of his father. In reality, neither of us really had a choice. The color of our skin made the choice for us in society.

Before anyone says you don’t have to choose color, please walk a mile in our shoes. When people describe others,  they rarely say he or she is white. Instead, they typically go with hair color and physical build. That subconsciously tells the other person that the subject is caucasian. Try that with a person of color. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, the color of skin is the first thing used.

Please understand that I’m not attacking anyone for anything. The long introduction is a setup for the issues I face when I write about tourist attractions or events we attend.

Story perspectives

I find it interesting to read people’s perspectives with stories and blog posts. Where someone might find a cigar store Indian figure amusing or cute, I, and other Indigenous people,  find a sign – intentional or unintentional – of racism or, at the least, cultural insensitivity or ignorance. None are acceptable excuses or reasons to display something associated with bigotry.

When we travel, I see a lot of attractions and exhibits that are racist. I don’t for one second believe anyone intentionally decides to share racist items. I think it’s a situation where they don’t understand or it doesn’t register in their minds they should reconsider some displays.

Sculpture of Native American
The Clans Sculpture Garden in Winnebago, Nebraska, honors the tribe’s history.

In the Midwest, alone, I’ve seen examples beyond the cigar store Indian. I’ve seen dolls, salt and pepper shakers, plates, and drawings featuring African Americans stereotyped with exaggerated lips and body shapes. I’ve seen indigenous displays with dolls obviously made in China or another country. I’ve read made-up words that are supposed to be Asian or Hispanic.

I find these situations primarily in smaller communities where there isn’t a large population of people of color, if any.

Consult people of color

I honestly believe it’s a case where people just need to be educated. If your attraction wants to include stories involving people of color, it needs to be commended. But, it also needs to be responsibly done. I suggest consulting people of color. We will gladly share ideas and suggestions to help communities tell accurate and interesting stories.

America’s history, including the Midwest, consists of a rainbow of colors. There isn’t one set perspective that tells our story. We need to openly and warmly embrace all perspectives. Remember that one person’s take on westward expansion is another’s attack on their land and way of life. The “great” story of building America’s railroads also came on the backs of Asians, blacks and Irish immigrants.  Each was despised and discriminated against.

American history not accurate

Several communities base their historical facts on what was taught in school. As we grow older and gain new insights, we realize the very little history that we were taught was accurate. Christopher Columbus wasn’t a hero who discovered America. First, he never set foot on what became the United States. Second, you can’t discover a new land that’s already occupied. Third, he wasn’t worthy of hero-worship. Remember the Boston Tea Party? Colonists “disguised” as Indians dumped tea crates into the water to protest over-taxation. I doubt Indians really cared about the British taxing the tea that colonists drank.

Community museums and historical attractions use words like “massacre” and “murder” when discussing Native American-led assaults. When it comes to the cavalry or army attacking Natives, we use words such as “campaign” and “battle.” Essentially, both sides were doing the same thing.  It’s just viewed differently.

Headstones marking the spot where Native Americans died at Little Bighorn
Markers recognizing the spot where Native Americans died at Little Bighorn

Improvement happens

I do see improvement and change in places. The National Park Service has adopted a policy of improving its parks’ interpretations when it comes to Native Americans. Little Big Horn National Monument changed its name years ago from Custer National Battlefield. Today, park rangers present information about the battle, in which a conglomeration of Native Americans defeated Lt. Col. George Custer and his soldiers, in a matter-of-factly manner, presenting no bias.

The city of Wichita celebrates its Native American history with a 44-foot tall statue named Keeper of the Plains along its riverfront, which includes a small plaza with information about area tribes’ history. The attraction is illuminated each night with a fire demonstration. The sculpture is a short walk from the Mid America All-Indian Center, which shares Native history, as well as a look at current issues.

status of Indian sculpture raising pipe to sky
The Keeper of the Plains overlooks the Arkansas River in Wichita.

I see improvement, but it’s slow. Areas with a strong Native American population are likely to improve their presentations quicker and better than others without. This is where incorporating Native American assistance can help. Again, this actually applies to all ethnic groups. I once visited a rural attraction where two staff members discussed Cinco de Mayo plans. One suggested dressing in brown-face and wearing a sombrero. I cringed.

Consider different perspectives

When it comes to bloggers and travel writers sharing their stories, I see many writing from their natural perspective. Which can’t be helped. It’s been ingrained into us. Instead, I suggest we look inside ourselves and ensure we write accurate pieces that properly portray people. I realize that 125 years ago, people referred to Natives, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and others, by derogatory terms. Don’t go overboard and be overly sensitive. Write from the middle, please. Just don’t use outdated terms.

I’ve been blessed to be able to write a blog, articles, and books. I include as many ethnic attractions and stories as possible because I believe they’ve been ignored previously. However, I attempt to write each story accurately. While Abraham Lincoln was very much anti-Indian, his overall story was bigger than his treatment to Native Americans, including my tribe. He authorized the largest mass execution in American history when 38 Dakota hanged for their alleged roles in the Dakota-U.S. War in Minnesota. Do his actions toward the Dakota negate his working to save the United States and free slaves? Balance comes into play.

statue of scroll with Native American names
Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minnesota, includes a scroll with the names of the 38+2 Dakota, who were executed there.

So, when it comes to writing about our experiences, I encourage everyone to include ethnic attractions and stories on their blogs, etc. Let’s just ensure we’re treating these types of stories accurately, such as including traditional names of attractions, such as Matho Thipila, Lakota for the Wyoming attraction known as Devils Tower.

devils tower monument
Matho Thipila, also known as Devils Tower, has cultural and spiritual significance to several Native American tribes.

It’s not political correctness I’m encouraging; it’s portraying attractions and locations accurately. I read a lot of blogs and stories where I see change happening. We just need to continue to improve the travel industry, so it honestly reflects America of the 21st century.