When I learned that one of the Anishinaabe’s protocol for a Water Walk meant I had to wear a skirt, inwardly I groaned. I grew up out west among ranches, logging camps, and mountains, feeling more comfortable in a flannel shirt than a flowing skirt. However, the walk was not an event; it was a ceremony, and a skirt announced to the earth we walked upon that we People of the Heart were women, the containers of water, the bringers of life.
For this, I would wear a skirt.
Someone gave me a fun thrift-store find, knowing I called my literary community a ranch. It was a Western skirt of many colors with motifs and a narrow lace hem. I planned to wear my walking boots with it and leggings underneath. The night before the walk, I gathered up my clothes for an early morning departure to Copper Harbor from Hancock. To my embarrassment, I realized the motifs were small panels depicting a theme of “Cowboys and Indians.”
No way could I wear this skirt. I called a good friend who was also walking and also white. I told her what I had discovered about my only skirt. She confirmed I couldn’t wear it. Miserable, I ransacked my closet and found a lounger, something like a house dress. Covered with a t-shirt that proclaimed, “The Revolution Has Begun,” our official 2019 Water Walk slogan, and a Women’s March sweatshirt, my PJs passed for a skirt.
I’m writing this column to explore what it is to be white and an anti-racist.
It’s likely the most uncomfortable topic I’ve ever tackled. Can I change the subject? Because discomfort is hard to experience. But here we are, me writing and you reading, all of us willing to sit uncomfortably in the muck of what American cultural identity has become. But as the condensed version of a quote by Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, goes, “no mud, no lotus.”
Let’s talk about my cultural identity since I’m tapping the keys from the hot seat. Then you can think about yours. I’m an American, a fifth-generation Californian who grew up on the Nevada border not far from Lake Tahoe. I could ride a horse before I could walk, and somewhere I have photo-evidence. You might laugh, but Charli is short for Annette. It’s a buckaroo culture thing— nicknames are popular, and my dad gave me mine as a baby. He says Charli was his imaginary friend as a child. He didn’t tell me this until I was fifty-three years old.
My full name at birth was Annette Marie Fernandes. Mills is my married name. I’ve been told all my life, “You don’t look like a Fernandes.” Really? I think I have the nose to prove it. I have my great-grandmother’s nose. According to family legend, I was a “Portagee Red.” It meant I was Portuguese with red hair. Okay, so the hair is unlikely Portuguese. It turns out the nose isn’t either. Great-grandma was Basque and Scots. According to my DNA, I’m Basque, Portuguese, Scots, Irish, Spanish, French, and English with a smattering of Swedish, which is kind of weird because my great-grandfather came from Denmark, not Sweden.
I’m western European. I’m western American. I grew up identifying as Portuguese, eating linguisa for breakfast, and marcella at Christmas. My dad’s family was Catholic, and that’s likely the common denominator among my most recent ancestors. My mom’s mother was half Portuguese and half Danish (until I found out it was Swedish). All my Portuguese ancestors came from the Azores or Brazil, first to Hawaii Territory and then to California.
Why does heritage matter?
I can’t insist that it does because my strongest cultural identity growing up was that I rode horses, pushed cattle on trails, and could braid rawhide leather into horse reins. I wore chinks (Vaquero-style chaps), Wranglers, and satin neck-scarves. I was born a buckaroo (a variation of the word Vaquero, a traditional horse culture that worked the land-grant ranchos and ranches of California and Nevada) and have lived in every western state except Oregon, Colorado, and Wyoming. As a writer, I belong to an organization called Women Writing the West. I write women’s fiction, reclaiming forgotten voices from the fringe and frontiers.
What matters to me are the lost voices of my female ancestors. If I don’t heal my own losses, how can I reach out holistically as an anti-racist? This is a fine line to navigate. Too much self-reflection and I lose the chance to bridge cultural reconciliation; too little and I might unwittingly appropriate a culture not my own. Whether or not you feel called to reclaim your own ancestral roots, an anti-racist must accept the humanity of every person.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, healing my own ancestry is what drew me to my first Water Walk. The Anishinaabe women (kwe) are committed to bringing awareness to water’s importance in our region. Water is life, no matter where any of us come from. The kwe invite all peoples to join them in understanding this sovereignty of water. They call those who accept the invitation, People of the Heart.
Often, the heart needs healing. When we turn to address the history of a nation built on slavery and genocide, it’s enough to diminish any heart. Origins of America as a nation cause the ultimate in discomfort when walking the path of an anti-racist. How can one be proud of cultural identity and reconcile our past? Avoidance is one strategy. That may temporarily protect the heart from pain. Deflection is another. Some people get angry over the subject.
To heal, we must look back to understand our present moment to choose a better future.
Despite the discomfort, it doesn’t last. That moment when I really saw my Western skirt in a different gaze, I felt embarrassed. I sought support. A good friend may help us sit with the uncomfortable emotions and support the right choice. I learned to recognize cultural misuses and found a creative solution that hurt no one. I could still be a buckaroo who helped kwe in a water ceremony that heals us all.
This is not the end of the story. This year, I did not participate in the Water Walk. Part of the reason was COVID-19 and my reluctance to gather. Mostly, it was due to the demands of my thesis at the time. But I still went into solitary sacred space for the weekend, meditating, singing a song to Nibi, and contemplating what it means to be Indigenous. I am not Indigenous to America, but my ancestors were once Indigenous to Western Europe. All my DNA leads back to the tribes of Celts.
Native singer, speaker, and poet Lyla June Johnston’s song “Mamwland” took me home to my earth healers, whose voices I can hear when I hold the earth in my hand. Healing as an anti-racist, I realized, may look a lot like the reclamation of cultural identity—not to create further division, but to understand that we are all humans indigenous to this great round world.
It is important to me to actively seek out where racism yet roots within me. When I sit with the discomfort that can rise from my European cultural identity, I get the chance to give up unnecessary trappings. And I get to wear something new with broader, inclusive meaning.
Charli Mills grew up out west where she once won a rodeo trophy for goat-tying. Now she wrangles words from the Keweenaw as a literary artist, writing about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history. She makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com.
Recommended Listening: Earth Talk: Mindfulness, Healing and Racism: Cultivating Right Relations with Lyla June Johnston, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20dOZaIzF1c
Work Cited: Johnston, Lyla June. “Mamwland.” YouTube. https://youtu.be/TeGLDwfrvb8
Excerpted with permission from the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2020, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.