Zac Broken Rope has German ancestors on his mother's side of the family and a Native American heritage on his father's. But he grew up feeling that he didn't belong to either culture—until a family member taught him a lesson about his identity.
On the morning of Darlene’s funeral I thought about fry bread.
It had been my first experience with “real native food,” as she had called it, and the old Indian woman was proud of her secret recipe. During all those summers as a kid when I had worked at Indian Jan’s Taco Stand, I had always insisted on working by her side—her wrinkled and dark hands kneading the dough next to my smooth, white ones until it was just right.
Even in my young age, standing beneath the tent top in the sweltering summer heat, Darlene would tell me about our shared heritage, stories of Crazy Horse and the Dakotas. It was important, she had said, that my white skin did not overpower my native blood.
I believe in the importance of my heritage. It’s one of the things I learned from Darlene. Although I’m half Native American, you would never guess it by looking at me. On the outside, I look like my mother—I have her light hair, German eyes, and pale skin. My father is the Native one, and I grew up fully aware of the difference between his skin and mine. He was always tall and stern looking, and people in the small Nebraska town where I grew up often seemed intimidated by his dark skin and jet-black hair. He often wore it long and in a ponytail, something that men in our parts just “didn’t do.”
I grew up feeling like I didn’t belong to either of my parents’ cultures and that I couldn’t ever be anything in-between. When I was at home in Nebraska, people would hear my last name, crinkle their nose, and say “Broken Rope? What kind of a name is that?” Then, in the summer, when we would visit the reservation my father grew up on, I would always be the whitest person around, sticking out like snow.
Not only was I ashamed of what I looked like, but I also felt guilty for the things I had. My father’s reservation, the Pine Ridge, is one of the most depressed places in the country. The people there die young, but they give up hope even younger. I felt guilty that my lighter skin tone was part of the reason I never lived that life. I had been granted a privilege that others didn’t have.
I had told Darlene all of this once, when I was thirteen. She stopped kneading the bread and stood quiet for a minute, just looking at me. Finally, she leaned closely to my ear and said “Mitakuye Oyasin”. I knew it was a Lakota phrase, but I had no idea what it meant, so I asked her. “It means,” she said “that we are all one people.”
I looked at her, confused. “It does not matter what your skin color is,” she said, “It does not matter who your parents are, or where you live, or what you have. You matter because you exist. You are the past. You are the future. You carry both heritages inside you, and you keep them alive forever. That’s what’s important.”
I did not cry at Darlene’s funeral until I started carrying her coffin the few feet from the hearse to the burial plot. In the immensity of that moment, when the young let go of the old, I felt a loss not only of my family, but also part of my heritage and a people.
Zac Broken Rope is an English teacher in Massachusetts. Originally from Nebraska, he is a registered member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. As a teacher, he believes that education is one of the biggest boundaries facing Native people. Mr. Broken Rope is a first-generation college student, and his essay is a reflection on that.
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