Danielle Geller is the winner of our Race, Racism, and Racialization student writing contest:
A few days before I turned three years old, my mother and my father packed my younger sister, my cat, and me into a car to drive from Florida to Window Rock, Arizona, to visit my mother’s family on the reservation, and to register me and my sister with the Navajo Nation. The cat jumped out of the car somewhere in Texas, and my father was bitten on the leg by a brown recluse spider, and he was arrested on an old warrant and did a stint in jail, but we made it to the reservation otherwise intact. My few memories of that visit have been pieced together from stories I’ve been told, but I do have two lasting artifacts from our only trip home: a photograph of my mother, my grandfather, her two brothers, and me, standing in the yard behind my mother’s childhood home, and my Certificate of Indian Blood.
What the certificate proves is that I have 1/2 degree Navajo Indian blood, and my Census Roll Number is 636,234. If the records were public information, you could find my name on page 557 of the Southern Navajo Indian Census Roll, and below it, my sister’s. The only thing the Census Roll got wrong was my birthdate: not July 29th but the 28th, though it’s unclear if the mistake was the technician’s or my mother’s.
What the certificate proves is almost nothing.
Nearly two years later, on May 3, 1991, Florida’s Office of Vital Statistics issued me a new birth certificate, forty days after the courts granted my white grandmother legal custody of my sister and me. It wasn’t much of a court battle—my parents, separated and alcoholics both, agreed to surrender their parental rights before the case ever saw a judge. The only thing Florida’s vital statistic clerk got wrong was my name: not Danielle April Geller but Danielle Geller, though I know for certain it was my grandmother who forgot the name my mother gave me.
When people asked me, over the years, if I had a secret Indian name, I should have given them my middle: April, T’ááchil, when wind blows life back into the desert.
But a few years after the adoption, my grandmother moved us to a little town called Yoe, in central Pennsylvania, the whitest place on earth. My mother was hundreds of miles away, and her family even farther.
I did not know my blood clans; I did not know my family, not by name or by sight or by laugh; I did not know their traditions; I did not know their language; I did not know what portion of history to call my own.
But once, as I sat in the empty hallway of my middle school, an older man stopped in front of me and said: Are you Native American? I’d bet anything you are. When I said yes, he just smiled and moved on. And once, when I was fifteen and cleaning tables at Hardee’s, a white-haired man in a baseball cap looked up from his biscuits and gravy and said hello in my mother’s language, in words I didn’t recognize. I stared at him in confusion until he told me he had worked on the reservation and married a Navajo woman many years back. And once, when I was sixteen and cleaning the snow off my grandmother’s car, my Hopi neighbor walked down the driveway and announced: You must be a Navajo woman. Weeks later, as he showed me through his two-bedroom apartment, he confided that he had always wanted an Indian mother for his sons. And once, when I told the Mexican man on the bus that I was not Latina but Native American, he asked me to what degree, and when I said half, he said: Good. That means the blood isn’t too thick. But once, when I came home with a barbell through my tongue and a ring through my nose, my white grandmother said, in disgust, “It must be the Indian in you,” which was always cheerlessly funny to me because I never felt Indian at all.
Danielle Geller is a candidate in Creative Writing, Nonfiction at the University of Arizona and a recipient of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards. She is a member of the Navajo Nation: born to the Tsi’naajinii, born for the white man. Her work appears in Silk Road Review.
Artwork by Damon Locks