Intraregional Borderlanders: Native American CCKs

Jalen Smallcanyon poses for her senior portraits on the scenic land outside Page, Ariz. (Image courtesy Jalen Smallcanyon)

Native American populations often fly under the public eye, and issues on reservations rarely make it into mainstream U.S. news coverage.

U.S. culture is always described as a melting pot, a blend and mash of the culture of immigrants and natives, all combined into one, unique narrative. 

When this description is dolled out, it is common to imagine Italian immigrants mixed with Chinese immigrants mixed with African-Americans and caucasians, all living in a mid-20th-century-era New York City.

However, there are cultural pockets that lie within the modern continental U.S. that are rarely acknowledged and appreciated.

Indian reservations are land areas designated by the U.S. government specifically for Native American tribes.

Jalen Smallcanyon on the Navajo Nation as a child. Used with permission.
Jalen Smallcanyon on the Navajo Nation as a child. Used with permission.

The reservations were established to “encourage” Indian populations to live within clearly defined zones, with the promise of food, goods and money to protect them from violence intended by other Indian nations and white settlers. 

These reservations are considered sovereign, meaning that they are considered independent under U.S. law. They are permitted to house casinos, for example, and it is a tribal council, not the U.S. government, that has jurisdiction over these areas.

Today, the reservations represent a cruel system of estrangement and ostracism. The physical boundaries represented by the reservations incite cultural conflict and misunderstanding between the populations outside and those within.

Native American children in these areas may attend schools with few other students from their cultural background, and may become borderlanders as they constantly travel between two distinct cultures, even within one state.

A video filmed at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. asked Native students about the struggles and benefits of being native.

One of the students who was interviewed, whose name was not provided, said:

There was this problem, like when you go off to school and then you come back and you don’t really know your culture and your traditions.

The student refers to this idea as being “an apple,” which has come to mean “white” on the inside and “red” on the outside. This term alienates these cross-cultural children, forcing them to feel different from both their home and host cultures.

Jalen Smallcanyon dressed in traditional Navajo garmets, used with permission from her instagram.
Jalen Smallcanyon dressed in traditional Navajo garmets, used with permission from her instagram.

An article in NativeNews profiled a family in Montana that felt similar rejection in both aspects of their lives. 

Dustin Mon­roe must travel 206 miles to return to his family in the the Black­feet Nation, and he has always been split between two separate worlds.

“A social bar­rier formed, like I wasn’t accepted in either world,” he said. “In the city I was a brown kid with a ‘rez’ accent but when we returned to the reser­va­tion I was a white kid just because I went to school in Great Falls.”

Many people are drawn off of the reservations due to instability, violence and suicide rates, poverty and alcoholism. 

Jalen Smallcanyon grew up in the Navajo Nation outside of Page, Ariz. She has “known a lot of alcoholism in [her] family” and at her high school. She said: “white kids didn’t get along with Navajo kids.”

“I love my homeland,” she said. No amount of struggle and misunderstanding could take her roots away from her.

For Smallcanyon and for others, “the reservation is home.” Monroe said despite his constant conflict and lack of belonging, he is determined to remain true to both of the cultures he interacts with.

“I choose both,” he said. 

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