Life on the Margins Up North
8 Northerners share their experience as a minority Up North.
By Lynda Wheatley | June 19, 2021
What’s it like to grow up in, move to, and live, work, or raise children in a place where 99 percent of the population doesn’t look like you? Do you feel like part of the community? Or are you made to feel you don’t belong? Northern Express asked these Northerners to share their experience as a minority Up North. We hope their answers resonate with anyone who needs to know they’re not alone — and everyone who needs to be reminded that, no matter where we’re from, who we love, or what we look like, we’re all part of this community.
The year was most likely 1970 or ’71, and I was 7 or 8 at the time. This was my first exposure to blatant racism. My dad had taken my older brother and I fishing in Indiana. It was a 30-minute drive from our home in East Chicago Heights, Illinois. After catching our allowed amount of fish, we piled into the car to head home. As we were pulling off, my dad noticed something was not quite right. He got out of the car, and all we could hear was him swearing in anger. Someone had slashed one of the tires.
While watching our dad tighten the lug nuts on the spare tire, we looked up as a car drove by with four white men yelling out the windows. They called us the N-word while throwing beer bottles at us. They screamed, "Go back home to Africa!"
As children, we didn't understand because we were born in the USA.
My dad was the chief of police in East Chicago Heights. Having a John Wayne moment, I yelled for my dad to shoot them. He did not. He never made any attempt to pull out his service revolver. He knew better than I did.
He knew that: 1) Getting his weapon would escalate the situation. 2) If he were to shoot any of those men, his life and ours would be over. 3) We would be able to go home once the tire was changed, and we would live and learn from this.
That was 50 years ago. In light of all the events happening today, it feels like not much has changed since that day.
At the age of 24, I moved to the city of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I lived there for 28 years while raising four children. There, I was keenly aware of my race. Most times, it’s subtle; rarely is it in your face. Many times, I was followed while shopping and asked if I needed any help repeatedly, followed by the police for no apparent reason. And times when change is given to me, it is put on the counter — not in my hand like the white customers before me.
I have now lived in northern Michigan for 5 years. At times the racism is not directed at me, just at people who look like me. Slurs and insults hurled at the TV screen, words muttered under their breath at live sporting events. Once they realize the magnitude of their words spoken in front of me, I am issued an apology — rightly, so but what of the actual person they are disparaging?
I love my community in Leland! It is home to me! I am welcomed. I have been embraced by this loving community. I did not expect this to be the case, and I am overwhelmed by it. I could not have asked for a better place to call home! My world was shaken when news of the Eckerley comments were made public — not so much by his words, but by the support he received. It really made me take a step back.
[Before a public meeting last August, then Leelanau County Road Commissioner Tom Eckerly used a racial slur to describe the people of Detroit; in a subsequent interview with the Associated Press, he repeated the slur, saying the Black Lives Matter movement is racist, and adding, “If I could get a few people that, when they see a Black Lives Matter sign up, to think the N-word, I have accomplished what I’m after.”— Ed.]
It's as if that one event opened the floodgates in northern Michigan, allowing other individuals to act out on their racist speech and actions without fear of repercussions. This behavior has made its way to our schools: colleges, high schools, and middle schools.
There are so many good people that I have come across in my life in northern Michigan. They are people that have big hearts, play hard, and love endlessly! We share many things that unite us, more than our differences can divide us. We celebrate each other’s accomplishments while lifting each other up during hard times. We are all good people making a life for ourselves and a better tomorrow for the next generation. Isn't that the goal? I truly hope so.
My name is Eden, or Eddie, as some people call me. I am a 17-year-old trans man. I’ve been fully out to the world for around two years now. I started transitioning nearly three months ago. The amount of obstacles I’ve had to jump to get here is enormous.
My life hasn’t been a straight path. I was born in Utah, but when I turned 5, we left in a last-ditch effort to escape the poverty that followed us and moved to Washington state. Our family of seven lived in a two-bedroom house surrounded by mint fields. I made a lot of good memories there. I was homeschooled up until the second grade, but I didn’t really make any effort to learn or make friends.
I didn’t really have any concept of gender at that age. I just existed to exist. When I started public school, things changed little by little. The boys and girls didn’t really play together. It was around fourth grade when my mother told me it was time to wear a bra for the first time. The shame I felt was unbearable. My skin felt like it was itching in my own skin, and I wanted to claw my way out. I wasn’t allowed to walk around without a shirt on anymore. I hated the bras enough that I just wore a hoodie every day and didn’t wear a bra.
I remember one day asking myself why I wanted to be like my brother so badly. I told myself, “Girls have dresses and makeup, so obviously girls are better.” The funny thing is, boys can wear dresses and makeup. But I hated both of them anyway, so I have no clue why I tried to justify it to myself like that.
As I went into middle school, I was known as the “pretty tomboy.” I had waist-long hair that I kept in a braid out of my face (which I hated but my parents liked). I always wore jeans, a hoodie, and a pair of cowboy boots.
Around that time, I developed depression that wouldn’t be diagnosed for another three years. I started to spend more time by myself, and people noticed.
My dad got a job in northern Michigan the summer before I went into eighth grade. So we uprooted everything we had ever known and moved across the country. We lived in a two-bedroom house again for a little while, but we weren’t allowed to explore at all. I felt suffocated at my new school. I was the new kid again.
A week before my birthday, I was institutionalized. It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life, and I know that it changed me as a person. Some of the things I saw there are still etched into my mind.
After I left, I was able to get treatment for my depression, and I did a lot of self-exploration. I finally opened that door and started experimenting with pronouns and gendered clothing. I had a lot of self-doubt on whether my feelings were legitimate, but they faded. Soon after, I came out publicly — about everywhere but at home.
Unfortunately, that’s when things became increasingly difficult at school. I would go to school, and there would be slurs written on my locker. Then they were shouting slurs at me in the hallways and while I was eating. Things steadily increased to the point where I was getting death threats, and I was nearly in two separate fistfights. One kid broke into a teacher's classroom after school to tear apart an LGBT positive poster I had put up (with the teacher's permission).
In the winter, these same kids would try to run me over. Straight pride and confederate flags started popping up on lockers in retaliation to LGBT-positive posters. Those positive posters maybe lasted half an hour. Kids made it a sport to take them down the quickest. Even a teacher ripped one up.
It took me around a year to get the courage to finally come out to my parents. Both of them are conservative — my dad being a “burn f*gs, not flags” conservative, my mom being a “voted for Trump but won’t admit it” conservative. But with time and education, they came to accept that I am who I am, and it’s not going to change.
My dad tells me that I’m the one who made him believe in karma. I’m the opposite of what he planned for me. And maybe that was a good lesson on compassion and unconditional love. I started my transition in September. My dad is actually the one who administers the testosterone. The pride and joy that I feel seeing how much he’s changed for the better is more than enough.
Around the time I was struggling with discrimination at my high school, I found an escape plan: I got accepted into an early college program and started to limit my time on campus to half a day. This year, I'm doing college full-time. I joined speech and debate and destroyed the competition with my poetry piece about being transgender, even taking first place in several cases.
But I still feel unsafe in my community. The whole reason I picked the name “Eden” is because it's androgynous; I can go stealth when I’m not in a safe situation. But there’s a big difference between healthy fear and cowardice. Any bigot in a 20-mile radius considers me the “ring leader.” One of the kids who planned to beat me up said I earned his respect when I didn’t back down. Those who know me know that I never hesitate to speak my mind. In college, I have experienced hardships here as well but not to the same extent. And I’m grateful.
A mother, calling her daughter, anxious; she’s not picking up your phone calls. “She just ran to the store for some milk, calm down.” A father, giving his kids the rundown of playing outside by themselves: no toy guns, no hoodies, no walking fast, no more than three of you in a group, etc. A sister, upset that her little sister came home crying because the white kids on the bus told her that her skin was dirty. Could you imagine yourself, fearing the outside world because of who you are?
Hello, my name is Khatoria and I am 18 years old. I was born in Georgia but grew up in Traverse City, so I would like to think of myself as a Traverse City native. I moved up here when I was approximately 4 years of age and have lived here ever since. There are a lot of ethnicities that make up who I am, but if I were to ask you, a stranger, what you think I am, the response I’d believe I’d receive is, “You’re Black,” or “You’re African American.” That is what I usually go by — an African American woman — because people go by what they see at first glance. That does not just go for people of my ethnicity, but for all.
Growing up in Traverse City has been a ride — and definitely not for the weak. I grew up hating the skin that I live in and hating all of the other features that happen to come with being a Black woman. Hate is a very strong word, yes? Well, I meant every letter in that word when I was younger.
Now? I’d say through all of the things that I’ve been through when I was younger, the word hate does not depict the love that I have for myself now. The things that I still go through today makes me sometimes wish that I woke up and rolled out of bed with white skin and white features.
Now, as we all know, Traverse City is predominantly white. You could probably count all of the black people you know on a hand or two, couldn’t you? So, why not make those few people of color feel like they’re at home rather than giving them dirty looks in the grocery stores, rather than partaking in microinsults — like, for instance, clutching your purse when we’re walking next to you because you deem us as criminals — rather than partaking in microassaults — like, for instance screaming out the N-word, and finally, rather than partaking in microinvalidations, like, for instance, walking up to me and asking me, “Where are you from?”
Why can’t I be from here? Be honest with yourself: Would you ask another white woman/man where they’re from if they were just walking down the street? Chances are, probably not.
Sadly, I’ve had all of these things happen to me in this city, and it really does hurt. This community is so tightly knit, and it breaks my heart that some of the people that stay here look at us Black people as outsiders.
I don’t want my parents or myself having to explain to my little sisters, “Watch out for this” and “You can’t do that” simply because they’re Black. As frustrating as it is, we’ve already had these talks. This doesn’t just go for Black people, but for people of mixed race as well.
Yes, your father or mother may be white and not just in this city, but in society, people will look at you as a Black individual and deem you poor, thuggish, etc. It gets to be really infuriating when I feel that I have to ‘flip the switch’ to show people that I am just as educated and well-rounded as you all. If I don’t ‘flip the switch,’ automatically, people are going to assume that I’m this stereotypical Black female from the trenches.
Some of you understand what I mean by ‘flip the switch,’ and some of you don’t; it means that when I’m around certain white individuals, whether they’re strangers or people of high importance, I feel the need to change the pitch of my voice, use certain words, and change the way I hold and present myself so I can be “accepted,” even though the way I am right now is perfectly acceptable.
One last thing, I wish that the history that is taught in Traverse City Schools wasn’t so whitewashed. Everything that I know about my ethnicity’s history, I was taught by social media or my father. This definitely needs to be addressed. Thank you for listening, northern Michigan.
What is it like growing up as someone who is a part of the LGBTQ+ community in Traverse City? I remember when I came out as a lesbian, I was terrified to tell anybody. I was afraid of what my family or my friends would have said. I was so nervous about what my mom would say that I wrote her a note when I started dating a girl, and I slid it under her bedroom door. She came in my room and said to me, “I already knew. I was just waiting for you to tell me.”
My dad, however, was a different story. When he found out — I don’t even know who told him — he called my mom asking if I was “the opposite of pregnant.” He tried to understand and has gotten better at understanding. Now he says that he understands why I like girls because he does, too. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of time.
Coming out as a teenager was hard with friends, too. Everybody that I thought was my friend stopped being my friend either because they thought that being a lesbian meant that I liked any and all girls, or they thought that a girl who liked girls was disgusting! If somebody was questioning whether they were into girls or not, they would also use me to find out, since I “look like a boy.”
Being a lesbian with a lot of tattoos, trying to find work isn’t always easy. Before I started working at my current job, which I was very nervous about going to the interview for, I went to an interview at a nursing home. It was a straight couple who interviewed me, and they told me as soon as they saw me that they wouldn’t hire me because their residents don’t react well to people who look like me.
Luckily the next interview I went to was at a daycare, and the director there hired me and told me that she does not discriminate. I’ve now been there for two years and counting.
Now I’m 22 and happily engaged to the love of my life, yet we can’t go out to eat or even for a simple walk downtown without getting nasty looks or people staring at us. But we are lucky enough to have an awesome and supportive family around us, and we have the most supporting friends to surround ourselves with.
My name is Ciera, and I am a Black lesbian woman. Growing up, my parents never taught me to think that anything could be affected by the color of my skin or by my sexual preference. As I grew older, I educated myself and realized that a lot of things I experienced in my life could have been motivated by my nationality and sexual preference.
A few experiences I’ve had the displeasure of experiencing while growing up and living in northern Michigan include, but aren’t limited to, a white woman yelling racial slurs at me in line at the bank because I apparently wasn't moving fast enough for her, being made fun of for getting my hair done in cornrows, losing friends once they found out I was gay, my mom’s family not accepting my dating preferences, poor to minimal service when out with my girlfriend, being the minority hire, and people not believing I am a Black woman. I even had a white male associate, whom I thought and believed was a close friend, use the N-word right in front of me, as if it were nothing.
Most white people I have encountered here in northern Michigan would try to tell me that I am “not really Black” because I have a white mom and a black dad. It is very annoying and frustrating when I encounter people with this type of ignorant thought process. I should not and will not explain or validate my race to others.
There has been a multitude of white people that I have come across, who do not believe me when I tell them I am Black. They will say statements such as, “You can’t be black because your skin is too light,” or “There is no way you're Black — you have to be Mexican or Latino.”
Before I even realized how they were devaluing my nationality, culture, and Blackness, I felt hindered to just lie and/or agree with some of them to end the conversation. It seemed no matter what I said, they just refused to believe me.
With most of my employment experience in northern Michigan, it feels as if I am typically the token minority hire. With this perception, it has given me a negative view and bad taste in my mouth — with those employers and the leadership of these organizations. I am an exceptional employee and have excellent reviews and professional references from other companies I have worked for. Unfortunately, I have been mistreated by those bosses, other employees, and customers. I have even been on the receiving end of dirty looks, rude comments, and management utilizing me as their scapegoat.
For me, the worst part of being a strong Black woman and a lesbian is that some of my relatives have chosen not to accept me for who I am and what I am about. This started when I was a child, but I was too young to really see and understand what was going on. My mother’s family refused to accept my dad simply because of the color of his skin. He was mistreated and not welcomed from the very beginning. It did not matter that he was a Marine and served his country for 18 years or that he sacrificed everything for the better good of my sister and I. My mom’s sisters and husbands (all white) were so racist, in my opinion, they would not even speak to him if they walked into the room, nor speak back when spoken to. Once I was old enough to see this for myself, it made me sick to my stomach and made me not want to be around them. If you cannot accept my dad, then you cannot accept me.
When I started dating my first girlfriend and brought her around them, my aunts and uncles would rudely and loudly ask me, right in front of her, “When are you going to start dating men again?”
My white family voted to take my rights away as a minority and LGBTQ+ member. I typically use social media to post my views and where I stand with what is going on in the world around us. Within the last year or so, I have spoken on and support a lot of Black Lives Matter content. I had a family member, on my mom’s side, make nothing but rude and derogatory comments towards my posts. They claim they are just trying to understand my perspective, but when I start to explain, they would respond with jokes or comments that do not make sense or anything would show they were even paying attention to anything I previously said. For me, they were just poking fun and being hateful toward me.
Once I start calling them out on their nonsense with the truth and facts, stand up for myself, my people, and fully explain why people of color are so angry and/or upset, then they have nothing to say and cease contact with me. In my opinion, some people just want to be disrespectful and non-understanding of people who are different from them.
Ironically, I have not had as many negative experiences with my sexuality as I have had with the color of my skin. I think this is due to the now-vast spreading of diversity in this community. When I came out, I was not accepted by my “so-called” friends or family. Despite that, I feel blessed to be accepted and supported by my immediate family and friends and have separated myself from those who choose to not accept me for who I am. Blood makes you related, not family. I want to send a HUGE THANK YOU to Up North Pride for helping make this spread in the community happen!
Elk Rapids, Kalkaska
Living in a heavily populated and largely diverse area like Detroit for half your childhood never seemed peculiar — until moving to an area where it was the complete opposite.
I found myself living in Elk Rapids, Michigan, an all-white town, at the age of 8 years old. Everywhere I was, I’d be the only Black person. However, I’d never given much thought about it because it had never dawned on me what it meant to be Black and how much Blackness rendered fear, savagery, and unattractiveness in American society.
Being at an age where skin color made no sense to me, it went heavily unrecognized that I was different until I found myself at an all-white school. I would compare the contrast of my arm’s deep caramel color to that of my white classmates. I noticed my brown skin compared to their milky white complexions. I remember going home some days after school and asking my caretaker at the time questions like, “Why are Chris (my brother) and I the only Black people at school?” and “Why do some of the kids at school stare at me funny?”
She would tell me, “Sweetie, there are people of all different colors all over the world, and sometimes people are afraid of things they’re not used to.”
Being a Black person in an all-white town was definitely difficult at times. Such as times when I would enter a store and find myself being closely eyeballed and watched to make sure I wasn't filling my pockets with unpaid items.
As I grew older, I gained knowledge and a better understanding of being a minority and a person of color in a small town. It is no secret that I'm Black, and it’s never going to change. I used to tell myself that I didn’t want to be Black because I couldn’t find anything special about it. It seems like everyone had already decided what kind of person I was without even getting to know me, so why waste time trying to change their way of thinking?
The only thing that I could acknowledge being proud of in my Black culture was the intermittent discussions of Dr. King and his contributions to civil rights. It made sense I did not want to be me; I was a black speck on a whiteboard. These were the negative thoughts I continuously encountered all throughout middle and portions of high school.
Shortly after I was introduced to my new and white foster mother in the tenth grade, she taught me that although I may feel as if being Black in a white town is a crime, it’s not. My mother always assured me that I should never consider myself less than the next person because of my skin complexion.
My last two years of education were taught at Kalkaska High School, which was also a heavily white school and town. My first day there I felt out of place, but I quickly realized that was because I was new, not because I was black. That was the day I began to take a strong liking to my dark features. To be nobody but yourself in a world doing its best to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can ever fight and never stop.
Alma “Rosie” Vasquez
When I was asked to share my story, I started to question if it was something I should do. Concerns started racing through my mind. Would I have a target on my back? Would I offend others? Would I have repercussions or consequences from either my community or my employer for sharing a part of my life story?
Would other people have these same concerns if they were asked to speak about their life story? Because of my past experiences and the world we live in and our political climate right now, I know that my story can be twisted or viewed by some as a political gain or a political topic when, in fact, it is not and never has been. It is a humanity issue. A human rights issue. After those thoughts, I decided I would. But as I tell you this part of my story, keep in mind that when I mention the school it is because it happens to be the school I and my children attend, therefore, it is part of my story not because I am singling it out; many positive experiences happened to us there, too. This story is not for pity, it is to bring awareness.
I am a Leland Alumni graduate of the class of 1998. I started at Leland Public School in the spring of 1991, when I was 12 years old and my family and I had moved to the area as migrant workers because my mother wanted us to have a better life and better opportunities. When we arrived at the migrant camp — el campo — in northern Michigan it was a rude awakening to an aspect of my life I had not realized. You see when I lived in McAllen, Texas, which is only about 9 miles away from the Mexican border, most people looked similar to me and most people around me spoke both English and Spanish. I primarily spoke English but understood Spanish.
Arriving in the campo, I quickly noted several things: One, I now lived in a small room that was made of brick cement blocks, with no insulation and no walls — only a piece of plywood to separate the area where my sisters and I slept and the area where my mother slept. The community restrooms were in a separate building made of the same cement brick blocks and no insulation. The community showers and laundry area were in yet another separate building.
Two, if I wanted to communicate with the people who lived at the camp with me that I needed to learn to speak Spanish. I taught myself Spanish by listening to Spanish music and watching Mexican soap operas. It felt like I was stuck in the middle of two worlds, and I didn’t quite belong to either, or I had to prove I belonged to both. I was too American to be Mexican and too Mexican to be American.
I am thankful to my mother and grandfather for bringing us to Leelanau as migrants. It is how I learned about my roots and my culture. It is where I learned to speak Spanish and that I was different. Working in the fields taught me work ethic and skills, whether it was picking asparagus, grapes, bottling in a winery, cleaning the cherry tanks, or picking strawberries or cherries and getting paid $2.50 a buck or log.
I can recall facing racism on my first day getting on the school bus. Kids made fun of me and the other kids from the migrant camp. It was the first of many experiences to come with racism in our community. I want to be clear that we live in a beautiful community with many loving and compassionate people. There is so much positivity that comes from our community. However, that does not dismiss the fact that there is and has always been racism right here in our schools, on our buses, our basketball courts, our soccer fields, and community.
I can still recall several incidents that happened to me and/or my sisters or friends regarding racism. One of these incidents resulted in me getting suspended from riding the bus simply because I stood up to kids who bullied me and my sister and friends. Perhaps I did not handle that situation appropriately at the time because I was young, exhausted, and belittled by the student’s racist slurs. While the student did get a suspension too from the bus, no additional action was done to educate him or others on anti-racism. Then there was an incident when my friends and I stood in the lunch line waiting our turn to get our food that a different student rattled racial slurs at us. While these incidents did not necessarily happen at this magnitude on a daily basis, the fact that they happened at all is wrong.
Also wrong: The fact that they still happen. My sons had their first experience with racism when they were in elementary school. Once, at a basketball game, an older woman verbally attacked one of my sons. She then began to verbally attack me and the rest of my extended family with her racist rant. It escalated so quickly that our school principal had to take the woman into his office and eventually call law enforcement because her verbal abuse continued.
My two young sons and my husband and I waited in the lobby, hearing every word this woman was saying. It was so hurtful to hear her yell, “Those cherry pickers need to go back to Mexico! They need to go back to where they came from!” Law enforcement came, and the woman was asked to leave. If only the woman knew all of my family present at that game were United States citizens, and my husband is a U.S. Marine veteran. Many migrants are U.S. citizens. Yes, many are from Mexico but they are from other countries as well.
It isn’t only overt racism. There is also systemic racism — the housing conditions, education, financial, and law systems. Many do not even notice it because it is what has always existed, therefore, it is normal and right in the eyes of many. Whether you agree or disagree with me, this is fact, and these are barriers that migrants, as well as people of color faced long ago and, sadly, still face today. I, as well as the other migrants, faced this in the ’90s. But these conditions should not have existed in the 90s; Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in1962 and in 1975 passed laws that are to help protect and improve migrant housing and work conditions. Think about that for a moment, let that sink in. It still exists today, in this century.
Why have some of those housing conditions not changed significantly from then? Has anyone stopped to ask themselves, how these housing conditions, educational practices, etc. affect migrant children and their families? For those who may have not stopped to consider it or learn more, all of these things — along with the other barriers and discrimination migrants face regularly — can and do create psychological and other health issues. Everyone handles and responds to it differently. Some overcome the barriers and even break the cycle of migrant work; others can’t. My husband and I were fortunate to be able to overcome many barriers and provide a better life for our sons.
We both worked from the bottom, worked hard, and made many sacrifices to get to where we are today, reaching our employment goals and owning our own home. I have faced and knocked down more barriers than I would like to count, barriers that should not have existed in the 20th century. I currently and proudly work for Michigan Rehabilitation Services.
There is no shame in being a migrant. There is honor in working and providing for your family, and there is an excellent work ethic and a special bond within the migrant community. However, that does not dismiss or make those barriers any lower, or the discrimination that comes along with it any less. Truly, folks, it’s the 21st century. We live in God’s country, as some like to say — in one of the wealthiest areas in Michigan. There is no reason for any of these barriers and discriminative factors to continue to exist today. I ask you: What will we — or you — do to help make that change?
The essay below has been updated to reflect changes made to errors in the original, published version. — Ed.
Holly T. Bird
I’m not a member of the local tribe, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians; my people are San Felipe Pueblo, Apache, Yaqui, and Perepucha [Indigenous peoples who lived throughout the Southwest, primarily New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico]. My husband is Odawa.
My mother’s family is English and German. My grandfather fought in World War II. He was stationed at Buckingham Palace. My grandmother was there, too, as Head Nurse of the Queen’s Private Army — they met at the Palace. My uncle was born there. On my father’s side, my grandmother was Perepucha. She had been traveling as part of a vaudeville show, singing, when she met my grandfather. They followed the iron trail to Detroit. He worked for Ford, then they opened up the first Mexican grocery and restaurant in Detroit. It is called Mexican Village, and is still in operation today through different owners.
My mom grew up in Redford, and my dad grew up in Dearborn. My dad was working for a steel company when they met. They had three children and divorced when I was four. We were very poor and living with domestic violence.
One of my early memories of racism was waking up to a burning cross on our neighbor’s lawn in Detroit. I don’t know if it was because we were the mixed family next door or they thought it belonged to the family they targeted, but one of our cats were taken and brutalized that night — sliced from sternum to belly. She survived. But it was very traumatic for our family. I always say, however, that it was one of the best places we ever lived because the Black families were so welcoming. Some of the few times I remember getting compassion from adults — and exposure to a cohesive, loving family — was around Black families in Detroit. When I went to a white family’s home (unless they were very poor), I definitely felt I was there as a guest — and not a wanted guest; I was tolerated. It was my tan skin and braids. I was often called “Pocahontas,” “wetback,” or sexualized.
My mother was an incredibly strong woman. She pulled herself up and worked hard to support us. Life was definitely societally easier for my mom as a beautiful, intelligent white woman than it was for my father – despite the very real obstacles she had and the misogyny she faced. My father — most of the jobs he had for most of his life were low-income support positions. He went to prison for a while. That makes it hard. Many of the choices he made have not been smart or were not healthy choices — but he wasn’t exposed to healthy choices growing up.
My sense of justice was formed very young, seeing a lot of these things.
I was inspired to go to law school by my father’s sister, my aunt Maria Tenorio. She worked at Wounded Knee as social worker in the ’70s. When I was staying with her, after college, she was the Executive Director of Oregon’s Native American Legal Services. I was working as an artist, but I found it to be too solitary. My sense of justice and public service made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough. Seeing my aunt’s work and those of the lawyers with her, I was struck: “Oh wow, that’s important stuff.”
But I was still anti-establishment. The Native experience with law enforcement — we’re taught to fear police.
In 1996, Bird enrolled in law school in DePaul University, in Chicago.
I went to law school to help my people. We needed Indigenous attorneys badly. When I got to law school, I started the Illinois Native American Bar Association. One of first things we did was to get rid of the R*dskins mascot at a local high school. I graduated in 1999 and was admitted to the bar in 2000. I first worked at a public guardian’s office, representing abused and neglected children, then went into private litigation.
I’ve served as a Supreme Court Justice for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawotami since 2010. I was Chief Judge for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians from 2008 to 2011. I was the Civil Ground Coordinator and Co-Executive Director of the Water Protectors Legal Collective at Standing Rock, in North Dakota. I’ve spoken at the United Nations on environmental racism and lack of speech protections for Native Americans. I’m currently the Co-Executive Director at Title Track and a council member of Northern Michigan E3.
I moved to northern Michigan in 2003, after my first child, my son, was born.
My kids have definitely grown up in a different space than I have. We encourage, and I bring forth, the Native American heritage more because I feel like it’s been erased so much in our society.
They still experience racism, though. My son, when he was in kindergarten or first grade, was told that he couldn’t be Indigenous because he wasn’t wearing buckskin or didn’t have arrows. Willow, my second daughter, whom we adopted at birth, is very pale, has some Indigenous heritage, but she grew up with me and identifies as Native American. She has been told she couldn’t be Indigenous because she’s blonde.
In the Indigenous world, you can have blood relatives and relatives “in the Indian way” — not blood but family. My son has a grandmother who is Lakota. She was the one who taught me the Lakota concept of child is “wakanyeja.” It means Sacred Being. The concept is that children are Sacred Beings that we are to take care of until they’re able to be happy, productive people.
I wasn’t able to freely practice my religion until I was a high school graduate. The Native American Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 but didn’t apply practically in all circumstances until almost 10 years later. It was still legal practice to involuntarily sterilize Native Americans until 1982. I have Aunties who were sterilized in BIA hospitals.
The last boarding school for Native Americans wasn’t closed until 20 years ago. There are 40- year-old people walking around our community that were horribly abused by them. We have, despite being the smallest minority population in the United States — the highest rate of incarceration. We have, by far, the highest rate of children put into foster care. There have been lawsuits against state agencies for taking Native American kids away without notifying their parents. And in the federal prison system, Native American children are 75 percent of all children incarcerated. Native Americans were given the right to vote in the ’50s but we are still having to suit or legislate to carry out those rights. Currently, Congress has the Native American Voters Rights Act being considered – because we need this protection from our local governments who would take our votes away.
My mission is to continue pursuing justice for my people, promote racial equity, protect our water, and help make this world a good place for our children. If I had one wish for northern Michigan, it would be to create an fossil-fuel-free green economy that helps to stop climate change and allows us — and all beings around us — to live in a good way.