The in-between place: wedding planning and my Native American identity

March 21 | Guest post by FraggleRocks Dahlia
Native American Wedding Dress, Hair
Thanks to katherineophoto for submitting this photo to the Offbeat Bride Flickr Pool.

My fiance and I are Native people. Our ancestors lived here for… who knows how long. We are bound to this land in a way I can't even explain. My first trip back to the reservation when I was a kid was almost like a religious experience for me. The land is old, and as a ten-year-old kid I could feel it. It was like nothing I had ever felt in the city, with its ever-changing way… new people… new buildings… the land is unrecognizable, and it's always changing. The land the city is built on seems to forget as it plunges into the future. But the Plains… oh, that was a different story. The land out there hasn't changed, it looks just like it did 300 years ago when my people lived, loved, and died there.

Nighttime is when you could really feel it. They told you not to pick up anyone walking along the road at night, they were spirits trying to find their way home. There was a heaviness that was always upon the air, but at night, it grew and intensified a thousand times. Maybe it was the humidity, the silent lightning storms, or the way the wind just died at night, but the land was still, no cars, no trains. Some spirit swept through the land and settled around us, almost as if reminding us who we were. And I understood this was home. Even if I never lived here, this is where I came from.

Fast forward to my early adulthood, and I'm feeling like a traitor. I work, I eat, I sleep. I consume. I make money catching shoplifters for an old American institution — a department store that throws a parade every year. My fiance fought for the United States in a war for who knows what. He now works protecting the assets of a casino. We rarely practice the old ways, but we're still tied to them… especially when planning a wedding.

We are both proud of our Native heritage. My great-great-great-great-grandfather is Red Cloud, the last of the indian chiefs to surrender and be put onto a reservation. He did great things trying to protect his people and his way of life.

However, sometimes we are not sure if that is who we are. Well… that is who we WERE, but is that who we ARE? This question has come up a lot in my wedding planning. Especially with dress. I would LOVE a buckskin dress, but I would also love a lace dress. We would love a traditional wedding that incorporates both of our traditions, but is that who we are? We'd love to get spiffed up in a dress and a suit, and we'd love a wedding that reflects US as individuals, not as a culture. I think that's what's so difficult about this. We KNOW the answer, but we feel like we're betraying our past.

My fiance and I, we feel it would be almost a sham — a theme wedding, a costume party — if we had a wedding where we did bits of both traditional and modern. We would feel it insulting to our heritage, but at the same time, we feel it insulting to our heritage to have a modern wedding.

So, this is our in between place. I think every Native person has one, and I don't think it's limited to weddings. Now that I'm thinking about it… I don't feel like this is limited to just Native people… what about children of immigrants? Others?

The in-between of the past and future is the present. Presently, it is my job to figure out how to balance the two so that maybe my children won't be so confused about their identities.

Are you in an in-between place?

  1. Wow. I'm not Native, and I have nothing to contribute to your dilemma (maybe ask older members of your community their opinions?), but I have to say that your description of the land is so beautiful. I've felt that in the desert and the reservation, and it's why I love the West/Southwest so much. Thank you for putting it into words, and best of luck with your planning!

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  2. Echoing Heid above, I have to say that I'm not Native and cannot speak to your conundrum, but I felt that Plains spirit in me the first time I saw the sandhills. And I knew that was home. And later this year, I'm finally FINALLY moving out there to be home.

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  3. I'm adopted from Honduras. I'm of Mayan descent and grew up in a city with a high population of immigrants. I have a great love especially for asian culture (most of my friends were asian). I'm hispanic but I want to be dressed like a Hindi bride. I want a whole roasted pig like a Chinese bride. I'll be jumping over a broom at the end of my ceremony. I want to incorporate Jewish customs due to a dream I had the night I got engaged. Things are always harder when this happens. I wish I could honor the Mayan heritage I have but I have no idea how. It would feel odd if I did it. Don't worry. You're not alone at all.

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    • I'm Honduran and of Mayan descent too but I was raised in Africa through my childhood then Europe through my teens. My partner is of Irish heritage, raised in the U.S.

      We're trying to incorporate Mayan, Celtic, African (and Steampunk) aspects because they are a part of us.

      The effort will be worth it though, I think. Whether we honour all our parts or focus on one, whatever decision we make will be what we thought was right at the time so no one can blame us for that.

      <3

      3 agree
  4. Yes, third-culture kids. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_culture_kid

    I have always been in between. It's not an easy place but it has a lot to teach about questions and life and culture and home. And at a certain point being in between feels more at home that being settled into one identity or another.

    There are plenty of people who do two weddings. Would this work for you? You can have one of the celebrations smaller and more private (even as private as an elopement with a photographer and priest) and the other the full social event. Or you could have the two ceremonies on the same day with a dress change? So it wouldn't be one ceremony with everything mixed but two very separate ceremonies.

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  5. Perhaps you could incorporate traditional Lakota beading into a gown made of European textiles. Or use all white beads in a traditional star pattern. The groom could do the same using traditional Lakota materials to make a waistcoat to go under a more European style suit.

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  6. I completely understand how you feel. I also think that this is something that is felt by children of immigrants. My parents were born and raised in Mexico, but my siblings and I were all born here. Spanish was my first language, we spent our summers in Mexico, yet I know I'm not fully Mexican because I am also American and vice versa. This comes with a lot of guilt that you are forgetting one part of yourself if you embrace the other. It also comes with rejection because my family in Mexico sees me as American while my friends in America see me as Mexican. As I've gotten older and this is finally becoming my life, I can't stop thinking about all of this. I guess that it's because as I get closer to my wedding it feels as though I now have to choose. So what's it going to be? Are my children going to know the comforts of a homemade tortilla, home remedies, and the heartache of Vicente Fernandez? Or are they going to know the taste of meatloaf, use antibacterial everything, and sing along to Elvis? Who would I want to win a the world cup? I guess that fact that I am trying to answer this question with a soccer reference shows who's winning…

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    • The World Cup reference is what I've heard described as "the football test". You'll always know which city/country/culture you REALLY consider home when their football teams play each other. LOL.

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    • Mexico. Definately Mexico.

      If America won the world cup I think the rest of the world would die of shame.

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      • But then again, I wasn't even aware that they had a national team. I've never seen them play during the world cup!

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  7. I think I know how you feel, although I may not have a right to…Is there a possibility of making a trip to the reservation to consult with elders or tribal leaders or whoever the keepers of the culture are? Or if not a trip, getting in contact somehow and asking for their advice? I think that would be the most respectful way to do things, to yourselves, your heritage, and to those who live the traditions you wish to honor.

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  8. Dear FD –

    Thank you for such a beautiful post. If you ever were inclined to become a writer, I believe you would be wildly successful. Your writing definitely touches my heart.

    I think trick is to find a way to honor your heritage and the memory of those who came before. Honor the land and the spirits.

    It's not so much WHAT you do or how you dress, it's what is in your heart. How can you incorporate traditions that are meaningful to you both? If it feels like playing dress-up to wear a buckskin dress, then don't do that. But you might find a blessing or ceremony that you want to use instead because it feels right.

    Ultimately, I guess that being an OBB is a lesser but similar experience as being Native in a modern world. As brides, we each have to figure out how much tradition (cultural or modern) will determine who we are. My best advice on all counts is to always follow your heart.

    Best wishes to you and your future husband!

    6 agree
  9. I'm in a similar boat. I'm a 6th generation Métis living in Manitoba Canada. Since my ancestor have been in the country for so long, I tend to call myself Heinz 57 (I'm Métis, which is a mix of Ojibwa and French (settlers), some of my ancestors are also Irish, English, Spanish, and the list goes on…)

    My FH is also in the same boat. Comes with a family heritage that have been around for so long.

    So as the wedding plans are coming along, I've struggled to find which ancestry to honor and which to drop, it's not an easy task. We're going to try to amalgamate what we can, as that's were were raised (with a bit of everything) and incorporate what we can.

    Trying to find our "true" selves in this 3 ring cirrus called a wedding, is a consent battle, especially if you focus you're attention on all the bridal magazines. But I also find that we've discovered and also solidified so much in ourselves that the struggle is completely worth while.

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  10. This sentence really resonated with me: "Presently, it is my job to figure out how to balance the two so that maybe my children won't be so confused about their identities."

    I'm black with a white mother- and a white fiance. I've spent most of my life feeling in-between, and I've made the decision to never have children, so that I won't ever pass that feeling along to anyone else. It's something my fiance doesn't understand, no matter how hard he tries, and it hurts him.

    In-between-ness is a painful feeling to wrestle with for anyone, and everyone does it in different ways. Kudos to you, Dahlia, for being so open about your own process and thoughts.

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    • I'm also mixed (Mayan, Basque, Moorish, English). I'm glad you wrote your post because I feel similarly conflicted about children and I never hear anyone else mention it. My fiance is a very white Irish-American. I realize my children might likely look "completely" "white" (whatever those two words mean), and I would be sad about not passing along the visible evidence of my Hispanic culture. On the other hand, I'm not sure I would want to pass on my mixed heritage either. We might adopt non-mixed children so that they'll never have to wrestle with the issue.

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  11. I could have written this post myself, even down to the fact that my fiance is a vet.

    I am a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and he is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. How we appraoched our heritage was very different as we were growing up, my father stressed to me that my heritage was important and was to be honored and respected because there were not many left to carry on our traditions. People would always question (sometimes in hushed tones) if you were a member of the band or not. My fiance grew up in an area where there were hundreds of thousands of members of the nation and no one really talked about if you were or weren't a member because it was kind of assumed you were.

    Anyway without getting on a tangent, we are planning a Cherokee inspired ceremony. For me it was actually easy because I'm pagan and I was trying to figure out how to have a ceremony that spoke to me spiritually, but did not give my 80 year old grandparents a heart attack. When I started looking at ways to weave my religion, my heritage, family tradition and the modern together the ideas and plans began to just fall into place.

    I, like you, didn't want to fee like I was playing "dress up" and also I didn't want to wear the Cherokee Tear dress (not only because it didn't make me feel like a million dollars, but also because it's not traditional for the Eastern Band). So I picked a very simple (much more figure flattering) traditional dress. On the other hand my fiance is wearing a traditional Cherokee Ribbon Shirt (which is traditional for the Cherokee Nation).

    We are calling the directions as part of the ceremony and having a fire ceremony instead of a unity candle.

    Wow I know I'm rambling now… basically I just wanted to say that 1 – it's a difficult fine line to walk between traditional and tradition and 2 – that hopefully for you it will be like it has been for us, that when you hit the right balance all of the other pieces just begin to float into place.

    ~R

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    • Could you tell me a bit more about your wedding. I am also Eastern Band Cherokee. I am also in a struggle trying to bond both traditons of a flattering dress but also traditions of my heritage. I was adopted by older parents who have passed as has my brother so we will be married in the rocky mountains. I cannot even set a date until I can be sure my wedding day will be something I can be at peace with. thanks for any advice…..

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      • Beth

        I can't figure out how to respond directly to you. If you are a member of the Tribe you can add me as a friend, my username is rikitikitovey.

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        • My email address is bmowder@hotmail.com I'm not a member of the tribe. I have all my information and family history after digging forever in my background. Being adopted has made things very complicated. I am a wildlife rehabber in SC with a dear lady who is our director and Western Band of the Cherokee from Oklahoma. SC doesn't recognize Native American weddings but Utah does, where we will be married. I plan to return to SC and have a traditional Cherokee Wedding but I still feel as if my heart needs to combine the traditons in the marriage taking place in Utah. Any thoughts are appreciated. I had never thought of how torn I would be over this…so glad to see your post here.

          1 agrees
  12. This is a beautiful piece and it really pulls at the heart.

    On the one hand, it is great that you have a single solid cultural heritage. I have some Native, but not much. Only an 8th Yaqui, and an 8th Navajo.
    My other 8ths include Chilean and French.
    And I am also half Mexican.

    My grandparents on my mother's side became American citizens just before my mother (youngest of 6) was born. Even though we have many-a-Mexican quirks about us, my grandparents were very much of the idea that we are Americans now, and should assimilate. Of course we have Tamales for Christmas, and we say things like "take off the light," and "Victoria Secrets," and are very loud when we get together, but we are all pretty watered down Mexican after that. Most of the grandchildren can't even speak Spanish (myself included).

    It wasn't terribly hard to come to some common grounds in wedding planning with my Mexican/Irish fiance.

    There was a small debate on if we should have Mariachi's, but decided our ipod would be cheaper, with my cousin DJing.

    It was a no-brainer to have Mexican food, because it's what we grew up on and our favorite foods.

    Aside from those little pieces of our heritage, It's all uniquely us.

    I don't think you should feel like a traitor for mixing your past with your present, because ultimately that IS who you are.

    You are a blend of your ancestors, and the modern world you live in.

    Take what you love, what you know, and what you are comfortable with representing about your culture, and then leave the rest up to your heart and creativity.

    Happy Planning <3

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  13. I'm not Native, I'm 100% Scandinavian and I'm born and bred North Dakotan, now living in NY state. I know that longing for the plains. And I know that longing for culture. I grew up pretty immersed in Scandinavian culture and moving out here to NY – where everyone is Irish and Italian and Greek and Polish and Latin and Dutch with scarcely a German around, much less a Norwegian or Swede – has been easy in some ways and hard in others.

    My cultural fix will be food and music. There will be Scandinavian/Nordic music at my wedding, and there will be some good food traditions as well. But the rest will be pretty thoroughly "American," because that's who I am.

    As for the buckskin dress? You could always have a very small, family-only ceremony in traditional dress out on the prairie and then have a thoroughly "American" reception.

    Two dresses are more expensive, but you could differentiate that heritage and family are important in serious ways (ceremony), but friends and your modern life are important in other ways (reception).

    Just a thought. Good luck with the balancing act. I'm coming from a totally different place, but I think we feel some of the same things on this issue.

    2 agree
    • Growing up in a very Scandinavian town, on the old family property, I often find people who are more Scandinavian, genetically, than my 1/8th Finnish and 1/8th Norwegian, but have so little connection with their culture that I feel like I'm the true Scandinavian American. I miss the culture when I'm away from home. There's something about the music, the littling rhythms of a pols on a hardanger fiddle that make me feel so at home.

      Should I ever get married, that will be 100% in my wedding, mostly because I intend to dance the night away to a live Scandinavian band. And then Lindy Hop, cuz that's popular up there, right? =D

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  14. Oh yes, the in between place I think is unique to north americans. All of us have been thrust into a recreation of culture and in different ways we have all let our ethnic cultures fall to the wayside-no matter of the ethnicity. North american culture boasts the wedding industrial complex. There is definitely a balance that can be made. There have been cultural revivals in the past many times over that have been successful as well, off the top of my head I think of the chabad movement of jewish americans and the european folk religion reconstructionists.

    3 agree
  15. I'm actually Native myself, well partially…but have never been exposed to the culture so I can't help with that set of customs.

    I am, however, marrying a man of Vietnamese decent and we have a daughter together. We're trying to incorporate some traditionally Viet aspects into our reception. Here's a few that won't feel awkward to us and will give his family that warm and fuzzy feeling :-)

    -I'm having an overlay made that would normally go over the traditional Viet dress…though I will just wear it over my western wedding dress during the table greetings.
    -We're having table greetings :-) In Viet culture the bride and groom visit each table and "collect" their gifts. We're going to try to avoid the gift part of the visits, though some of the elders will insist on keeping tradition.
    -We're having a Lion and Lantern dance performance by the local cultural club. It's going to be part of the reception entertainment.

    That's about it. I didn't want to have an "Asian" wedding because that's not who I am…and honestly my fiance is American and doesn't really relate to most of the cultural traditions. We did want to incorporate some parts to make his VERY traditional family comfortable and to introduce my side and our friends to it :-)

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  16. What a fantastic post! I'm white, but I have lived on the rez for the past couple years (Navajoland ftw!) and in planning my own wedding, I've actually discussed this with a few of my female friends and students who are Navajo.

    I think it's fucked up that society feels a need to place Native Americans in some sort of historical past, as if their identity is either traditional or modern and illegitimate. My students love current pop culture- many identify with diverse subcultures, including goth, LGBT, hip-hop, and anime, just to name a few. Most find it EXTREMELY important to learn Navajo, participate in traditional ceremonies, make rugs/jewelry (some more than others) but their identity is SO much more than just that.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that I think you COULD do a wedding incorporating both modern and traditional elements, and if you really tried to make it represent the two of you, maybe you'd be surprised how natural it will feel!

    Either way, good luck and thank you for the insight! 'Burque rules!

    6 agree
  17. Hey everyone,
    I just wanted to say thank you for all the awesome and supportive feedback on this. I was truly writing from the heart and actually brought tears to my own eyes as I was doing it.

    I would love to hear more about the children of immigrants and how they balance their blood cultures and their new American culture. I went to school with a lot of Muslim girls (post 9/11)and I knew quite a few that had a tough time with the fact that they could not dress the same way as the pretty popular girls (shorts, skirts, tank tops etc). I always felt strongly for them, because for them, their struggle was an outward one. I was always grateful that I could hide my struggle if I needed to.

    Thanks again everyone!

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  18. I can empathise with how you're feeling. My fiance is 1/2 Native, 1/2 White. I am a 'mut', but I've been drawn to the ways of my Grandfather's people for some time now. E, my fiance, spent most of his childhood on the reservation. He's found a way to balance Native traditions with the social 'expectations' of our state capitol (where he lives), but when it comes to planning our wedding, we both feel strongly that the ceremony honors our traditions and who we are as individuals. Thankfully his Native traditions and mine overlap in many ways. I feel that you can honor your Native identity in ways that would be unique to you and your fiance, as YOU are, not as what's expected of you. After all, this is YOUR wedding. You can choose to which end of the spectrum you will go toward, or find a comfortable place somewhere in the middle. E and I have spent many hours planning our ceremony so that it will be true to what we believe, who we are, etc and nothing else. We are honoring his traditions as well as my own; our ceremony won't be what most expect, that's for sure, but it will be what is right for us. You can do this! Bring in elements that are true to you and your fiance, whether subtle or overt, this day is about you, it tells your story; E and I are excited to make our wedding our own,its not easy but maybe that's the best part. We have the power to create something unique to us and so do you. Our ceremony incorporates honoring the elements, the Great Spirit, a pipe ceremony, etc but also has a handfasting ceremony, sharing of vows with our children, and a broom jump; we will have two officiants, etc. He'll be in traditional dress and I'll be in a dress that's anything but traditional. Your wedding day is about you, who you are individually as well as together. You are not disrespecting your history by honoring who YOU are – a blending of a breathtaking history, a beautiful culture, and a transformational future will make for the perfect ceremony that honors you and your fiance, and who you have become because of that beautiful history intertwined with the culture that surrounds you today.

    3 agree
  19. From the bottom of my heart i completely understand…i'm lenni lenape of Moraviantown ont. and my fiance is some white guy from Detroit. Although we've been together for 7+ years, im stuck between my dream "Tradtional" Union and his normal(for the lack of better word) wedding. But I've yet to ask my elders about the morality of having a semi traditional wedding. Mostly like not though… The in-between is frustrating and I hope whatever you choose works and makes you and you fiance happy.

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  20. Wonderful article, Dahlia!

    I think the in-between-ness is indeed a uniquely North American issue, but in some ways it is a good thing. We're fortunate that we do have the opportunity to choose between honoring the parts of our heritage that resonate and hold meaning for us, but we are also able to live in the modern world and make our own decisions about life and beliefs without being held hostage by tradition. Not everyone in the world has this opportunity.

    I'm not native, but reading your article its clear to me that both your native heritage and your modern American heritage are important to you. Do what it takes to incoporate both in a way that makes you feel like you've honored both.

    I will say that I'm a bonafide Southern white American girl marrying an Anglo Indian man raised in Dubai, so I've certainly bumped heads with the "How do we incorporate both cultures?" debate. It may seem odd that I'll be serving both Southern American food and Indian food at the reception, but we're both foodies and we're really excited about showing our heritage that way!

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  21. I don't know if this will be helpful, or completely not, but – in Asian weddings the bride will often wear a "Western" dress for the ceremony and first half of the reception, then change into the cheongsam/qipao for the second half of the reception. Then, have a separate traditional Tea Ceremony wearing one of the Asian dresses. [[This is just regarding the attire as you mentioned your dress]].

    It's not at all "weird" or disrespectful to do it this way, and from my experience, the guests understand and appreciate how the different traditions are incorporated.

    So – again, it's not a Native American tradition but maybe that will be helpful to you? But feel free to disregard this if it's not helpful. *shrugs*

    Also, do share what you decide to do on OBB, I know we would love to hear from you again.

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  22. I'm sure you remember me telling you that my fiance is Native as well, Comanche to be exact and his great-great grandfather is Quanah Parker. His grandmother was his granddaughter and he grew up as a Native who happened to be mixed with white. We're going to have plaques made by him that are just slices of wood (cross-section of a tree) to not only honor his trade as a carpenter also painted with the Comanche nation symbol on one and the TX flag on the other (that one being my side). I can't wait to see pics of your wedding and I love your progress updates!

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  23. I understand completely! my fiance and I are going through the same thing right now. We're trying to incorporate our native heritage into our ceremony. I'm having a more traditional lace dress but I think we're going to walk the seven steps together.

    http://www.documentsanddesigns.com/verse/Native_American_wedding_vows.htm#t3B

    something like that. we're also going to have a handfasting to incorporate some of my celtic heritage.

    I hope you figure everything out and have a beautiful wedding that means everything you wish it to. Blessed be you and your loved ones.

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  24. I am a Native American and one of the last generation of native children adopted by an anglo family. I love my family with all my heart, but being American Indian has made my life an in-between place. However, I like to think about the issue in the following way: Native people historically were not culturally isolated. People married and had children with others from different tribes and regions and later, with people of other races. Different tools, foods and cultural practices were traded and used and adapted to the culture of each tribe reguarly. I was raised to understand that American Indian culture is not static and that the general culture of the United States is not only part of the Native American identity and culture, but that Native American identity and culture has influanced the dominent American culture as well, it is just a matter of studying it and seeing the give and take in each cultures' makeup.

    1 agrees
  25. truly thought-provoking post – thank you!
    I have to echo the others who have said to do what feels right for you and your partner because a wedding is a about being wed to one another. it's all about you! (both of you, of course)
    that said – remember Laura's incredible buckskin-infused wedding wear:
    http://offbeatbride.com/2011/01/deerskin-wedding-dress
    create your own version of perfect!

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  26. You write beautifully. Truly lovely way of describing your tight spot.
    I feel myself to be in a similar spot at times. Both my fiancee and I are from Oregon, and our parents are East Coast Jews. Out here we have grown up with more assimilation and have constantly had to balance American traditions with Jewish ones. It is something I often struggle with, but I do my best to accept myself at any given point I'm at with the struggle. Sometimes I choose to observe more, sometimes less.
    I grew up in an egalitarian Jewish tradition, which has specific wedding rituals, and my fiancee prefers some more traditional versions of the rituals (less egalitarian). I get the feeling that the practice you get at balancing yourself during your wedding planning will prove very useful for the rest of your life.
    And keep writing! :)

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  27. what you have expressed is exactly how I feel on a regular basis. I myself have chosen to intergrate aspects of my native culture into a more traditionally western wedding. I would like to use Navajo wedding baskets for my flower girls though there will be no corn meal in them. I plan to ask my grandmother if that's ok. I also want my wedding party and all my wedding guest to do a round dance that I am hoping to write. Round dances are a very modern thing and really couldn't be touted as Navajo but I myself am very rooted in Pow Wow culture and love round dances. I also am trying to work hard to forget my partner's cultures. In the end there will be about four cultures to incorporate maybe even five if you count American Culture in general.
    Thank you for speaking of inbetweenness it's a big deal and as a child I often struggled with the idea of which group do I belong to I am hoping this is a day that I am finally able to reconcile being Black, Navajo, and a reluctant American. I am also hoping to join with my partners cultural identities as well because if we ever have children I want them to feel embraced and apart of all of their cultures. I do not want my children to feel that they I have to chose like I did. I instead want to instill them with the knowledge that they are all and one can not be chosen over the other, something I didn't learn until after I entered into adulthood.

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  28. My mother was native, Lakota too. We are probably even distant cousins. I however do not look native but am very proud of my heritage, no matter what shit I catch for it. My maternal grandmother and her mother, Onchi, use to take me to powwows when I was little and I always loved the beading. My plan is to wear one of my late mother's beaded barrettes in my hair, probably a blue one. Maybe even stitch my veil onto it.

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