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

Guest post by FraggleRocks Dahlia

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.

Buckskin wedding dress available here

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?

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

  1. 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

    • 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…..

      • 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.

        • My email address is [email protected] 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

    • 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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 🙂

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

    • Hello, it’s now 2019, so presumably you have got married now? I’d love to know how it went.

      Best wishes,

      Sarah

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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