Choosing Your Cultural & Linguistic Identity

Cherokee blood runs strong in my dad’s side of the family. Both my grandparents spoke Cherokee, and my grandfather won awards for his work teaching the Cherokee language. My siblings and I are registered members of the Cherokee Nation, with tribal cards to prove our ancestry. Yes, we have literal, honest-to-God race cards, and I’m playing mine here.

The thing is, I don’t speak nor read a lick of Cherokee, although I’d love to change that this year. I was just not exposed to it growing up. Hence, it’s not my natural nor native language. My physical makeup—other than the neurons in my brain that drive language development—had nothing to do with that. My dad tried to expose us to Cherokee history and culture as much as he could during our annual visits to Oklahoma, and we picked up on some Cherokee mannerisms from his side of the family, but for the most part, I was raised in working/middle-class settings, with predominantly German/Irish/Polish Americans. I live in the South now, and people here can often tell that I’m from the North; that’s closer to my cultural norm. So I think I can safely say that Cherokee is not my “natural” culture. I could learn a lot more about Cherokee, and grow to identify with the culture, but it would still be a learning curve, about as much as if I moved to China and tried to immerse with the natives there.

In that same strain, I am biologically deaf. But I don’t consider myself predisposed to ASL or Deaf Culture, especially Deaf Culture from those more than 2-3 generations before me. My native language is English, and I’m much more familiar with hearing culture than I am with Deaf culture. And I’m not the only one. Due to cochlear implantation and mainstreaming, the d/hh community (including the Deaf subset) has seen much more diversity in the past 20 or so years.

Another thing to consider is that, had the Cherokee Nation required that every one of its members speak Cherokee and live in Cherokee communities, regardless of any other considerations like the living standards of these communities, our access to resources, our interactions with non-Cherokee, our personal preferences, etc… I am quite certain they would have met with strong resistance, especially from my dad’s family. Not because their members don’t value Cherokee language and culture, but because people generally don’t like being told what to do.

I’m grateful that I learned ASL and studied Deaf history and culture. It helped me solidify an integral part of my identity in my early 20s, a time when I think pretty much everyone struggles with that kind of thing. I’m also grateful that Dad took us to Cherokee museums and re-enactments, and had us read books on our ancestors, and told us stories about his childhood in rural Oklahoma. But the thing is, it was all a gift. It wasn’t forced on me, and I didn’t have to trade off one culture for another.

Times are changing, as they always have and always will. I think most of us would like the freedom to determine our own cultural identities, not according to someone else’s cultural ideal.

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Addendum to Changing Perspectives: A New World

Another cuer contacted me to share that her experiences with the Deaf community did not quite match up with what I’d shared in my last post, Changing Perspectives: A New World. I had written that “[the d/Deaf community at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee] wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first.”

Now, I should clarify that these experiences took place mostly within UWM. Outside of UWM, I got more varied responses, although still overwhelmingly accepting. I think it depended on several factors, which I’ll outline soon.

Truth be told, I will probably not post much about the positive interactions here, because although “everybody got along, got what they needed, and is happy” is generally the desired outcome, it isn’t really much of a post. The few negative parts are where we still need improvement, likely through education and awareness. All that said, I will always, always shoot for balanced, constructive discussion. We really don’t have anything to gain by making enemies out of each other.

For me, I think several factors helped at UWM:

1) Diversity. UWM has/had a quite diverse community of d/hh students. Many came from a mainstreamed background, but we had several students and teachers who attended or graduated from residential schools for the deaf. We also represented a wide range of communication styles, from pure ASL to Signed Exact English to Cued Speech, and many of us used hearing aids and cochlear implants too.

I think a big part of this is our (in my opinion) excellent accessibility services program; they were truly committed to meeting each student’s individual needs and preferences. ASL, Signed English, Cued Speech, captioning– whatever you requested, they made sure their staff were equipped to meet that demand.

The size may also have played a part in it; compared to schools like RIT, Gallaudet, and CSUN, we had a fairly small d/hh community, so it may have been a bit harder to form cliques.

2) Age. I do notice a generational gap, starting around 1990, between what I think of as the “old school deaf”– raised in residential schools, used ASL as their primary language, had bad experiences with the auditory-verbal approach– and younger deaf people, more of whom tend to be mainstreamed and/or implanted, and with much better educational approaches too. The latter tended to be much more open-minded and accepting.

3) Mutual Respect. Pretty much right away, I took up ASL– I got many compliments about how fast I’d improved– and started learning about Deaf Culture. I always tried to show respect and appreciation for others’ perspectives, even when we disagreed. I think that made it much easier for others to show me the same respect and appreciation in return.