We are all examples of true beauty, yet we live in a culture that tells us differently. The society of today does everything it can to put us in a box, doing its best to contort us into its shallow definition of "ideal beauty." These unrealistic standards are completely one-dimensional, and they fail to encompass the wide variety of beauty that abounds in the human race.
Living in two worlds
American Indians often discuss the struggle of trying to live and thrive in two worlds: the world of their culture and ancestors and the one of a modern day civilization that is a melting pot of ideals, customs, and beliefs. When Indigenous people embrace their physical beauty and inner uniqueness, the conflict between these two worlds becomes even more apparent.
In a recent article titled "She's So Pale" that was posted on Native Appropriations, Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, discusses the stereotypes that so often bombard Native Americans. She explains how so many people “think that Native identity is tied to looking like something off the side of a football helmet...they want to be able to categorize and move on. But Native identity isn’t just a racialized identity. Native identity is political. We are citizens of tribal nations. So we can’t just talk about our identities purely in racial terminology. There’s also a deep power issue here—who has the 'right,' especially as an outsider, to determine someone’s identity for them?”
Adrienne’s pale complexion has caused many to cast judgment and challenge her Native heritage. This fact alone exemplifies the danger of trusting our eyes to be the only valid source of truth. She is determined to make a difference and expose these obvious misconceptions, stating “instead of feeling ashamed, I’m trying now to turn the tables and think that I, instead, am the colonizer’s worst nightmare. Because history has tried to eradicate my people by violence and force, enacted every assimilating and acculturating policy against my ancestors, let me grow up in white suburbia, and erased all the visual vestiges of heritage from my face–but still tsi tsalagi (I am Cherokee)....fighting back against misrepresentations, through a keyboard and the internet.”
For Erica, a young Lakota Native American college student from the Kul Wicasa Oyate, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, the journey to embrace her own identity and idea of beauty was one that evolved over time. She shares, “When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted was to be beautiful. To my understanding, beauty was all about the looks, the perfect skin, perfect body, perfect hair, and makeup without flaws. I’ve had low self-esteem ever since I can remember.” She explains that she also faced insecurities because of a birthmark on her face.
As Erica grew up, she began to observe her friends who also struggled with low self-esteem. “Listening to them say, 'Ew' about themselves if someone were to call them pretty, I thought every single one of them was beyond beautiful! I started to realize that beauty isn’t about your looks. It’s actually a whole lot more than that.”
Erica’s "definition" of beauty is inspiring and something we can all learn from. She conveys:
“Beauty is when your personality and strength show. I see beauty in people who can genuinely smile when you know just how broken they really are. It shows when you see someone you love doing something that makes them happy! It shows when you can put others before yourself. Beautiful is more than just looks; it’s all about how you feel about yourself, others, and everything in between. Beauty is who you are as a person in whole!”
She goes on to share, “I heard a saying once, and it has stuck with me ever since. ‘When a boy calls you hot, he’s looking at your body. When he calls you cute, he’s looking at your face. When he calls you beautiful, he’s looking at your heart.’ Don’t get me wrong; don’t depend on a boy to call you beautiful to prove you are. Anyone can call you beautiful; if others can see it, then you most definitely are beautiful! You may not feel it yourself sometimes, but everyone else can see it. To me, beauty is your aura, and everyone is beautiful in their own way.”
We asked 10-year-old Lael, daughter of Native Hope Ambassador Kansas Middletent, what she thought the word "beautiful" meant. Here are her answers:
Native Hope: Who is beautiful to you and why?
Lael: My mom. She’s pretty.
Native Hope: Is being beautiful only something you can see on the outside?
Lael: No, being kind is beautiful, and you can have a beautiful heart, too.
Native Hope: How does someone have a beautiful heart?
Lael: They say something nice to someone or do something nice for them.
Native Hope: What is beautiful about being Native American?
Lael: Our clothes and our hair.
Native Hope: Has anyone said anything beautiful to you today?
Lael: Yes, my dad said he loved me.
Native Hope: What else is something beautiful your dad says to you?
Lael: He tells me good night every night before I go to bed. He says he loves me every morning. He says, “See you after school” every day when he drops me off.
Native Hope: If you had to pick between a beautiful hat or a beautiful heart, which would you pick?
Lael: Beautiful heart.
Native Hope: If you had to pick between a beautiful shirt or your mom or dad telling you they love you every day for the rest of your life, which would you pick?
Lael: My mom and dad telling me they love me for the rest of my life.
Quite honestly, we believe that beauty should not be confined to a simplistic definition. We are all unique, not just physically, but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. We are made up of our memories, our experiences, our family influences, and our heritage. The idea of one version of beauty is, simply put, obsolete. Our bodies are a canvas to richly display the beauty of our souls and the complexity of our life experiences. Whether it’s through a scar, a birthmark, your grandmother’s eyes, or a face lined with the wisdom of age, beauty is indefinable.
All of us at Native Hope celebrate the beauty of Native American heritage and the captivating complexities of all Indigenous people. With your partnership, we can nurture the future generations of Native Americans, providing programs and support that encourage our Native youth to embrace who they are and to leave a mark in this world.