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To Native Americans, naming is identity

By Ines Hernandez-Avila, Special to CNN
  • Ines Hernandez-Avila is "an indigenous woman of the Americas," Nez Perce, Mexican
  • Her father's parents said "You are Mexican," her mother said "We are the First Americans."
  • She says when asked "Who are you?" it means where you are from, who your people are
  • Hernandez-Avila: "I am grateful for my parents, that they brought their two worlds together in me"

Editor's note: Ines Hernandez-Avila is professor and incoming chair of Native American Studies and co-director of the Chicana/Latina Research Center at the University of California, Davis. She is one of the founders of NAISA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and a member of the Latina Feminist Group. She is a Ford Foundation/National Research Council Fellow, at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels.

(CNN) -- Naming. It is always about naming, about knowing how to name.

I am an indigenous woman of the Americas, daughter of Janice Andrews Hernandez, a Nimipu -- or Nez Perce. She and I and my two sons are enrolled on the Colville Reservation in Washington state. My father is Rodolfo Hernandez, a Mexican-American from Texas, a Tejano with indigenous roots on his father's side from San Luís Potosí, Mexico, and Spanish roots on his mother's side, from Coahuila, Mexico, by way of the Canary Islands.

I have been told that my grandfather on my mother's side has contributed a drop of Shoshone and a drop of French to our family; and my grandmother, a drop of Iroquois and a drop of Flathead.

These drops do not seem to manifest in my family. At least as far as my mom and my uncle are concerned, we are Nez Perce. We are Nimipu.

My father always referred to himself as an American. Period. He did not really relate to Mexico. He was born in Eagle Pass, Texas, grew up in Galveston, served in World War II as a Marine, fought in the Philippines, and came home to resume his work as a carpenter, following in the footsteps of his father and his father's father.

When I was a child growing up in Galveston, I knew that I was not white. I knew from school -- from kindergarten through high school I was the only nonwhite person in my classes -- and from my family. My grandparents always told me, "Tú eres Mexicana" ("You are Mexican), and my mom always told me "We are the First Americans."

My mom willingly went into a kind of exile to marry my father. She moved with fluidity into the Mexican community in Texas, loving my father's family, loving to dance to Tejano conjunto music. She always took me "back home," though, to Nespelem, to the embrace of her own family.

I grew up knowing that I came from two deeply complex cultures, and even as a child, I began to discern between the two, finding my own methods of reconciliation. I speak Spanish fluently, thanks to my paternal grandparents -- both of my Mexican grandparents learned to speak and write perfect English, and became naturalized citizens. That I know only words and phrases of the Nimipu language is heartbreaking to me, but I am trying to learn.

I did not grow up calling myself "Chicana," although I have chosen for much of my life to use this term as a political act, to call attention to the fact that Chicanos and Chicanas have indigenous cultural roots in this hemisphere -- in Mexico, to be exact.

I was an activist in the Chicano Movement in Texas in the 1970s and early '80s, and I began to keep up with what was happening in Indian Country, through any resources I could find. I learned to name in new, profoundly critical, heightened ways that were relevant to social justice and political and cultural autonomy. I saw how the thoughtful, revelatory layering and unlayering of terms transformed communities through the rationale of naming.

I have a Ph.D. in English and the institutional training (and now interdisciplinary breadth) that allow me to be a professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. I am passionate about helping to build and sustain the undergraduate and graduate programs we have developed at Davis.

But in my life there have been many spiritual teachers, intellectual mentors, elders, artists, writers, activists, friends and family members who have enriched my life and are not connected to academia. They are the ones who keep me grounded as a human being.

I think of my own identity as a radiant synthesis of all that my consciousness, my awareness, my spirit, heart, body, intellect, will have perceived in this life on this Earth.
--Ines Hernandez-Avila

I think of my own identity as a radiant synthesis of all that my consciousness, my awareness, my spirit, heart, body, intellect, will have perceived in this life on this Earth.

I am eternally grateful for both my parents, that they brought their two worlds together in me. I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother.

How would I like others to refer to my identity? Nimipu/Tejana. Indigenous people are about specificities. When you are asked "Who are you?" the expected response has to do with where you are from, who your people are. Nimipu/Tejana.

The Nimipu has to come before the Tejana because it is the reference to a First Nation. Naming matters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ines Hernandez-Avila.