The University of New Mexico Best Student Essays

Considering Cultural Identity

an interview with photographer Nina Freer

Albuquerque, New Mexico is an exceptional example of racial and ethnic diversity. As a member of this community, and as a racially mixed individual – what locals refer to as coyote – I have always been fascinated with this sense of cultural identity.

With so many various perspectives regarding how a person might relate to multiple cultures or ethnic backgrounds, what is to become of the originating cultures? How is a multicultural person supposed to view them? And how is he or she supposed to view him or herself, being part of two cultural backgrounds as well?
These are questions I had rattling around in my mind – probably on a daily basis honestly – as I sat down to speak with Nina Freer. Nina’s photodocumentary piece, titled titled “WHO ARE THE NATIVES? ¿QUIÉNES SON LAS INDÍGENAS?”, addresses these issues from a native woman’s perspective.

The following is Nina Freer’s statement regarding her work:
What does it mean to be an indigenous woman in modern times? The piece is a self reflective series exploring an unfixed form of identity that is both constructed by internal admission and external assessment. Often we are not seen for the beliefs or ethnicity that we possess and in turn we can also be judged by our exterior presence that we do not identify with.
I would like to discuss the various roles we find ourselves and have created as mujeres de indigina sangre in a modern era. After a discussion with mi madre I have started to self reflect upon my own role and the various needs that we fulfill in the community as indigenous women. I have begun to acknowledge my upbringing and cultural influences that have not necessarily been directly identified as native traditions. As a Mexicana though there is much mixed native blood and am starting to see the traditions of my family. I am trying to find my place by examining other women. I am looking at women as revolutionary, reformer, spiritual leader, peacemaker, healer and matriarch; the various components of being a female warrior.

Added February 18, 2011

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I know there are expectations of me to keep my own traditions and in a way you kind of carry that with yourself wherever you go, in everything you do. There is always that obligation to go back home. I’ve been taught to go on in my career and to then go back home and help, it’s complicated. At the same time, after I left nobody likes me anymore but then I am still expected to go back and help people. It’s just weird dynamics because I’m smart and don’t have kids right now. I have always been a different kid, even when I was little kids could tell I wasn’t a typical Laguna girl. I wasn’t going to stay and have kids at a young age. I always needed to be something bigger and have that potential. It took me a long time to see what that potential was. My mom was always saying that I have many paths to choose from, I just needed to pick one. It’s hard.

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I think that we as women are also men. The same for men, men are also women. Part of us is that duality which we call Ome in our indigenous language. So that Ome means ‘two’. And in many other traditions you will find the ying/yang, and the difference between left and right and that duality. The role in society, traditionally, has been women at the bottom, men at the top. Women have to be subservient and submissive. And that is not the way that life intended it to be. That is why we are men and women at the same time.

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I have to have a balance with where I’m from in order to fit in. I think that as I learn more and mature, that my knowledge is always developing and I am always geared to the basis of my home, my people, my community, my traditions, and that helps me to fit into contemporary society. It’s so chaotic now, everything is so high tech, everything is getting abused and everything is so violent. I think that balanced fitting into a contemporary environment comes from where I come from, you know, my roots. Without that I don’t know how I can balance myself. I think just the fact that my people are able to shut outsiders out of our community gives us our right so we can keep practicing after generations, after years of prayer, years of dance, years of song, also a language that keeps us balanced and helps us to gain knowledge to survive. I think that is the most important thing, that alone.

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