Amidst feathered dream catchers and the sweet smell of new leather, I sat down across from Denny One Wolf in his Willow Street gift shop. A chief of the Métis Nation of the United States, he has been actively amassing his knowledge of Native American people for more than 30 years. Our conversation begins with a serious and somber tone, but not one to be confused with sadness.
“Métis means mixed blood,” says One Wolf, comfortable to talk about any subject facing Native Americans past, present, and future. “My ancestry goes to the Shawnee People and the Delaware.”
When European colonists arrived in what would become the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they commingled with Native Americans. Native American bloodlines became infused with European influence.
“American Indians generally turned their back on mixed blood Indians. We can talk about that for days, the sadness that’s involved with being a mixed blood. You have to learn to live in two worlds,” says One Wolf. “As history advanced, it just got worse.”
Predominantly associated with populations in Canada, the Métis came to the United States following a series of uprisings in the 1800s. Called the “Landless Indians of Montana,” the Métis moved about the country mingling with other Native American tribes writes Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown in the book The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. The website Voyageur Métis explains, “Generations of fear and hiding caused our culture to sometimes be fragmented.” One Wolf echoes this sentiment.
“We’ve been stuck away, some hoping we would just go away… instead, we’ve become educated,” says One Wolf, who grew up in the area of Lancaster City known as Sunnyside, served in the U.S. military, and now resides in Conestoga.
One Wolf traces his ancestry beyond the family tree and into the realm of DNA. A minimum requirement for inclusion into the Métis, says One Wolf, is one percent of Métis blood verified by DNA testing. He was surprised with his own results. He knew his grandmother was Shawnee and his grandparents on his father’s side were Delaware; they had a “typical look” one would expect in a Native American. It turned out that the amount of Native American blood in his veins was more than he anticipated—over 70 percent.
“In this generation, it is almost impossible for any American Indian to say he is 100 percent, true-blooded, American Indian,” he claims.
At this point, One Wolf digresses into the story of Ronnie Cutthroat, a Lakota whose father earned the fierce sobriquet by fighting against Gen. George A. Custer. The one-time Lancaster resident was what One Wolf feels is the closest to a full-blooded Native American he has known. Cutthroat grew up on Pine Ridge, a federally established reservation in South Dakota… “Very, very deep into the wilderness with his family,” says One Wolf. But even Cutthroat knew of at least one family member with light skin.
“You go into the reservations today and you can see the differences. There is red hair and blonde hair. Indians have what we call blueblack hair, but the interbreeding process will wind up being the downfall to the American Indian people,” says One Wolf.
Here we entered into a long and winding conversation about Native American rights, Federal infringement on property, and social stigmas and acceptance. Everyone walks a path and for much of his life, One Wolf followed the wrong road. By the end of our conversation, I realize there may be nothing more historically valuable than a living history—the stories of One Wolf dancing in a tribal circle as a child, his struggles from alcoholism to the presence of a spirit guide, and why he has stuck by his wife’s side through sickness and health. His is one story… but, it is a story of many.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Sitting down to write this story I encountered a myriad of obstacles when considering the proper terminology and language to use in order to avoid any kind of offense to both the subject and potential readers. The most daunting of which being the exonym to use when describing indigenous peoples of the Americas. After reading through pages of debate and criticism I settled on the term Native American.