Scouring the literature in an attempt to define indigenous identity as it relates to me has been futile. Weaver (2001) describes the difficulty of obtaining a consensus on the definition of indigenous identity and how to apply the term. She continues to outline her frustration and finally gives in to using less exact terms. Corntassel (2003) shows how a multitude of definitions has arisen that are both incomplete and politicized. Neither Weaver nor Corntassel nor any of the other scholars that I have read in the past two weeks would agree, based on their writings, that I would have some indigenous identity. It seems that this would otherwise offend them. It is obvious, however, that I have a cultural identity as do all people, but I fail to see myself as indigenous, so I will concentrate on this cultural identity using the fieldwork methods outlined by Omohundro (2008).
My cultural identity is, in part, related to my ancestry, or genealogy. As far as I can tell, my ancestry is a combination of Italian, French, English, German, Irish, Scottish, and Portuguese, though living New England, specifically around Boston, Providence, and New York, I have more of an affinity to my Irish and Italian heritage. However, it does appear that I share my English heritage with nobility of Queen Catherine’s privy court, Sir John Alexander Webb, and William Shakespeare.
Developing as a child in my household, I have learned a few ideals that have more import and others: loyalty, character, and resolution. Honesty, temperance, and justice I have learned on my own, or more evidently from my environment growing up. Much of this wisdom of our forefathers is still evident in and around Rhode Island, thankfully. Understanding why my ancestors migrated as they did certainly underscores the importance of freedom, liberty, and tolerance.
The ethnosemantics of Rhode Islanders can be quite intriguing to outsiders. I am not sure that I have ever met anyone who enjoyed the dandle as much as my cousins and I. Others, though, would have used a see-saw or teeter-totter. Likewise, I remember looking forward to enjoying a cabinet on a hot summer day with my grinder. Others might have enjoyed a milkshake with their submarine sandwich, hoagie, or hero. It seems that we stole the terms bubbler and soda from Wisconsinites as they moved to the area as my ancestors did. A bubbler being a water fountain and soda refers to any carbonated beverage.
Even more interesting than our vocabulary, though, is our pronunciation. Traveling around the country, I have noticed that when residents of other States hear an accent, they usually just comment on it. For the typical Rhode Islander, we are made to repeat ourselves often. Sometimes people truly do not understand our vernacular, but mostly it is for the novelty of it all. Rhode Islanders seem to remove the letter ‘r’ from words and place them in words that do not have any. Additionally, we run many words together unnecessarily. For example, “A Rhod’aylindah would flip a breakah if the lights’n out an’ say suntin’ like ‘I’ve an idear… let’s getindacah’n go fe’ bananar splits wit vanillar ice cream,’” or my favorite, “Immunna gessin gaggahs, djeetjet?” This question would usually be replied with, “No, joo?” More obvious, the first set of statements refers to resetting a circuit breaker after losing power then taking a ride in the car to get a banana split. The second, more cryptic, phrasing simply translates, “I am going to get some gaggers (or, hot weiners; see also http://www.olneyvillenewyorksystem.com), did you eat yet?” The reply being, “No, did you?” We tend to ask even if we know the answer.
As our strange vocabulary and pronunciation are very colloquial, I think I might understand how it has developed. Rhode Island has always been known for tolerance, both religious and political; therefore, the heritage has always been a rich mixture of various cultures attempting to flee from various types of oppression. My assumption is that much of the dialect and vocabulary is simply based on misunderstanding and ethnosemantic distortions of the multiple cultures residing at any given time in Rhode Island, a pidgin. I may be mistaken, but the thesis seems viable.
Understanding my cultural identity allows me to view the world and other cultures with temperance and acceptance. My heritage is rich with both culture and despotism. Likely, many other people have a similar story. Most important in understanding cultural identity is the ability to benchmark one’s self against society. Doing so allows me the ability to focus on the moral strengths that I have learned while attempting to temper the weaknesses. With a more complete understanding, I am able to justify the life lessons that I might pass on to others.
Corntassel, J. J. (2003). Who is indigenous? ‘Peoplehood’ and ethnonationalist approaches to rearticulating indigenous identity. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 9(1), 75-100. doi:10.1080/13537110412331301365
Omohundro, J. T. (2008). Thinking like an anthropologist: A practical introduction to cultural anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Weaver, H. N. (2001). Indigenous identity: What is it and who really has it? The American Indian Quarterly, 25(2), 240-255. doi:10.1353/aiq.2001.0030