Rhinestone Moccasins

I have Abenaki heritage. Not a lot. 6-7%. But growing up, it’s importance in my life outshined the other places where my family is from – England, Germany, Ireland. It means a lot to my father that we are Abenaki. He would often talk about it with me and show me the one photo that we have of our Abenaki relative, Minnie, in her traditional clothing.

But it’s also true that I’m from the suburbs of New Jersey and that my experiences growing up were about as far from Abenaki life as they could be. My family saw Native Americans through the lens of culture and the media – a romanticized portrait painted in movies and books. We loved Dances with Wolves. We had small statues of famous Native American warriors around our home. I asked for pair after pair of white pleather moccasins decorated with rhinestones – swapping one for the next as they wore out. In my gorgeous footwear I was Pocahontas or Tiger Lily, exploring the wilds of my backyard. I never knew and it never mattered that these had nothing to do with my ancestors, nor with the real people in Abenaki tribes living 6 hours north of me.

When I applied for college, my parents encouraged me to check the ethnicity box for Native American and I did, showing up in admissions files right next to people who had authentic connections to and experiences with Abenaki life. Potentially benefiting from that check box without a valid claim to it.

Today I find myself grappling with what it means to appropriate one’s own heritage. What part of my Abenaki heritage is it appropriate for me to assume? The experiences that I shared with my father were real. Our mutual love of our Native American roots is real. But to say I’m Abenaki is to appropriate so much of what is real for others – including hardship and adversity – that is not real for me.

“Rhinestone moccasins” is an exploration of these question. A self-portrait of me at around age 4, claiming an imagined Abenaki identity while the real Abenaki flag sits behind me and all around.




exploring the edges of appropriation
10.20.18 - 12.13.18

Authorcait giunta