Charleen Nicholson / by Michael Falco

Who is Charleen Nicholson?

Charleen Nicholson was born on a reservation in Alaska to a Native American mother and a white father. When she was two she moved with her white father to Oregon, where she grew up, although she returned to Alaska during the summers to visit her family on the reservation. Charleen has lived in Cheyenne for twelve years. She moved to Cheyenne to be with a guy she knew from high school in Oregon - he was to be stationed at the Air Force base in Cheyenne. They were married five years and had a daughter together before divorcing. Now she is married to another man she met in Cheyenne. She is currently unemployed, but is in school studying to become a surgical technologist. She has three children from three relationships.

Excerpt from interview with Charleen Nicholson by Whitney Dow, 2018

Nicholson: [01:02:15] I feel like—okay, so, I don’t know where to start on that. I could not believe that somebody was making this. Obviously, I didn’t know all of the details about the film, but I did get an email after I did the survey, saying, basically it said, how has whiteness affected your life? And it felt like, I don’t know, like, you guys knew that that was a thing in my life, that that was a theme, that was something that I have dealt with my entire life, and nobody’s ever asked me.

Nobody’s ever asked me, you know, how has not being tan, or being, you know, mixed race, but how has the white part affected you and your life? And that’s super interesting, because I don’t really tend to focus on, you know, like, the nonwhite part of myself, it’s been kind of an issue to have this whiteness, and it’s just been a theme and a huge stressor for me. And now you guys are talking about it, and I’m like, oh my god, I have to talk to these people, I have to engage in this conversation.

Q: Well, tell me a little bit about your racial background and how this—about this complex equation that you’re talking about.

Nicholson: [01:03:36] Okay. So, my race is a little bit mixed. My dad is a bunch of white, he’s all kinds of white, with a little bit of Native American, we got some Cherokee and I don’t exactly know how much he is, so, I mean obviously I don’t know how much I am. My real mother was Native American. I’m from a reservation in Alaska. And her mother was a little bit Russian with another tribe, and then her father, my grandfather, was full-blooded Rocentian [phonetic], I don’t know, it’s not super-common tribe. And then a couple of other tribes from—right now they’re from southeast Alaska, that’s where the reservation is. Originally, all of those people were from Canada, like, northern Canada and places like that.

So, I’ve just always been told that I’m half Indian. That’s the term that I was told as a young child. My father raised me. He got custody of me when I was two, and moved me from the reservation in Alaska to Oregon, and that’s where I was raised, and I would go visit my family on the reservation every summer. So, that’s just—you know, I’m half white and I’m half Native, or, you know, half Indian. I didn’t actually start using the term Native American until I was probably twelve or thirteen, you know, getting a little bit older and more mature, and wanting to know—you know, people are different, we’re learning our differences and stuff, so that was when I really started to be like, “it’s Native American”.

Q: How do you feel connected to your white half, and how do you feel connected to your Native American side?

Nicholson: [01:05:36] That’s a super complicated question. I feel connected to my white—it’s just how I was raised. You know, my dad was pretty much white, and he raised me. I’m from a really, really small town in Oregon. Super small, like four thousand people. And, everyone was white, with the exception of, you know, a couple of black kids, and then we had three other Native American people in my school. So that was just my life. When I would go visit Alaska, I was the white kid. I was very white. I mean, you know, I’m super pale compared to my family, and I live in, you know, the big states. You know, they’re in this little tiny island where there’s their culture and that’s it. And, you know, when I would visit, I felt pretty disconnected from my family, I felt very disconnected from my culture.

And I get kind of emotional about it because it makes you feel like a total alien. Like, you’re here with your mom and your grandma and your grandpa and all your cousins, and aunts and uncles, and they’re all super brown, and they’re all dancing, and making traditional food, and I don’t know, how to like, debone a fish with my eyes closed, or whatever, make seaweed, that’s a traditional—that’s part of our tribe, that’s what, we eat a lot of seaweed, and all my family are like, fishermen and stuff like that, so it’s a really coastal tribal vibe, you know, and I just didn’t feel part of it, ever.

Q: And when you were in your town in Oregon, did you feel white?

Nicholson: [01:07:26] No [laughs]. I did not feel white living in my white town in Oregon. I’ve never been able to just be, I’ve never been able to identify as one or the other, you know, it’s been a real struggle for me. I’m tanner than all of the people I went to school with, you know, like I said, with the exception of a couple of black kids we had, and then there were, I think three other Native American students. And, so, kind of a funny little story. You know when you register for school, your parents put their race or whatever, and I don’t think my dad did that. I got my school records sometime after high school or something, I got some educational records, you know, with all of my information and everything, and they had my race as Mexican. My whole school year, all of my years in school, I was Mexican. And it just, like, cckk [phonetic], you know, I just thought, really? You guys didn’t think to ask me?

I was in a program called Indian education, from, I think second grade until fifth grade, and so it was basically, I think it was designed to have, you know, when they did the boarding houses, way back when, and all the, you know, little Native boys, and they cut all their, you know, their ponytails off, and they made them speak English, I think it was like an offshoot of that, it was some, like, residual thing, you know, where I had to go once a week into a little room with some lady, and go over, like, homework and stuff. And then she would talk to me about little things like my culture, and I didn’t know anything about it, and I just know I had to go to this Indian education once a week. And me and this other girl were the only two that had to go. And it just set me apart, and I felt not part of my culture while I was participating in Indian education, because I wasn’t raised around it, it wasn’t my culture, but, I mean, it got me out of my class for an hour, so, I don’t know.

Interview Transcript

Participant-Submitted Photos