Column: Being native


Carter Byrant

TRL’s Sophie Starnes speaks on being connected to her Native American roots.

There’s a very specific look I receive when I tell people I’m Native American. There’s a certain gleam of perceived knowledge in their eyes. They think I’m trying to play a trick on them, one they think they’re too clever to fall for. They think they see right through me, and it shows in their smiles.

I always laugh a little at this look, because I can’t really fault them for it. I’m fair-skinned, blonde, and light-eyed, living smack-dab in the middle of suburbia.

“No, really,” I insist, still smiling. “I’m a card-carrying Chickasaw.”

They sober up after hearing this. My laminated card is a game-changer here.


Depending on my conversational partner, this is either the end of this topic, or they launch into a long-winded speech about how someone in their family is Cherokee on their great-grandfather’s mother’s brother’s side, but they don’t have a card, and wow it’s so cool you have one, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I never feel like I say enough to prove myself as a Chickasaw after these interactions. They only last for a moment, and then the topic is no longer relevant. I can mention that all my Native blood comes from my father’s side, and that the Cherokee side refused to sign the contract that my Chickasaw ancestors penned their names on. I don’t have time to say anything else, nothing of real significance, which frustrates me. I’ve always hated leaving words unsaid.

I end up replaying that moment long after it’s over, imagining how I could have slipped in more information to really show them how native I am. I want to talk about stomp dances; I want to talk about the cultural significance of fire; I want to talk about sage and how it heals and cleanses; I want to talk about how Chickasaws have always been storytellers, and how I finally feel like a part of the tribe whenever I write.

Despite my ever-growing interest in my culture, I still feel detached from it. I don’t live near a reservation, so I can’t participate in powwows, which are a huge part of Chickasaw culture. I don’t speak the language, and there’s a lot I have left to learn about what it means to be Chickasaw. Writing is one way I’m learning to connect.

The Annual Chickasaw Anoli Writing Contest is designed to give Chickasaw youth an opportunity to exercise their creative voices. There are three categories of works: short story, essay, and poetry. Contestants can submit up to three works in any combination of the categories. All works will be judged on creativity, artistic form, and how well they relate to the prompt.

I’ve won first place in the poetry division for the past three years. It’s an accomplishment I’m extremely proud of, not only because I feel like I’ve earned validation as a poet, but as a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

From my perspective, if something in my poetry resonates with an all-Chickasaw panel of judges, I’m not a poser. I’m not someone using the title of my tribe as a cheap party trick. I’m not a liar or an outsider. I’m a part of a culture that deeply respects the power of words, and I’m contributing to the plethora of works that compose our creative history.

Editor’s note: Below is Starnes’ poem for this year’s entry into the Annual Chickasaw Anoli Writing Contest. This entry won Starnes first place in the contest for the third year in a row. 



you tell me

i am not allowed to be



too white, too far

away from the reservations

of oklahoma and new mexico

and oregon and arizona

to ever be a realindian.


but what do you know of me?

what do you know of us?


you don’t know

that sage is cleansing

or that fire is holy

or that we shake

the earth with our dances.


you know mexican movie-stars

with acrylic paint smeared

haphazardly over their faces

and feathers stuck into their hair

like they are some kind of flippant accessory.


you know tonto

but only because

the lone ranger

needed someone

to talk to.


i am native

because i say i am.


you don’t get to decide.




i understand that it is not

easy to be native

in the eyes of the world.


i understand that there

will always be cruelty

on this earth

in some form or fashion

and i promise to meet it

with love as often

as i am able.


i promise to keep in mind

that not everyone is so lucky

to have ancestors like mine

and to remember that

hate is most often

a product of ignorance

gone sour.


most importantly,

i promise to be myself,


because i am native,

and that means

i can make

the ground shake

and the willows weep

with my body and my brain



we are a people of strength;

we are a people of compassion,

and so long as i am those things

i will always know

who i am.