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100% Osage

Espinoza, Osage, currently attends Columbia University and will study abroad this year at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Author’s Note: Read While Listening To: Bruises Off The Peach by Ryan Beatty

Wow, you’re Native American? I would’ve never guessed; you don’t even look like it!

There’s a high chance that this is the exact response I’ll get if I tell someone that I’m Indigenous. There’s an equally high chance that after this statement, I’m immediately interrogated with questions like, What percent Native American are you? Or, Did you grow up on a reservation? And, I can almost always say for certain that the person asking me these questions knows nothing about who or what the Osage Nation is, or that it even existed before our conversation began.  

I’m not surprised when I hear these questions anymore. These Western informalities have ceased to faze me as I’ve grown older and expanded my own perspective of what it means to have intersectional identities. Having been raised just outside of Dallas, TX, in a quiet farm town, I heard phrases like these — and more — when the whitest looking kid possible happened to have the last name Espinoza, a mother who was Osage, and a father who was Mexican. At the time, I knew so little about who I was or my own mixed culture that I couldn’t even fathom what being Native American meant beyond being the people who “helped” the pilgrims at Thanksgiving and who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears. In fact, it felt easier to solely identify with being Hispanic than it was to comprehend what it meant to be Osage in the face of my peers. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City in the fall of 2021, where I started as a freshman at Columbia University, when I truly began to grapple with the other half of my identity that I had left dormant for too long.

Naturally, being so far away from home, I started to search for my community. Shortly after (more because of my background in politics than because of the fact that I was not well-versed in my Osage heritage), a classmate asked me to join the Indigenous Peoples’ Initiative — a youth-led organization that combats the stereotypes that plague Native American communities. This amazing opportunity opened so many doors for me into the world of politics, but deep down, I still felt disconnected from who I was. It would take many more months to finally discover a Native student group on campus, and even longer until I met other students with an Indigenous background face to face. The two members I talked to — two phenomenal, hardworking women from New Mexico and Oklahoma — suddenly made me feel seen for being Indigenous for one of the first times in my life. They related to my story in ways I didn’t even think were possible. After that meeting, I immediately joined leadership within the group, and a year later, I was living with over a dozen other Indigenous students like myself in Columbia’s first-ever special-interest community housing for Indigenous students: Indigehouse.

Through my advocacy work on and off campus over the course of my sophomore year, I felt that I had finally begun to recognize and represent my Indigenous identity. But in truth, I didn’t know then and I still don’t know now what it truly means to be Osage. I don’t know what it means beyond road-tripping only a handful of times to see the tiny, almost ghost-like town of Pawhuska to visit where my family came from (even though it’s not where our tribe came from). I don’t know what it means beyond hearing the chilling and heartbreaking story that is Killers of the Flower Moon as I listen to people tell it time and time again. I don’t know what it means beyond reading the Osage News newspaper in my family’s mailbox every month, as I attempt to keep up with people I do not know. I don’t know what it means to be Osage beyond hearing my grandmother or my mother tell me about our culture, their old memories in Pawhuska, or what our tribe once was. But I do know that there has to be more.

Throughout this new series, 100% Osage, I hope to uncover the roots of my heritage, from my tribe’s culture and traditions, to its spirituality. I’m tired of not knowing whether to put my left or right foot first at a powwow, not knowing how to greet someone in my Native language, and of feeling like an outsider because I grew up hundreds of miles away from August Osage County. I’m ready to finally tell someone, when they ask what percent of Native I have left in me, that I’m proudly and unequivocally 100% Osage — because I am.

And, after that, there’ll only be one question left to answer: What does that mean?

Author

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Tristan Joseph Espinoza
Tristan Joseph Espinoza
Tristan Joseph Espinoza is a writer and proud Osage Native from outside Dallas, Texas. While pursuing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Espinoza is also currently studying abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the creative director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Initiative, a youth-led organization that works to combat the stereotypes and stigmatism that plague Indigenous communities. His work has appeared in Osage News, The Plentitudes Literary Journal, Solange Knowles’ BlackPlanet, and others. In his spare time, Espinoza likes to watch Survivor reruns and post film photos of his loved ones on Instagram @thetristane.
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