Cover: Zora's House Ambassador Regina Prince

Erica Thompson

Growing up in Columbus, Regina Prince always knew she was Native. She attended pow wows, owned worry dolls and exuded pride in her Abenaki heritage.

But that isn't true of all Abenaki. Given the history of forced assimilation and cultural genocide in Vermont, where Prince's family is from, many have distanced themselves from their Native identity.

“Vermont did a eugenics project,” Prince explained. “They were sterilizing Native people. So, I had relatives who were castrated [and] who had forced abortions.” (The effect of forced sterilization on the Abenaki is documented in the web archiveVermont Eugenics: A Documentary Historyby Hope Greenberg and Nancy Gallagher, among other sources.)

Somewhere along the way, Prince's family changed their last name to Morin, her maiden name, to pass as French.

“I had a lot of family that, to this day, doesn't acknowledge at all that we're Native,” she said. “I was [even] told they were Italian. That's not true at all.”

But Prince's father made her aware of their identity. And though “white-passing” or “white-presenting,” the fair-skinned Prince would announce it to her classmates — until she got to high school.

“People were like, ‘No, you're white,'” she said. “And that's when the percentage questions started happening. … I didn't know that you had to be a certain percentage to be Native, like you had to quantify it and then someone else got to decide for me, like they're somehow the gatekeepers of my identity. From there, I got really weird and insecure about it, and I just stopped telling people.”

For the last several years, Prince said she has been on a journey of validating her Native identity, navigating expectations inside and outside of the community; recognizing how she benefits from white privilege; and being careful not to appear as if she is representing the whole Native culture.

“I understand why Native people are very protective of the identity,” she said, referencing false claims of heritage. “What happens is you have people say these things, and then justify their actions of racism, or defining for us what our culture is.”

Prince has also been searching for communities to help her grapple with these issues. When Zora's House founder LC Johnson asked her to be an ambassador, she felt validated as a woman of color — a label she didn't know she could claim.

“She didn't ask me for my percentage,” she said. “There was no quiz to get into Zora's House.”

Within the walls of the community space, Prince is welcome, comfortable and vulnerable in working through her shame in not feeling Native enough.

“I was so relieved just to be surrounded by such supportive women that did not have to start picking me apart,” she said. “I'm allowed to be the imperfect woman that I am.”

Going forward, Prince hopes to start an indigenous women and nonbinary support group within Zora's House, and keep working on her confidence.

“I had family members and relatives that couldn't say they were Native and had to hide,” she said. “So it's like I am basically saying, ‘fuck you' to all the colonizers. … We were supposed to be aged out, gone, assimilated, white-passing. And that's my way of sticking it to them.”