November 10, 2021

Jessica Laughlin Dispels Common Misconceptions of What It Means to be Native American

Holland & Knight Native American Heritage Month Spotlight Series

At Holland & Knight, we strive to develop an organization where all individuals, especially those from underrepresented communities, can have and see a path to success. In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we hosted conversations with employees from across the firm to listen to their stories about their Native American culture, upbringing and experience. These conversations highlighted the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories of Native American and Alaska Native people as well as recognized their important contributions. We hope that these stories help educate others about Native American Heritage Month and honor our Native American friends, family and colleagues.

The second episode in this series features Jessica Laughlin, an environmental attorney in our San Francisco office. Jessica is a member of the United Houma Tribe, located along the southern bayou regions of Louisiana. She shares her experience encountering stereotypes about Native Americans, especially the misconception that all Native Americans look the same. As Jessica explains, with more than 500 tribes scattered across the United States, each tribe has a different culture, history and way of life, and not all tribal members look the same. She also talks about the importance of Native American History Month in helping Native Americans to feel accepted and helping others learn more about their cultures.

More Videos in this Series

Episode 1: Native American Affinity Group Chair John Haney Share the Role of Art in his Family's Culture

Episode 2: Jessica Laughlin Dispels Common Misconceptions of What it Means to be Native American (You are currently viewing Episode 2)

Episode 3: Not All Fun and Games: James T. Meggesto Shares How Native American Culture Becomes Caricature

Episode 4: Kayla Gebeck Carroll Discusses the Importance of Representation in Literature

Jessica Laughlin: I'm a member of the United Houma Nation. United Houma Nation, or Houma as we call it, is a tribe from south Louisiana. We're located along the bayous and swampy areas along the coast. We have about 17,000 members, which is one of the largest tribes in the South and Southeast. So my tribe is located along the southern bayou regions of Louisiana because whenever the government was removing a lot of tribes through the Trail of Tears, our tribe and some other related tribes instead hid down into the bayous and swamps of south Louisiana. But our culture was really like I think a lot of other tribes, though, what links us is a really big tie to the land and a tie to living off of the land, respecting the Earth and giving back to the Earth and really trying to live in unity with the Earth and everyone around us.

Jessica Laughlin Dispels Common Misconceptions of What it Means to be Native American

There are over 500 different tribes across the United States, each of them having very different traditions and cultures, very different histories, and so although we are all Native American, we all have very different histories and very different perspectives and very different ways of living. So I think the idea that there is one stereotypical type of a tribe is something that is one of the most harmful stereotypes about tribes. Because we are so, all so different and have so much to bring to the table. When I was growing up, a lot of people would ask, "Oh, tribes still exist?" So the idea that Native Americans just don't exist anymore is one of the things that I faced, especially as a kid, which was odd because I lived in a place that had a lot of Native Americans. People were just looking for a stereotypical look. They were looking for darker skin and maybe feathers somewhere or a tepee or, you know, that you're going to talk in a certain way. And so there's a lot of misconceptions about what an Indian should look like to other people. And really, we look like just other people. We look like just average people. Some of us do because of our lineage have darker skin or darker eyes, and some of us don't. But that doesn't change our ties to our family and our culture. I am lighter skinned, obviously. And my dad is Irish American, and my mom is the one who's Native American, and I come from a very long line of really dark-haired, dark-skinned Native Americans, and I came out with lighter skin. And so people are always surprised when I say I'm half, I'm half Indian and the like, "Are you sure?" So it's those types of things that I was met with, just the lack of education about the fact that there are tribes here, that there are probably tribes not very far from you, that all tribal members don't all look the same. Some tribal members look like myself, maybe lighter skinned. There's a lot of mixing with other cultures, so people don't look like a stereotype, like cookie-cutter look for what it means to be Indian.

When I was growing up, I don't ever remember having a month devoted to my traditions and my cultures. And, you know, we celebrated a lot of different holidays, but none of them were ever focused on us. So to me, as a parent now especially, Native American Heritage Month really does feel like a time where our culture isn't just honored, but it's celebrated. We'll do stuff like have potlucks and bring different types of food and these types of things, especially in the workplace. I think that they're so important because you don't know if the person next to you, if they belong to a tribe or any other kind of ethnic group. And it really is important for me to be able to share that to feel accepted, to feel celebrated and to also be able to look to other people's cultures and share that with them.

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