Shehla Anjum

Becoming Sheila

“Mommy!’ the little girl shrieked from the doorway. Her excitement tumbled across the room toward the sales counter where I was showing a tray of turquoise, coral, and silver jewelry to a customer. “Look, look! I see an Indian!”

I glanced up from the tray. My eyes swept the room and beyond, expecting an American Indian in feather headgear, beaded clothes and moccasins—not an unfamiliar sight at this job. But there was no Indian of any kind anywhere, only tourists.

I directed my attention back to my sales pitch. The manager stood nearby. I sure hope this guy buys a bracelet or a necklace, I thought. It was June 1969, the summer following my freshman year in college. I’d been on my job in the Arts and Crafts Room at the Mount Rushmore gift shop for only a couple of days.

“I wanna see the Indian!” the girl wailed from the doorway as the mother tried to tug her away. I turned back to the customer. I was still on probation. The manager was watching.

Suddenly, the room went quiet. The mother had apparently abandoned her effort to control her child, maybe afraid the girl’s insistence to see the “Indian” would mutate into a tantrum. After that ruckus, the calm was disquieting. I lifted my eyes to see the child, a triumphant smile smeared across her face, headed my way. I was the least informed person in that room.

Ahhhhh…okay, relax, smile, be polite. Stay calm, I thought. And in that moment the meaning of the perpetually quizzical looks on people’s faces when they saw me surrounded by “Indian” arts and crafts became clear.

The girl advanced, face flushed with anticipation, eyes fixed on her find. The family, wide-grinned and maybe tickled about glimpsing a “real-life Indian,” trailed behind. Only the mother looked embarrassed. Either she figured out the child’s mistake—by now she had surveyed me and noticed I was not the “Indian” of the girl’s dreams—or she felt uncomfortable about the fuss her child had made.

In 1969, the term Indian was used widely, not yet replaced by “Native American.” Kids still played at cowboys and Indians. And most Americans’ knowledge of Indians was limited either to TV’s Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick, or to a vague notion of an indigenous population that lived on the fringes of mainstream America.

That afternoon at Mount Rushmore, not one soul looked remotely like an Indian, the American kind. But I was brown, and I have Indian ancestry—from the Indian subcontinent. My looks, and my presence in that room full of Indian objects, met the girl’s requirements of an “Indian.”

* * *

That wasn’t my first encounter with people who mistook me for what I was not, mispronounced my name, or tried to guess where I was from. But it was the first time since childhood that I felt irritated at being mistaken for what I was not. My opinions about identity were nascent, not yet coiled in any miasma of confusion. I had a strong and comfortable sense of myself as a young woman at ease about who she was, both ethnically and intellectually, even if I was from a “third world country.”

But the summer of 1969 when I became an ersatz Indian of the American Indian variety changed me and brought into focus my differences from the people around me. Until then I considered that my looks, background, and language defined me as an individual, but not as one who should elicit any special notice. I assumed that people in a highly educated country, with access to numerous magazines, books, and television, knew about my part of the world and could recognize me for what I was.

That day marked the beginning of new misidentifications beyond the mispronunciation of my name; I now had to contend with being labeled American Indian, Hispanic, Inupiaq Eskimo, or an Indian from India. Even today, my answer “Alaska” when asked about my “home” is seldom accepted. Though I have lived in Alaska since 1977—longer than any other place—I still hear the tone of disbelief in, “But where are you really from?”

* * *

I had a couple of brief experiences of being mislabeled before that child noticed me. The first time I was about nine or ten and our family lived in a joint-family house with other relatives. For a brief time—maybe two or three weeks—one of my cousins began announcing my return from school with a loud “Shola Engine is back!” Hot, dusty and hungry, I usually reacted to that “fiery engine” greeting with a burst of tears that rivaled any let loose by monsoon clouds.

I liked my cousin, who teased everyone, but I disliked how he mangled my name. I had nothing against nicknames, which were, and are, popular in Pakistan. Nicknames had cachet, and they were cool. But I wanted a nickname like my friends “Dolly,” “Bibi” and “Hunni,” which sounded cute. “Shola Engine” didn’t cut it for me.

Years later, my cousin reminisced about calling me “Shola Engine” and how he “only said it in affection.” I told him I didn’t see it as affection because it only made me angry being compared to puffer belly engines that belched out menacing, dark clouds of cinders, steam, and soot. I simply wanted to be like all other girls, not an engine with sparks shooting from its top.

My cousin used that moniker only for two or three weeks, but I clearly remember my reaction and my anger. Perhaps it was my first inkling of identity, and I didn’t like how others transformed it.

No one else teased me about my name while I lived in Pakistan. Though now I know my father tried two permutations—“Shaila” and “Shahla”—to find one that sounded close to the Arabic word that was my name. The first distortion of my name started in my teens when I began high school at the U.S. State Department’s Karachi American School in 1964. My American teachers and friends had trouble pronouncing it and found it easier to call me “Sheila,” though I was neither the Hindu “Sheela” nor the Irish “Sheila.”

Throughout high school I corrected people without making a big deal out of it. I was happy for any variation nearer my original name, which, admittedly, is difficult to pronounce because the “h” before the “l” has to be aspirated and not dismissed as superfluous. Thus new constructs by my American friends such as “Shayla,” “Shyla,” or “Shella,” didn’t bother me nearly as much as “Shola Engine” had years before because I felt people were at least trying.

In my sophomore year, either fed up with the mispronunciations or trying to fit in, I changed the spelling of my name to “Sheila.” Surrounded by kids with all-American names such as Jo, Kim, Sally, Bob, and Dan, I wanted a name that sounded like theirs. The school was, after all, a replica of an American school in every way (cheerleaders, basketball, proms, and dating) except for its Pakistani location. The new spelling lasted a year. In my junior year, I was back to “Shehla” again. I realized I couldn’t be an American just by a name change. I learned to live with the identity I had.

I remembered that name change only recently, when an old friend from those days called me “Sheila.” I corrected her, and she reminded me how I insisted on being called “Sheila” that year. Perhaps identity had more fluidity for me in my teens, and I saw more value in conformity than in individuality. Although enamored with all things Western, I still maintained strong ties to my culture. I saw no irony in tweaking the spelling of my name. It seemed an easy way to fit in and didn’t entail changing my religion, language, or culture.

I thought of my name’s mispronunciation in high school as an anomaly that would end with my graduation in 1968 when I moved on to college in Karachi. But my college (and future home) turned out to be in the United States—a place where not only my name but also my identity would often be questioned. I had no idea that it would start a lifetime of explaining who I was—not an Indian of any kind, not an Alaskan Native, not a Mexican, not a “Sheila.”

* * *

At Mount Marty, in Yankton, South Dakota, where I started college in 1968, relatively few were confused about my identity. Nearly everyone at the small college knew my nationality, language, and religion. I expected that to continue when I took the Mount Rushmore job in June 1969, assuming naively that most people would easily place me somewhere in Asia. I never imagined my identity would play out the way it did that summer.

During the first week at Mount Rushmore, my busing job allowed little contact with tourists crowding the gift shop or dining room, except for smiles. What people thought of my origins didn’t concern me. The people I spoke to or spent off hours with were mostly my coworkers, all college students. We knew each other, swapped stories about our hometowns, our colleges, our families, and friends.

My only identity crisis was carrying those dirty dishes into the kitchen. I despised the task and considered it demeaning, below my dignity. In Pakistan, men waited on tables in restaurants and came from the under- or uneducated masses. No one I ever knew worked in jobs such as waiting or sales; I felt awkward in mine. When the chance for the transfer to the Arts and Crafts Room came, I welcomed it. It was the most coveted sales position in the gift shop.

The room was a sanctum of quiet and beauty within the chaos of the larger gift shop area. It felt like a small boutique with soft lights, shelves of expensive and authentic American Indian artworks, jewelry, baskets, beaded moccasins, and other handmade items. No cheap, machine-made souvenirs—key chains, mugs with the four presidents, plastic replicas of the mountain, T-shirts emblazoned with its image. I knew working in that room was special. But I didn’t know just how much when I began.

The initial delight about my new job didn’t last long. Within days, I felt uneasy amid artifacts and creations from a culture not my own, and being mistaken for someone that I was not. Newly arrived in this country, and still a loyal Pakistani, I bristled whenever anyone asked if I was from India (a reflection of the bitter rivalry between the two countries). I could understand being mistaken for coming from India, but not being passed off and mistaken for a totally different kind of Indian.

When that child screamed about the “Indian,” my purpose in that room became clear—I was a good fit because I bore a passing resemblance to those who created things sold there. Not exactly the same, but close enough. At least for the general manager, who mentally airbrushed my somewhat Semitic nose and features more Subcontinental Indian than American Indian. For her, my dark skin and long straight black hair sufficed—even a glimpse of my brown face might entice people to enter that room, perhaps make a purchase and get up close to an Indian. Sales were fewer in that room, but the offerings were pricier and more prestigious. My presence would certainly help.

All summer long, a parade of people mistook me for a South Dakota Indian. Each day I braced myself for the inevitable request to go outside to pose in front of the monolithic gaze of the four presidents. I had an obligation to the visitors, the manager told me. We were there to serve the public: what the public wants the public gets.

* * *

Posing for pictures by myself was one thing, but that first person who inquired, “Honey, is that your grandfather out front?” was not expecting my confounded look.

Ben, the son of Nicholas Black Elk (a survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn in the final hours of the Wounded Knee Massacre), served as the unofficial “Fifth Face on the Mountain.” He was the last Native American the National Park Service permitted to appear at Mt. Rushmore in native dress on a semipermanent basis. He greeted visitors, educated them on the ways of the Lakota Sioux, and posed for snapshots. I didn’t know if he did this out of the goodness of his heart or if he received any money.

He stopped by at the monument several times a week. Mostly he wore jeans, a Western shirt, and a feather in his headband. But on some days he arrived in his Lakota Sioux ensemble—full headdress, beads, moccasins, embroidered shirt, and pants. Those days I always got requests for “a snap with your grandfather.”

There were times I wanted to scream, “LOOK AT ME! I am not even from this country much less from a Sioux tribe.” But there was no respite from the gawking or the frequent requests to go and pose with Ben. All summer, I slathered a smile on my face and marched outside to pose with the always-smiling Ben, who let the tourists believe what they wanted to. Perhaps he felt it wasn’t polite to correct them. Or maybe it was sufficient for him that he and I knew who we were. A few times, noting my discomfort, Ben gently told the people where I was from. But usually, faced with a crowd furiously snapping Kodak Instamatics or Polaroids, he’d stay quiet. Best not to ruin those people’s pictures with a half-open mouth, or their delight at their discovery of “Indians.”

Sometimes Ben joked with me about confused tourists, but all summer he accepted, with grace, my presence in his photos, granddaughter or not. He never said much to me, but his demeanor was always pleasant, and he always hugged me whenever we happened to meet. That summer, several dozen tourists took home photos of one true “Indian” and one not. Among my photos from that season are some sent by the tourists—one came addressed to “The Indian Girl, Gift Shop Mount Rushmore.” Ben and I look relaxed in all of them.

Looking back, I think I made things worse for myself. It was 1969, and on my days off, I dressed in the fashion of the day (at least for South Dakota)—a Western shirt, bellbottoms, moccasins, strands of flower-shaped beads, and a headband. My hair swung long and sleek around my waist, not unlike popular images of young American Indian maidens. I now understand that from a distance I must have appeared to be a member of a South Dakota tribe. To some extent I was complicit in the deception and reveled in the attention that came my way.

Still, I resented posing for photos on my days off. One such day, a group of us decided to walk to the nearby town of Keystone for the afternoon. Coming out from the gift shop and heading toward the road, I noticed a cluster of tourists surrounding Ben, who was in full ceremonial dress.

“Shehla, we’d better get out, before someone grabs you for a photo,” a friend teased.

It was already too late. A woman charged over.

“Honey, would you mind coming over here and standing by your grandfather.”

We were supposed to cater to the tourists every day—meaning even days we didn’t work. This adage was drilled into us our first day at Mount Rushmore and repeated often by our supervisors. I indulged the woman, walked over to Ben and we both smiled as the tourists snapped away.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll leave now. My friends are waiting.”

“Your accent is different, almost Indian, and even a bit British,” the woman noted with some surprise, while her husband clicked another photo of Ben and me.

“I am from Pakistan, which used to be part of India, and we tend to speak in somewhat British-accented English.”

“Oh, so you are not a Sioux.”

I mumbled something about my friends leaving without me and took off. Behind me, the husband directed Ben to pose this way or that. The shutter kept on clicking. Maybe they threw away my photo with Ben and only kept his.

It wouldn’t have mattered. I was just a passing fascination, one soon to be forgotten. Did I feel slighted? Probably not. I was primarily concerned with making sure people did not mistake me for what I was not.

* * *

As the summer wore on, I began to build my defenses. Until then, I had not been concerned about my identity. I knew I was from Pakistan, that I was different, but it wasn’t anything I thought about a lot. But now I wanted people to know who I was. I wrote the word PAKISTAN on a small, heart-shaped tag, and suspended it from my name badge. I was now properly identified, marked. I believed when people looked at me they would figure out I wasn’t an Indian of any kind, American or otherwise.

“Packistan? What tribe is that?” a man muttered while looking over the jewelry display and casting furtive glances at that little “PAKISTAN” tag. I gasped. Both at the question and his pronunciation of Pakistan. That tag, supposed to end such questions, elicited even more.

Now tourists asked me the name or number of the highway that led to “Packistan.” They thought it was an obscure little reservation or a small town populated by more of my kind. “I am from Pakistan, you know that country next to India,” I would say. Or, when asked for directions: “You have to take an airplane to get to Pakistan, it’s on the other side of the world.”

With time I resigned myself to the confusion. It was only a job; I needed the money for fall semester. I had little choice but to stick it out. So I endured the stares, the questions, the comments, and the requests to say “cheese” for yet another photo. What the hell, I would be a memento of some family’s trip across America. Even after they realized I was not what I seemed to be.

Though I anticipated that the days of dealing with confusion about my identity, and the subtle subterfuge of the gift shop’s management, would end when I returned to school, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of not being true to myself. Aside from the money, I don’t know why I continued.

Perhaps I enjoyed the mail that poured in, addressed to “The girl at the Indian shop at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.” I saved every letter, postcard and photo; they obviously made me feel special. Some were only a few hurriedly scribbled words and a photo of Ben Black Elk and me. But others bore invitations to visit distant lands and other states. I liked the attention and even kept a correspondence with some of my admirers for a short while.

That summer, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and here on earth I helped tourists map out the boundaries of our little lives, patiently answering queries about my “tribe,” my “grandfather,” and my “reservation.”


I did not know then, but my life would change in a couple of years, when marriage helped convert me into a hyphenated American—a Pakistani-American, though not an Indian-American or American Indian. After more experience with labels, and misunderstanding about my name and background, I learned to accept that people are not perfect and mistakes happen.

My own acceptance of what I am also changed through the years—I move back and forth between two worlds on a regular basis and feel at ease in both. On annual visits to Pakistan I deal with taunts about American foreign policy and the drone attacks that often kill Pakistani civilians along with terrorists. I defend my adopted home and its citizens, I try to explain that Americans are like people anywhere, not much different than they are. And despite differences in culture, religion, or language, our dreams, hopes, and fears are similar. But the criticisms persist, just like the never-ending questions from the tourists at Mount Rushmore.

With time comes maturity. In the years since that summer of my discontent I learned to embrace my two identities. I feel comfortable both as a Pakistani and as an American. I seldom feel annoyed when people ask me if I am an Indian, Mexican, or Native American. I know I am not the only one with a mispronounced name or a mislabeled identity. Those are important, but hardly the only signifiers of the person that I am.

Originally from Karachi, Pakistan, writer and editor Shehla Anjum began her life in the United States in the cold climes of South Dakota when she received a
scholarship to study at a college there. She finished her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and later earned master’s
degrees in public administration at Harvard, and creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She now lives in Anchorage but began her Alaska sojourn in
Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States.