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More on the Politics of Indian Identity

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Last week I wrote about what others have called the "More Indian Than Thou" syndrome. This column gave rise to a lively online discussion and some interesting fallout, including a sharp increase in Facebook befriending. Generally eighty percent of people who responded were positive about wider definitions of Indian identity than tribal enrolment cards. However, what I called "the fundamentalist" position remained for some of the people. In this position, only tribal enrolment qualifies one to feel Indian, anyone less than "pure" blood is not really Indian, and non-Indians should stay totally away from Indian culture. They should not listen to its music, attend its ceremonies, take an interest in its literature, or discuss its concepts. They should look to their own European heritages.

I was invited to have a look at Joseph Mishawaka's facebook page, Tribal Discussions which welcomes people of all ethnicities into a discussion on how it should be up to Native Americans, not the government, to decide who is able to be in a tribe and which tribes are legitimate. He reflects that there is a diversity of responses to non-enrolled people from different tribes, with some very inclusive and others more exclusionary. I learned there are many stories about who can claim to be Indian and what it means to be Indian. We can use this to reflect upon a narrative approach to political inquiry. In these situations, I fall back upon the Lakota concept of nagi, which is the swarm of stories and tellers of those stories that constitute our legacy and form who are today. This is as close as Lakota comes to the mainstream concept of self. In a political sense, just as each person brings his or her swarm of stories to any encounter, larger groups have a nagi formed from all the individual nagis populating the locale of that particular group. As cultures mix (contemporary North America), we discover an endless supply of stories and tellers of those stories. Some of the stories seem contradictory. The post-modern principle of explanatory pluralism says that we can find a way to let all stories co-exist. The essentialist principle holds that one correct story exists and we must fight to establish what that story is.

Beyond the fundamentalist story, this week I encountered a variety of stories including some who accept anyone as having Indian heritage if they say so (though casino money is limited to those with an enrollment card). Other stories add speaking one's language and/or knowing songs and/or participating in ceremony. Of course, then we have the enrolled people who do not speak the language of their tribe, know no songs, and are Southern Baptist. One facebook page I visited suggests that "real Indians" drive junk cars and have no money. One could come away from this discussion confused.

If we applied explanatory pluralism, we would find a way to let everyone believe what they want to believe. In a democracy, when we have to make decisions, we vote, so it would seem reasonable to vote on matters such as who gets casino money. Could we let identity be a personal decision, of course, feeling free to disagree with others' decisions about their identity?

I suspect that many more people than we realize have Native American heritage since maternal DNA testing has revealed that, in general, a lot more hanky-panky was going on, among our ancestors, than anyone suspected. For me, the question would be, if I identify with being Indian, or French, or Scottish, or whatever, what do I do with that identification? I would tend to decide upon what a person has done with his or her identification; rather than decide on strict Mendelian genetics lines. As I mentioned last week, for the Lakota, for example, the hunka ceremony made a person a relative, and a hunka relative was often a stronger bond with more duties and obligations than a fileal relationship.

For myself, I have learned that the Eastern Band of Cherokee rely upon the 1924 Baker census. If you have ancestors on this census and are 1/16th Cherokee, you can be enrolled. If not, no. I haven't had the time to pursue this yet, though I probably will, but would prefer to keep the results private, whether or not my ancestors managed to get counted in that way, because I think the question is better than the answer. I disagree with the 1904 Act of the U.S. Congress which established blood quanta. I argue that it is not an aboriginal concept since it is divisive of families in which children do not marry within the tribe (which was its intention).

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)

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