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June 30, 2010

More on the Politics of Indian Identity

By Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Based upon comment on last weeks, "More Indian than Thou" essay, I continue my musings about the politics of Indian identity. I explore the fundamentalist response which argues that pure bloods are more Indian than mixed bloods and that non-status Indians have no business reading about, participating in, or even being interested in aboriginal culture. I argue that this would, in fact, allow the U.S. government to succeed.


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).

However, the inherent contradiction within the fundamentalist position is what happens when an Indian marries a non-Indian. How could they maintain a relationship in which one person isn't allowed any contact with the other's culture. And what about the children? Should they be denied access to their heritage for being half-white, or another ethnicity? And what about professionals who work with aboriginal people? Wouldn't they do their job better if they were more immersed in the culture? I think we can't help but be all mixed up in each others' stories in this modern world. A Tuscarora elder told me that the proof was in how a position makes you feel. If an idea makes you hateful or angry or mean, he said, it's a bad idea. If it makes you kind or nicer or reduces suffering in the world, it's a good idea.

My other controversy of last week related to whether or not I had the right to teach "Cherokee bodywork." I thought this merited a discussion of attribution. Native scholars with whom I have spoken, believe that the father of American osteopathy, A.J. Still, took much of it from the First Nation, which he served for years, who had a form of bodywork remarkably familiar to American osteopathy. The story told about Still is that he walked into the woods with a bag of bones and returned with the field of osteopathy and its manipulations. Similarly, I am told that Palmer learned from Native people in his invention of chiropractic. Neither gave any attribution to those from whom they had learned. Of course, we know why. In those days, anything derived from Indians, was scorned (never mind, tobacco, corn, peppers, tomatoes, and a host of other important products and skills).

I learned the form of bodywork that I practice from Cherokee practitioners of this art. I paid to be taught. I brought gifts, repaired swamp coolers, got groceries, and was generally helpful. I learned by being worked on and by helping them work on others. I had to promise not to tell people that they were teaching me (similar to Walker and his mentors in the 1890s). I had to promise not to teach what I learned until they were dead. They didn't know how people would react and didn't want to find out.

My decision to start teaching and sharing what I am calling Cherokee bodywork came when I gave a lecture in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, sponsored by the Cherokee Nation. I learned that less than 10% of the audience had ever seen or experienced the bodywork of the Cherokee. I feared it would disappear if action wasn't taken. Henceforth, I started to teach.

Since making that decision, I have met others who learned Cherokee bodywork as I did and have confirmed that what I am doing is similar to what they learned. I have met others who have received Cherokee bodywork and have confirmed it's similarity to what I am doing. My goal is to preserve it. I don't want to trademark it, and I hope that it flourishes and the Cherokee, as a culture, get the credit for this form of work. I suspect I have modified it some in the practice as we all do. I have certainly been more intentional about combining narrative therapies with the bodywork. My teachers practiced their own form of narrative therapy, chatting with people about their lives, listening to the stories of the community, telling stories some traditional, some about people they knew, and some made up on the spot to influence their client to "do right". I am hoping we can start a Center for Indigenous Body Therapies through Coyote Institute, and bring forward other indigenous forms of bodywork that are in danger of disappearing.

If I wanted to make money, I'd have kept quiet about where I learned what I learned and called it Coyote Bodywork and claimed that it came to me in a vision. I'd have trademarked it and would have established a certirficate program similar to what is offered for Rolfing, Alexander technique, Feldenkrais technique, Tragering, etc. So can one such as myself claim to teach Cherokee bodywork? I think so, with the proviso, that I state that I am teaching what I learned, and that it might not generalize to all forms of touch healing done by all Cherokee. I am welcoming anyone with any familiarty with any indigenous bodywork to contact us through Coyote Institute and to record what they know so that we can preserve and study it. Hands on healing was prominent throughout North America, and now, so little persists. I suspect that Christianity played a strong role in this, for many Christian sects do not allow hand-on, manipulative therapies.

I did note that at least one other First Nations person (Cree from Canada) is teaching "Native American bodywork", though with her name attached as the XXXXXx method.

My other reflection of the week is to ponder the desire for isolationism that I encountered among some of my critics. They wanted Indian things to remain with Indians and not be shared with the larger population. They wanted to control who could access things Indian. This is one perspective. His Crazy Horse, the Lakota prophet and seer, had a different perspective. He predicted that the children of the conquerers, in seven generations, would come to learn about healing and sustainability from the Lakota. In his vision, huge birds flew across the sky bringing young people to learn. He saw people inside many holes along the sides of these birds. He also saw huge bugs on wheels traveling at great speeds across gray ribbons stretching across the prairie. These bugs also had windows through which he could see many young people. Seven generations is now, and, to the discomfort of some Native people, the prophecy of His Crazy Horse is coming true. People of all ethnicities, and not just Native, are asking to learn the teachings and participate in the ceremonies. Some see this as the fulfillment of prophecy and think it's good. Others disagree.

My own belief is that human survival requires everyone's cooperation in the present time. Indigenous cultures hold wisdom about sustainability, healing, and survival, which everyone needs. My belief is that the "real Indians", however they define themselves, should step up to the plate and teach all who want to learn. I know this is a controversial stance, but I believe that the best way to prevent the "wannabees" and those who would take advantage of Native culture for personal profit, from doing so, is for those who consider themselves authentic and genuine, to teach and to take a prominent position of authority. People are not stupid and can recognize the wheat amidst the chaff. The role for those who are unauthentic and ungenuine would disappear if the authentic and genuine took the call to teach everyone. Quality would be noticed and appreciated.

My own desire is to bring indigenous wisdom into health care. I want to re-invent psychology and psychiatry into what indigenous people would have created had there been no European influence. Of course, this is an impossible project, since we have all been influenced by all the stories we have heard about mind and mental health. What appeals to me, and what I will write about in coming weeks, are the concepts of relational mind, the importance of community, and the larger group as being the essential element in reducing suffering moreso than the indvidual. We can run with these concepts and revolutionize the practice of psychology and psychiatry. I credit indigenous elders for teaching me these ideas, though I note that similar ideas emerged in Russia after the fall of the Czar, with Mikhael Bakhtin, Volosinov, and Lev Vygotsky. The Russians, however, have often had a transcendental, almost indigenous perspective.

I can understand people's reluctance to share with the children of the conquerers. Anger persists. Ceremonies were outlawed. Children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools, not to mention the genocide of smallpox blankets and massacres like that of Wounded Knee. How is it that we can forgive so quickly? I take my answer from the words of a favorite Blood elder, who said at a science conference in Calgary, when asked about this, "What happened, happened. To forgive does much more for the one doing the forgiving, than for the one being forgiven." Curiously, this has been studied biologically, and has scientific support. In addition, I suspect that the potential for eco-disaster (Gulf Oil Spill, Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl, Alberta oil fields), is so great, that we must band together to survive, but that's only my story. Another elder told me that he teaches everyone, because an awful lot of Indians are trying to reincarnate right now and there aren't enough Indian bodies to go around. I don't know how much of what he said was tongue-in-cheek, but certainly not all of it.

The most uplifting comments I received came from a Tuscarora elder who had me crying within 10 minutes. He spoke about offering ceremony and knowledge to all people because the teachings came from the Creator to benefit all the people. They were not the property of one nation. We are equal in our misery and pain, he said, and equally deserving of assistance. Creator does not discriminate. The beauty and sincerity of this man cut through the intellectual arguments. All around him felt peaceful. The results of his way of thinking lay in the outcomes of his succeeding at his mission.

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Authors Bio:
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 Narrative Medicine.