Sunday, October 22, 2006

More on "I am part Native American"

On October 18th, I blogged about the phrase "I am part Native American." I will discuss the topic of Native identity in a series of posts. It is very complex, and filled with tension, but important. A statement claiming a Native identity is one that should be offered with a great deal of thought and care for several reasons.

One reason is the claim itself.

A lot of people say it, but, does the tribe they claim say it about them?

For example, I can say "I am Nambe Pueblo Indian" but I can also say "I am tribally enrolled." That means that Nambe claims me. They have listed me on the tribal census.

My family lineage was unbroken by any of the various efforts to assimilate American Indians into mainstream American society, and my tribe is among the tribes recognized by the US government. We are "federally recognized." You can read more about federal recognition at the webpage of the National Congress of American Indians.

I am what we call, in children's lit, an "insider" who can offer an "insider's perspective" based on a lived experience. I offer my critiques, reflections and reviews of children's books, teaching about American Indians, and playing Indian activities from a place of knowing that is enriched and informed by my experiences.

It is troubling to me when people say "I am Cherokee and I don't think there is anything wrong with dressing up like Indians at Halloween." In my experience, Cherokee people who are connected to their tribe generally don't say things like that.

My experience is that people who say "I am Native American and I don't see anything wrong...." are individuals for whom their claim to Native identity is based--not on their present day life--but on the great grandparent/ancestor situation. It seems to me that they are offering this claim to identity as a means to defend their use of what I feel is the inappropriate use or representation of American Indians.

As people charged with educating children and selecting books, we ought to pay attention to what we say and why we say it, what we claim, and why we claim it.

There's more to say about all of this another day. In the meantime, you may also want to read Oyate's statement on identity.

[Update, 12:54 PM, Oct. 23, 2006: Just above, I said "There's more to say about all of this another day" and I want to let you know that among the "more to say" is the idea of "federal" recognition, and "who can write" or retell stories about American Indians. ]

12 comments:

tigerkat said...

I do think (based on family pictures) that there is some Indian in my background although I can't document it.

My husband on the other hand (who I discuss the points and issues on this blog with) is documented as being 100% Ojibway Indian of the band Nipissing (sometimes spelled Nbissing) from the First Nations group of Ontario Canada. His mother is a certified Native Languages teacher.

He and I discuss issues from two different stances, although we our opinions usually agree.

Anonymous said...

This strikes me as very similar to the attacks on conservative blacks. Liberal blacks claim that those conservative blacks are not authentically black - or worse.

Who are you to say that Native Americans need to be tribally enrolled in order to consider themselves Native American?

Aren't they individuals who are free to choose how they live? Shouldn't they be able to define their identity themselves?

Gary McAlpin said...

Thank you Debbie for bringing up the issue of identity, especially from the children's (lit.)standpoint. I am not only an enrolled Cherokee, but grew up on our allotted lands in Oklahoma, being raised in a mostly traditional home by grandparents who told our stories, celebrated our ceremonies, danced our private religious dances, etc. I have been told many times, "you don't look Indian" by whites as well as many Native people around North America. I have seen both sides of the identity/race card, from both Native and white. My wife is an enrolled Native but didn't grow up with her tribe, but mostly her step-mother's tribe, the Dine. She has experienced even more heartache from Native people because of her fair skin than I have (especially at the university where she is getting her PhD), even though she is only two generations away from one of the greatest Ojibwe chiefs of Minnesota and southern Ontario and Manitoba. But here is where I am going: our children. Our children are proud of being Native American and eventually they hear other children say, "I am part Indian too" at their school or elsewhere. We teach our children to encourage these others to educate themselves, find out about their ancestors, ask questions and listen. By being respectful, our children are incredible examples of what any Native children should be like toward these who claim to be "part Indian."
Now if we can just get the adults to be respectful of those who are unsure of their specific Native identity, while educating them, to not discourage them and to treat them with the respect they deserve. As Native people, we should be welcoming these lost ones, encouraging them to find their ancestors and learn about who they are: mixed blood people who didn't have a choice of where they grew up or how fair complected their skin may be.
This is the key. This is what my grandfather used to tell me, that "it doesn't matter that your dad was white or that you are more fair than many of your cousins, because all of our blood still looks the same".
Just a few thoughts on identity...

Jude said...

I have always been careful about saying that I am part anything, even though I am certain that I am. My grandfather stands next to his half-brother, and he is a foot shorter and several shades darker; it's obvious that my grandfather had a native American mother. Unfortunately, she lost her children after their father died. In essence, they were stolen from her. I've been hunting for her for decades now, and I'm not any closer to finding out her name. But her stepchildren said that she was Cherokee, and that she used too much salt when she cooked. My great-grandfather's Civil War papers say that her name was "M.I. Moon" and that he died in Choctaw Territory. Does this mean that she was really Choctaw? Maybe I will never find her to know for sure. I do have a documented Huron ancestor from Canada, but it is this one missing great-grandmother who gave me what? not enrollment in a tribe, that's for sure. Thanks for the Oyate page.

rindawriter said...

My own granny, who was Chickasaw, was raised by aunt and uncle, who were blood relatives because her mother did not want her--and never did want her. That aunt and uncle's names are registered on the infamous Dawes rolls;they gave my granny their last name, as well, but my grandmother was illegitimate and was never registered on the rolls. She was not even given a birth certificate. She was rejected by others as well as her mother in the tribe and never really accepted by anyone else. We still don't know why; it may have been her odd combination of white skin and very Indian face; it may have been something to do with her father, about whom no one knows anything. No one could mistake photographs of my granny or her mother as anything else but Indian, however. And the prejudice she suffered all of her life is pain that also cannot be hidden. I probably qualify by blood quantum for tribal membership above others with less percentage blood Indian, but that's not something I would pressure a tribe into doing, accepting me--even if I could get the proper Federal documentation. The story of my grandmohter's life and her people is what my mother and I want to learn more about. Not so we can profit by it. Just so that we can understand her, my granny, and ourselves better. We realize more and more, my mother and I, what courage she had. My mother used to be so ashamed of being Indian and so silent about her family and past. Now, she talks with me about it so much; she is proud of being Indian now and she knows she doesn't have to hide things anymore. That has been the most precious, incredible gift to me--to have made her proud of her own mother at last.

Anonymous said...

It is important to understand the ways of your tribe, but does being enrolled or growing up on a reservation make you more or less of who you are? Can you take a drop of blood and divide out that part that is American Indian from the rest?

The BIA and reservations are not American Indian creations; they are the creation of the white man who used them to control and reduce the number of AI's. Once he found that he could get the Indian Nations to voluntarily reduce their own numbers, the BIA was suddenly administered by American Indians.

Many nations do not even reside on the lands that were traditionally used by their ancestors. No tribe owned land; land ownership is a white concept. If you are fortunate enough to live and see the evidence of a long tradition of your people in the same place, you are blessed. Most AI's have not enjoyed such blessings.

Now that there are some attempts to equalize education and other "advantages" for those who are American Indian, it seems that there is a hierarchy that says that some are more AI than others because of their upbringing or belonging to the "right" families, or living in a certain area.I thought the idea of "royalty" was a European concept until now.

I once had a dog that nursed a baby rabbit. The rabbit still didn't grow to be a dog, even though he lived in dog culture, in a dog house, and was a part of the dog family. He grew to be a rabbit, preferred grass to dog food, and hopped.

Not all tribes have open enrollment, and only a handful of the original nations are recognized by the federal government.

Does that make those who live outside of the federal definition less American Indian? If it does, then there were no American Indians before the US Government decided to recognize us.

Is a wolf the same as a racoon if you call him by the same name on paper? No racoons and wolves are different and can be identified according to their kind. Labels are meaningless if they do not reflect reality.

The next time some redneck tells me to go back to the reservation, I will try to make him see the logic of the federal government's tribal recognition. And just for fun, I'll try a little tribal definitions math and show him how 1/16, 1/8, and 1/8 can add up to 1/8.

Some American Indians do not have tribal affiliations. Not all tribes were able to preserve their culture intact, and they chose life in the only context it was offered; as a person of color or white. The division split families, and created havoc for the misegenation laws that were imposed by eleven states that recognized only colored or white people.

I am one who is descended from several American Indian nations, whose grandmothers assimilated, yet were indentured for producing "mulatto" children. (Yes, it was a crime for these women to give birth to their husband's babies if the baby's skin was too dark).

I have not adopted the white idea of American Indian royalty by bloodline, land ownership and residency as defining my tribal affiliation, or the worth of my heritage distilled to a mathematical percentage. Each of these ideas is foreign, yet you define yourself as American Indian by them. This is a very curious situation.

Scott Wyzlic said...

Well then, I'm part White, always have been and I suppose I always will be. I enjoy hearing people say “I’m Native American” or “Yeah I’m part Indian too” like it was a virus they just caught. To quote Jim Thorpe “question - so how long your been Indian? Answer – how long you been white?” It is our ancestry which guides our identity, but it’s our actions that define it. That is to say our ancestry says we have NDN blood in us, but it is us, NDN’s, who define what that means to society as a whole.

As an Indigenous North American we can enjoy our ancestry as well as our current state of being without the acknowledgement of the U.S. or Canadian Government, and in some cases without the recognition of a tribal government. I know a man who is Indian. His parents were on the Durant census roll, he is 100% full blooded, head to toe Indian, but he does not belong to a tribe. The infamous “identity” question then is what does it mean to be Indian?

Thus we have the three aspects of being Indian:
 Self Identified - I am an Indian [this is where a whole lot of wannabe’s reside]
 Culturally/Society Identified - you are an Indian by your looks and actions, society deems you to be an Indian
 And lastly federally recognized by the U.S. government – we have tested your blood for a “quantum”, you passed, you have been given a tracking number and are forever known as an Indian, don’t mess up!

So now the question of blood comes into play when we speak of identity. My children will not qualify for enrollment in a tribe under 25 cfr part 83 because they don’t have the “quantum” necessary to join a tribe, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Indigenous North Americans, it just means that I, being half Indian and half Polish, could not pass enough blood from “one tribe” on to my children, even though they are ¼ NDN. Their Great Grandfather, my grandpa, would not have seen them any different than me; he would have seen them as Indian too. And thus the debate goes on…what does it mean to be an Indigenous North American, Indian, or Native American Citizen?

Debbie Stanton said...

The concept of owning identity must be unique to the United States, where we conveniently grab ahold of any history to define ourselves because we have so little national history (as the U.S., not as a land). Claiming to be Native American is attractive to some because it gives them a sense of belonging and a sense of rightful ownership of the land. However, ownership is not a Native American creation, from what I have read. It was brought by white immigrants from Europe.

I really like Debbie's suggestion that we cannot claim ownership of a tribe without it claiming ownership of us. Yes, you can say you are of Native American descent, but you probably shouldn't say you are Cherokee without the Cherokee tribe acknowledging it.

Just as Debbie said, often those claiming some connection with Native American culture are using their connection to subvert it. "I am Native American too, but you don't see me getting a government handout." I am Irish, but not just on St. Patrick's Day.

*Debbie Stanton*
Youth Services Librarian
Kalona Public Library

Christine said...

Perhaps I can offer another perspective that people can relate to...The father of my children is Jewish; I am not. We have not raised our children in the Jewish faith or culture. So, although their father is Jewish, our children are not half Jewish. (Not that Hitler would have cared, but that is another issue.) My children have explored their Jewish roots but as they have grown older they understand that to be Jewish, they would have to convert and follow Jewish customs and even then some might not ever consider them Jewish, because I, their mother, am not Jewish.

My ancestors came from Germany, Italy, and France in the 1890s. I say "Gesundheit" when someone sneezes, I talk with my hands, and I love red wine, but I am not German, French, or Italian.

It seems to me that if someone has Native ancestry, but has no connection to present Native culture then claiming to be "part" Native American is not valid.

Anonymous said...

I'm just a 15 yr old -- dark eyes dark hair dark skin. my mom is german polish french english, aka WHITE. my dad's parents never really said much but he knows our last name is english and he's basically english and native american because his mom would tell stories about her mom who was 2nd generation native american[whatever that means]. so i'm "one of those kids who says i'm part indian too" because that's what i am told, my dad was told, and grandmother was told. we never were taught the language or about the culture. My opinion is that some indians wanted their kids to grow up white or american so they never taught the culture. I might not be registered native american but it is in my blood so i will continue saying "I'm part indian too"

Anonymous said...

I often think about how meaning is deployed to claim power and authority (Native identity) genealogy, origins, power, mobile formation fixed in different times. What is so enticing about claiming a Native identity without a firm background in the tribe's history, expansion of the capitalist system, meaning, decolonization, and epistemology. Tribes are either federally recognized or not, but it seems like there is an etherial romantic veil cast upon Native people--hey its cool to claim Indian identity. I see how non-Natives have lost touch with their Druidic past with the Roman Empire and Christianity (small "c" as Jesus himself was a Druid)-so many tend to latch onto what feels natural. But what is being erased and appropriated? Is the grain of knowledge contaminated by lack of cultural understanding? We have to re-write all history books to stop viewing Natives in the past-this is what ones who appropriate find so fascinating. They like teepees yet bemoan Wal-Mart for spoiling the fairy tale image. All people have to re-trace roots rather than appropriate another's identity to claim authority to mask what is lost. It is time to bring the Native voice back...





what about linear chronology? Cyclical chronology? what about stories and origins-despite

Robin said...

A late addition, but I just wanted to say thank you for these thought-provoking posts. I've spent a lot of time struggling with this topic, and constantly hearing from people who harp on about being 1/16th Cherokee (why is it always Cherokee?) hasn't helped.

My maternal grandmother was half Algonkin and half Metis. My maternal grandfather was half Cree and half French. Because of what they had faced in their lifetime, they did not want to be identified as First Nations people. I was six when I moved away from them, and an adult when my mother began identifying as First Nations.

I am white. I was raised in an environment that identified as white. I take after my father's side of the family in colouring, and have benefitted from white privilege all my life. That said, the experience of having friends' parents look at my mother and bar them from coming over to play because they thought our house would be dirty, the experience of hearing my mother called a squaw - both meanly as 'friendly' teasing, and the experience of helping to care for my great-uncle who came back from a residential school so brain damaged that he could never live alone...these are things I take with me into life and into literature.

In the end, the best thing I can think to say is the facts as they apply to a situation: "My mother is Native." Or, "My grandmother was born on a reservation." Or, "My great-uncle was a victim of the residential schools." These are truths, but they do not make me anything other than loving kin to people who are Native.