Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Multiracial" identity and American Indians

The US Census released 2010 demographic data a few days ago. Among the data being pointed to in articles and essays is that "...American Indians and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are the most likely to report being of more than once race. Blacks and whites are the least likely." That excerpt appears in the New York Times, in the March 24, 2011 article by Susan Saulny.

It suggests that more American Indians claim more than one race than was the case in the past, that there is more mixing than ever before. I don't doubt that, but let's hit the pause button...

I'm tribally enrolled with Nambe Pueblo. I grew up there. My daughter and I, like my parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, etc., live our identity as Indians of Nambe Pueblo.

I teach at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. In every class I teach, I've got a handful of students who say they have a great grandparent who was Native. They don't know what tribe that ancestor was, and, they usually have only a vague idea of what it might mean to be Native. Most of them have no idea of Native Nations, of Native sovereignty, of being on a tribal census, what treaties mean, that dances might be sacred...   A great many of them romanticize an Indian identity based on popular culture and (sadly) biased teachings in school. Some of them manufacture that identity, putting it on in the form of, for example, a bone choker. They mean no harm. In fact, they wear such things with great pride. But! They don't live a specific Native Nation identity.

Yet, many of them check a box on school enrollment forms, and, likely on the U.S. Census, that says they're part Indian. And so, the statistics are kind of... skewed.

A few months ago, the Times ran another article in which college students reported being mixed, some of them with Native heritage, but that none of those distinct identities mattered.

Identity matters for those of us who are raised Indian. We work very hard at maintaining our nationhood and our sovereignty, and, we work to protect the integrity of our traditions from being exploited by people who don't understand them... 

The students interviewed for that Times article mean no harm when they say their Indian identity doesn't matter. It doesn't matter---to them. But it does to me, and it does to Native Nations. The students' well-meaning embrace of a mixed identity, in effect, obscures a lot, and in that obscurity, it does do harm. It contributes to the lack of understanding of who American Indians are...  And it takes the US down a merry melting pod road where we all hold hands and smile in ignorance.

Ignorance is not bliss. It is ignorance.

You don't have to be ignorant. You can learn a lot about American Indians, and know us---and maybe your own ancestry---for who we were and are, rather than some abstract stereotypical notion you've been carrying around. 

Spend some time on American Indians in Children's Literature, learning about who we are and what we care about. Read our newspapers! Check out Indian Country Today. Read Mark Trahant's columns there, and see how ICT covers mascot stories. Listen to our radio stations! Start with National Native News. Did you know we have Tribal Colleges? And a journal called Tribal College Journal that you can read online? There's a lot to know!


KT Horning said...

Debbie, did you see Henry Louis Gates' genealogy series on PBS, "African-American Lives," where he traced the ancestry of prominent African-Americans? Most of the people he interviewed claimed to have Native ancestry, too, but when they did the genetic testing, I believe only one of them did. They were all disappointed.

Anyway, Professor Gates discusses the issue candidly and intelligently, so you might want to check out the dvds some time, if you haven't seen the series. There were two different six-episode series that focused on African-Americans, and I believe it was the second one with Don Cheadle where he discussed it.

It seems to be something deep in the psyche of both white and Black Americans -- a yearning for Native ancestry.

Debbie Reese said...

I saw parts of it, KT, specifically his interview of Louise Erdrich. Here's the link.

He asks her how she identifies. She says Mother, Writer, and "of course, Native American." She goes on to talk about her identity, the history of her tribe, how her ancestors fought for that identity...

Anonymous said...

Great article. I studied political science at UCD and one of my courses was comparative politics: Indigenous Political Systems, with professor Glenn T. Morris. It was an very eye-opening class. He talked about this difference in understand identity in that class and in others I took. I got very interested in the subject and it has influence my thinking a great deal. I'm a musician and last year I wrote a song about this subject. It is called "Speaking Fantasy" by Eval Herz (that's the stage name I chose to use because my real name is Evan Herzoff). I'll tweet this article because I think people need to understand this better, especially in the United States. Thank you.

Teaspoon said...

Thank you for talking about this. It's something I wrestle with every time I see the checkboxes for racial demographics, so it's illuminating to read your perspective.

KT Horning said...

Debbie, Louise Erdrich was part of the third series where he traced the family histories/genealogies of Americans with diverse background, including Erdrich, Yo Yo Ma, Eva Longoria, and Meryl Streep.

In the first two series he focused on African-Americans, and I believe it was in "African-American Lives II" where he talked at some length about Blacks who grew up hearing they had Native ancestry. (As I recall, I think it may have only been Oprah Winfrey who truly had Native ancestry.)

Debbie Reese said...


There are a lot of white and Black Americans who do have Native heritage. The task for them is to do the genealogical research to figure out what tribe that ancestor belonged to, and then, continue with that research and work, to learn about that tribe and if it is possible to reconnect with family members there.

When I think of a yearning for things-Indian, I think of the new age movement, and individuals who "go Indian" to fill a void, who yearn for something (in this case an Indian spirituality) that they think will bring meaning to their lives.

Another form of that yearning, I think, is addressed in Phil Deloria's PLAYING INDIAN. Early colonists wanted so much NOT to be "European" that they started playing Indian to mark themselves as not-European.

Another dimension of that yearning is a nostalgic longing for something from the past.

delux said...

Enslavement of eastern indigenous people by european colonists was performed with such enthusiasm that there they have mixed black descendants not only in the south east of the US but the Caribbean as well. There are plenty who just want to have Indian ancestry, but for many its family history that has been ignored by the mainstream.

Sarah said...

Thank you so much for this post and your entire blog. I appreciate all I am reading and learning.

Miss Smilla said...

Genetic testing for "markers" of Native ancestry is an extremely blunt tool at best; it's most reliable when dealing with unbroken lines of descent, and that is pretty problematic when dealing with the nations of the Northeast and Southeast, where there is frequently a multigenerational history of intermarriage. This briefing paper from the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism goes into some considerable detail pointing out the issues: I'd especially like to note this following passage:

...There is another possibility of false negatives from these types of tests as well. This other type of false negative would arise if some Native American people simply do not have one or more of the ”Native American” markers. Scientists have not tested all native people, so they do not know for sure that Native Americans only have the markers they have identified...

In the Southeast and New England, there is a long history of Native communities with extensive African-American intermarriage having been declared "extinct" and redefined as colored or mulatto. Call me cynical, but I can't help but wonder if the initial survey testing to determine which genetic markers are Indian markers bothered to include any subjects from these unrecognized communities.

Stephen Bridenstine said...

Thanks for this great post. Reading your post right after reading the original news story really helped put things in perspective.

Did you see this one on NPR?

Native American Intermarriage Puts Benefits At Risk

Phil Kessinger said...

Excellent discussion. I am working on a teacher (K-12) inservice project (documentary film/website) on one of the questions raised here, namely "What should any teacher know about indigenous cultures in North America to be a good classroom teacher?" And of course the best source of information for this Teacher-To-Teacher Project are tribal teachers and leaders themselves. Be glad to discuss this further.

Anonymous said...

In the NativeAppropriations blog you've have frequently linked to there was a post about a question in a local bar's trivia contest. "Name an athlete on a professional sports team who is a Native American." There was a caveat added by the MC--Real blood Indian.

I took that to mean a decline in tolerance among the majority for the "My great-great grandmother was a Cherokee Princess" trope. But it also raises the Blood Quantum and the question of exactly who has the right to say someone is or isn't a Native American.

It's a thorny question. You seem to be saying that the person cut off from his heritage doesn't have real American Indian Identity. Yet, a child adopted and raised in a community can find he is a NOT a Native American, no matter how he defines himself, because he doesn't have the right genetic heritage.

Debbie Reese said...

Anon at 1:32:

Who gets to say? The tribal nation does. The United States has ways it decides who is a citizen of the United States. Same thing with tribal nations. They decide. Someone else does not decide for them.

I don't think there was ever much "tolerance" for the "my great great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian princess" amongst tribally enrolled American Indians. Within a lot of Native humor, you'll find that claim provides a lot of fodder for jokes and the like.

In terms of who decides and how... Some tribes require people to be active in the community, to have lived there within a specific (recent) time period, to have been on a census going back to a specific period in time... They differ from one federally recognized nation to the next.

What I'm sharing is information. I don't "seem to be" saying anything in particular, other than to be informed about Native Nationhood, claims to Native identity, etc.

Debbie Reese said...

Miss Smillia points to DNA testing.

A lot of people are doing genetic testing for Native ancestry. Many think that if they find those "markers" they will be able to check the "American Indian" box on college applications, etc.

Course, anybody can check a box. But I don't know of any tribe that will put you on the tribal census if you walk in the door with that "certificate" of Native ancestry, based on a DNA test.

Those tests, as I understand them, aren't tribally specific. They don't provide that level of detail. It isn't possible, as I recall, to map DNA to that level.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, Stephen, I did hear the NPR story... The interview with the Shoshone woman is interesting. It points to the problems ahead of tribal nations as their tribal members marry non-tribal members.