Thursday, November 05, 2009


“Blood” is the preoccupation of Indians and yet the identity of an Indian is not determined by actual genetics after all. The criterion is “pedigree” or “provenance” (which are approximately the same thing) created by People self-announcing identities about two hundred years ago when the army began making lists of Indian people in order to trade (in the earliest days) or issue them food and clothing when the buffalo were gone. At that point European notions of “race” and “tribe” were imposed on the varied and constantly transforming People of the land. Everything since depends upon that original rather uncertain bit of recording and the records kept by semi-literate government employees since then.

Imagine a long line of people wrapped in blankets which the women likely kept over the lower half of their faces, needing as much advantage as possible, not speaking English, filing past a wobbly table on the trodden grass where a young army clerk used a quill pen to make a list of names. Like immigration authorities on the Atlantic coast, if he couldn’t figure out what the person in front of him said, he just “gave” him or her a name. An interpreter was some help.

Access to food and shelter depended on what that clerk wrote down. There were no “certificates” or “licenses” or other papers to present. Everything depended on whether he wrote down you were Blackfeet or Cree or white or Chinese. Maybe you belonged on this side of the 49th parallel and maybe you depended on the other side. Maybe you belonged on both sides. Authorities complained that too many people did the last, drawing rations from both the Great Mother from over the Sea and the Great White Father. Everything since has derived from that first list. If you were, as they say, “standing behind the door” or gone fishing when that list was made, you weren’t Indian. Whole tribes have been declared “not Indian.” Just last week it was the Little Shell band of Cree Chippewa who had always been in the wrong place to be listed. They’ve been campaigning for decades to be recognized. Still no success.

This is the foundation on which tribal rolls rest, plus petitions to councils to add new people as they are born. By the time the missionaries had been around a while, some people had baptismal names that were European. The culture had always accepted the idea that a person had a right to change names if they felt different. And it had not been particular about keeping track of which babies belonged to which fathers or even which mothers, since people swapped parenting responsibilities around to even out the burdens and rewards. Living alliances were based on practicalities, not legalities.

When blood typing began, which was associated with war because of combat transfusions dramatically shown in newsreels, Indians were aghast to be told that they might be Asian which to them meant Japanese, the enemy. Later more detailed DNA knowledge confirmed that American Indians are genetically Asian, that they came across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. By now credulous people across the world get their blood tested to look for “tribal” allele characteristics and Oprah announces which African tribal roots she claims. (Alleles are little groups of genes.) Few listen to the scientific advice that mostly there is no certainty in such alleles, only hints and probabilities. If “tribal” membership had to be defined by the inclusion of specific alleles, siblings of the same parents might turn out to be “one-in” and “one-out,” because there is a fifty-fifty chance of inheritance between the two parents.

The theory that human beings first came to the North American continent over the Bering Straits provokes resistance from the indigenous people because it is used politically to say, “Well, we are all immigrants, aren’t we? What’s a ten millennium time difference? You get no special status from being here earlier.” So the Blackfeet, for instance, will announce staunchly that they were ALWAYS HERE and will stand by that opinion. (Luckily, their reservation IS where they were at first contact.)

The sudden interest in DNA has made many tribal people suspicious, partly because their medical needs are met by the Indian Health Service separately from the general population, which can suggest that there’s something “different” about their care. The feeling is that they may be lab rats or that some experiments may be being performed on them secretly. (It’s happened before. For instance, many unauthorized sterilizations in a certain period when Indians were considered genetically inferior.) The opposite lurking idea that Indians are exotic and superior hints that they may have some miracle drug hiding in them that would cause them to be “strip-mined.” In particular, older folk are not friendly to transplanted organs and anyway are tired of being reduced to bureaucratic statistics and percentages.

Now and then rumors sweep the reservation. Mysterious infections are targeting Indians! (Because they demand antibiotics in excess of ordinary use, “super-bugs” resistant to antibiotics are more likely to develop.) The People are being given wrong meds on purpose! (Training dispensary technicians with rez educations is not easy.) Everyone has polio! Everyone has AIDS! Everyone has hepatitis or TB or H1N1. Everybody has diabetes. So people are already nervous about protecting their bodies.

The problem is the consequences of resisting DNA information: there are not many Native Americans signed up to be genetic matches for kidney transplants (more and more needed for diabetes sufferers) or bone marrow transplants. The great irony is that while the tribal people are obsessing about sending in an inner cheek scraping to be put into a DNA database -- for fear that it will somehow prove they are genetically evil, or possibly genetically so valuable that their every body fluid will be demanded, or maybe from another planet -- the modern food they are eating is killing them.

There is another DNA trapdoor that was installed at the beginning of records. Though there are many legal ways of defining what an “Indian” or “Native American” is (according to the purpose of the category: education, grants for housing, etc.), the most basic definition was a “full-blood” or “half-blood.” That has now been extended to one-quarter. Some have their eye on one-eighth. The intention (not admitted) from the beginning was the elimination of Native Americans via diminishing blood quantum. There was no provision for multi-tribal blood quantum. There was no provision for highly educated, successful, middle-class tribal people. Now what? Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

1. The term "land bridge" is kind of a misnomer and leads to poor concepts of this narrow bridge of land connecting two continents. Beringia was actually a thousand mile expanse of land, wide as from Montana to California, connecting the hemispheres. People would have though it was all the same land.

2. When it comes to the Asiatic roots, think of them as a raw material like flint. Out of the same flint, you can make an arrowhead, a knife, a scraper. Same material, different forms. 20,000-12,000 years ago there were no Chinese, no Japanese, no Koreans, no Native Americans at that time. Everyone was still the raw material, flint. The lands themselves, the forces and conditions there, chipped people into the different shapes of arrowheads, axes, knives. The lands and the forces that make each land different were the creators that took the raw material and made it into Chinese, Koreans, Navajo, Maya,

3. As far as the old "we're all immigrants" thing, remember the first one to get and live in a house, builder or not, is the owner. If he doesn't sell, just because someone drops by to stay, doesn't make them the owner. Native Americans owned the house, and their white guests not only overstayed their welcome, they also took over the whole house and shoved the Indians in a closet.

4. Medical companies and genetic projects actually not only map and "mine" human genes, they also have been copyrighting them, saying they own them...and the law supports them in this. So indigenous people are right to be suspicious. Science is one thing, but ultimately the real interest is usual, money is the real god.