“Hey, there’s an arrow sticking out of your foot. Did you mean to do that, or did it just happen?” I don’t think I’ve ever written anything quite like this before because I try not to offend Indians. Do they return the favor? Well, that’s what I’m talking about.
The history of Indian PR has been that binary thing -- either they were howling savages who should be exterminated or they were Children of Nature, who were naturally noble. Then later they were drunks or congressmen. (That was before those two categories overlapped so much -- they ALWAYS overlapped some.) But the real binary on the rez is between those who “go ahead” and those who “stay back.” These two categories are getting farther apart, which is a wound tearing. Those who go ahead are doing pretty well, getting college educations, accumulating accomplishments and even prosperity. Those who stay back, the old-fashioned ones, are increasingly helpless, suffering, and blamed. Reconciling the two factions is tough.
But the binary that has really been a shot in their own foot was the Cherokee effort to throw all the descendants of their slaves off their rolls: it was red against black. The Cherokee were an adaptable people and their basic tribal ways were not that different from the ag-focused whites who came along, so they were easily “civilized,” in terms of being like the whites -- including the owning of black people. (Actually, many tribes kept subservient captives but they had not been legally -- by US law -- been defined as slaves, nor did they all look alike in terms of skin color. In fact, some may have been white.) When abolition came along and the North won, the tribe once again followed the whites by abolishing formal, legal slavery, and they went one better by giving their slaves “citizenship” -- membership in the tribe.
Now that the tribal rolls are too full and there are tribal profits, some bright council members wanted to throw out all the people descended from slaves on grounds that tribes are defined by genetics and they could not be genetic Indians. 2,500 membership obligations dismissed in one act.
In fact, no tribes are defined by genetics: they are defined by provenance, which means descent from people who were on the first lists of tribal members usually made by white outsiders. Those lists were highly susceptible to rigging, which was motivated by the need to eat: lists were made in order to issue commodities. It was easy to claim tribal membership unless some enemy of you or your family was standing there, willing to swear you were not a member. Whites were easy to bamboozle. Anyway, “tribes” were not like British citizens but rather a loose aggregation of folks who went along together, some related and some not.
In those days when tribes, reservations, and “belonging” were being defined, no one knew that there was such a thing as blood types (A, B, AB, or O) much less a genome. If a “marker allele” COULD be identified for each tribe (which it can NOT because membership was not dependent on being born to a specific family), the tribal rolls everywhere would suddenly look quite different. Some people among the Cherokee and other southern tribes could look black but belong to the group. From the first African slave who ran away from whites and was taken in by Indians, the races have been naturally mixing. There were also whites who ran away from whites.
Over the years tribal membership has become such a hot potato that the US officials have simply surrendered, ruling that each tribe has the ability to decide who’s in and who’s out. (Therefore, Ward Churchill, who is genetically white, was legally a tribal member.) The quarrels and accusations continued, but they were at the local level and didn’t gum up Washington, D.C. (It doesn’t need any help.) Naturally, tribal “blood quantum,” which was really provenance controlled by birth certificates rather than genetic information, got more and more generous, because no one wanted their children or grandchildren to be shut out. Of course, the information on birth certificates might not be entirely accurate due to a little -- shall we say -- cross-pollination.
In the present generation, people are able to prove their provenance by using genetic markers from their blood (or any other of their cells that carry chromosomes) rather than legal markers like marriage or birth certificates. Sometimes it’s an advantage and sometimes not, but only the tribes themselves paid much attention until the Cherokees decided to throw out all the descendants of their slaves, which they had made a treaty to accept. (Indians howl that treaties are not honored. Now we see that the Cherokees agreed with that.)
But the descendants of slaves -- though many were low-income, dependent on the Indian Health Service, and needful of commodities -- were not without legal recourse. Thrown off immediately before a tribal council election, they were reinstated by a federal court. I suspect they elected people sympathetic to their cause, which will affect Cherokee politics for a while. Those who wanted to get rid of them achieved the opposite: people who now oppose them.
But the larger effect will be national and even worldwide. The world-at-large thinks of Indians as a sort of ideal people, brave warriors, kind women and wise chiefs. This puts an arrow straight through all that, self-maiming people who live in a tight little bubble of their own without considering their image outside that. It was bad enough when tribes began to sell tax-free cigarettes and fireworks, got worse when they built casinos (omg, GAMBLING!!) in spite of sharing enormous profits to improve their reputations and pointing out that gambling is an ancient and even religious practice. Things went even higher on the “uh-oh” scale when a few did their best (still are) to foul up Eloise Cobell’s achievement in getting the federal trustees to reform by nit-picking and obstructing settlements.
But throwing African-American-Cherokees off the tribal rolls is raw racism. After all the reciprocity between Black Power and Red Power, despite a love of Indians so strong that black people are always telling me they are part-Blackfeet when they plainly couldn’t be, despite the importance of trustworthy political alliances, this nothing less than scandalous action on the part of the Cherokee damages the public image of every American Indian. They are simply much too assimilated. They’ve turned white.