Saturday, November 26, 2011


I’m working on an entry for an encyclopedia. It’s about native American demographics. I thought you might be interested in some excerpts from my first draft. I'm just sketching things out and have MUCH research and rewriting to do. This is about half the length the final manuscript will be.


Native American demographics (counting of peoples) is problematic in several significant ways. The first problem is deciding who is “native.” Since the idea of counting people comes from Europe, whose first contact was so unexpected by both sides that neither side was quite sure the other was human -- just that they were “other.” Archeological studies have enlarged this problem of definition, trying to understand who the earliest inhabitants were, where they came from and how they got to the Americas.

Far more information than Columbus had has developed recently through study of the genome and geology. It is now clear that the genetic base of first Americans is Asian, possibly consolidated by a population that developed as a group for a long time, maybe in Beringia, the land between Asia and the Americas that is sometimes underwater. It is spoken of as a bridge, but was actually more like a prairie lowland, miles and miles wide.

But there appear to be other early sources of people, particularly in South America where settlement was more separated. However, South America raises the possibility of marine migration on the Pacific and, less likely, the Atlantic. So far there has not been development of the idea that immigration could have come by a polar route, either over the snow or on the open sea of some periods. Generally, the scientists agree that there are two or three basic genomes, suggesting waves of migration rather than a continuous trickle.

The bottom line is that when the Euros thought of counting the “other” they were just looking for people “not like us,” as much for cultural reasons as for genetic differences. Europeans are always taking inventory. The first lists of Americans included African Americans but only because they were possessions, a list of assets. Some tried to press Native Americans into that category. The advantage was that there was no need to pay the cost of an ocean passage. The disadvantage was the Native Americans simply would not occupy the niche, though they sometimes took slaves themselves.



As soon as European and African contact was made, disease spread among the indigenous people so quickly that many Europeans thought of the land as empty, occupied only by remnants. The demographics and patterns of contagion would not be investigated for centuries. Today we are able to trace the genomics of even the smallpox variations that repeatedly reduced the population by major proportions.


The invention of animal “breeds” had a huge impact on European thought, which for a long time was focused on differences. In fact, their idea was that the native peoples were like a different species, which cannot interbreed. Some suggested that Native Americans evolved from a different creature. This unreality was soon replaced by the obvious when mixed children appeared, but the idea of “class” and “breeding” held on, enforcing economic and stigma penalties on people from “lesser” origins.


At first at least some indigenous groups were seen as allies. There are full-blood people who qualify as Daughters of the American Revolution because their ancestors were registered soldiers with the American forces. But as soon as competition for land and other resources began to grow, many groups became resistant and war was the result until the 19th century when the prairie clearances created the archetypal image of the warrior on horseback. Residual hostility and the practice of “hunting” Indians have taught them not to reveal themselves. Today’s census takers still find themselves evaded and reviled, which undermines the usefulness of the statistics.


Lists are sometimes changed by political forces. In Canada qualifying for First Nations status had always come through descent from an indigenous father, the assumption being that a white father meant the children would change their culture. When indigenous women finally forced their children to be considered indigenous, the number of Indians made a big leap.

Going the other way, the Cherokee -- prosperous and assimilated -- at the end of the Civil War had not just freed the slaves they owned, but also extending to them tribal membership. More recently the tribe decided to throw them off the rolls. Uproar, lawsuits, and elections were all affected, to say nothing of sympathy for the Cherokee.



The earliest lists of indigenous tribal people may have been made because they were prisoners of war. In better circumstances, perhaps a list of treaty signatories. Then came the lists of people to be removed from land that European-descended people wanted and, with slightly better motives, those displaced and impoverished refugees who were to be issued commodities. Persons were simply compelled to line up and file past a clerk who did his best to record the names of people who spoke a different language and had different assumptions about the world. For one thing, the concept of the father’s surname accompanying a “Christian” name was unknown to many. The hapless clerk wrote down who they said they were (or in exasperation just gave them a new name) unless someone else in the line accused them of lying. These wretched lists became the basis of all Indian tribal membership.

The metaphor of “blood” came to control the descendants of those people until the present time. At that point of making lists no one even know about blood types, much less the human genome. Assuming that certain sections of the chromosomal genome called “alleles” can distinguish tribes is one that scientists say is uncertain and faulty. What we call “blood” is “bloodlines” like the blood lines of breeding animals, pedigree and provenance as recorded by some clerk. We are counting descendants of the people who lined up.


Tribes, originally conceived as “breeds” as in animals or “nations” with boundaries, are self-declared today, so that a census counts the members as defined by the tribal authorities. The members resident on the reservation is one group while the “diaspora,” those people whose origins on are the reservation but who live elsewhere is the other. It is a problem that so many people move back and forth. The assumption of location as identity doesn’t work.

Another problem is that the pan-Indian treatment of education (boarding schools), pow-wow networks, and political groups -- aided by the allure of the stranger -- has created a category of people who are entirely “full-blood” but not enough quantum of any one tribe to be enrolled.

A third problem is the person who is self-identified as Indian but who is a very low quantum and raised in the city. They may have little or no connection to their putative culture but assume entitlement anyway. Often these people are mixed with Asian or African descended people, as well as Europeans. Persons who don’t really fit the defined categories might not be counted.

Another problem is those people who belong to tribes not officially recognized by the US government, either because they were closed down and dispersed or because no one ever thought of them as a tribe, including themselves. At any given time there are groups trying to be certified as tribes, possibly because of economic advantages.


One political movement wants to count as tribal members only those persons living on the reservation. What is reservation? A number of quasi-reservations have developed because of changing trust status (land that is managed by the federal authorities on behalf of tribal members) or because of the realization that Hawaiians, Alaskans, and others are also entitled to a “homeland.” What is a homeland if it is a few acres of developed property in a city?

The controlling issue, aside from trustee land, is sovereignty, because tribal lands were defined by treaties which gives them equivalent-to-state standing. Taxation, law & order, domestic law, education and other state domains are paralleled on reservations, though many delegate at least some of those matters to the state. Currently problematic is the intrusion of Euros and Latin Americans onto reservations where no laws address their behavior. Drug dealers and abusers can’t be counted.

Every reservation treaty is unique, depending on the time when it was negotiated and the controlling assumptions. For a whlle it was a confinement, then a plunder, maybe a commune, then a corporation. Some treaties have never been signed. The enforcement of the terms of treaties has meant large settlements because boundaries were ignored when valuable natural resources were found.


Native American persons were not granted citizenship until 1924. Military service in a time of war had a lot to do with the change, partly because of recognition of the contribution on the part of the nation and partly because men who had been of equal status with others as soldiers realized how important it was.


Many characteristics of Indians, quite apart from appearance or traditional culture, arise from residence on reservations where there are few ways to make money, population is thin, access to education and medical care is limited, and the impact of missionaries is still felt. When the national census is made, it is shown that the population is increasing faster than others, that it is significantly younger, less educated, more likely to be in families, more likely to be in families with only one parent, less likely to be comfortably housed (if at all), and more susceptible to the afflictions of poverty, like malnutrition including diabetes, tuberculosis, and so on.

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