The hardest part about trying to tell people about indigenous folks is getting rid of the stereotypes that block the way. A lot of advice has been in the media lately, mostly as a way of trying to persuade people away from the stubborn stereotypes they have about politics so we can find the new solutions we so badly need. A few have heard the facts about how brains are wired to always snap back to their earlier beliefs, but even fewer try to keep from doing it. They are like calves who get lost and so go back to where they last had a good suck from mom. That’s what’s imprinted on them.
Even more problematic is the fact that when it comes to “Indians” we “go back” to ideas that differ from each other in time, place and source. The indigenous people themselves have definite and vivid opinions they intend to have observed. Even worse, some of these people are still tribal land-based villagers from the mountains of Mexico or from the always frozen north (places we don’t even have names for, much less a notion of how to live there or what the people there think) and some of them are part of the 1% of the wealth of this country. Tom Gilcrease, the oil zillionaire in Oklahoma, was tribal.
So to one person the only war that counts is the series of massacres that cleared the prairies and to the next all wars are Vietnam. The only culture that registers as “Indian” is that on the prairie, possibly excluding Mexicans. No one knows where in the “blood quantum” scheme one is or isn’t “enrolled.” It's determined by the enroller, the tribe, which means it is political. “Full blood” means one-hundred-percent descended from the original signers of the list, which may have only reflected who was around at the time. There was no loyalty oath or even a birth register.
But the usual white assumption that prevails is that there were no “Indians” until the Euros came and therefore they have no history, no continuity either genetic or cultural until some European showed up to tell them who they were. Someone’s imagination then controls art and diplomas for centuries. Almost everyone with more than ten generations in this country probably has an American indigenous ancestor but very few of them are Cherokee grandmothers. That’s just the only stereotype the speaker has in his head.
Gays like the idea of gay tribes or — even more — one particularly appealing gay tribesman. The military loves thinking about famous natural warriors, the way many people think of war as only combat, not all the supplies and political maneuvering. My favorite depictions of indigenous people tend to be the wise old aunties and grannies who live in the country, but I’m forced to admit that even they are only one category of tribal people. They do exist and they are powerful, but they can’t claim to be everybody.
There are several lively debates. One is whether being “Indian” is a matter of genetics or culture. The genetic base of the Peoples of America is Asian though lately there has been talk about migration through Greenland from Europe or maybe the paleo ur-people who were destroyed forever by the glaciers. There seem to be two “waves” of immigration across the Pacific Ocean, though no one can tell why. It’s only hinted at in the genomes. But it’s hard to tell too much because tribes have finally realized that pharma hunters are after their molecules and throw up legal walls to protect their interests. There is a LOT of money at stake.
So which alleles “prove” that someone is indigenous, as separate from someone who came to California from China in the Gold Rush? And which of the many and intricate material cultures and ecological bases are definitive of who is “Indian”? What about the young men Benjamin Franklin hired to work in his print shop — now that they are literate and dress like Franklin, are they no longer tribal? (They were molecularly without immunity and died young.)
The other debate is whether there are any “full-bloods” left, which is particularly confusing since enrolled people might only have one full-blood great-grandparent or on the other hand be 100% “full-blood” and married to someone 100% full-blood but from a different tribe or even phenotype. If a roly-poly Hopi marries a long tall Iroquois, what about their children? Must they look like “Indians”?
On Twitter a meme about how people know who is an Indian is exchanged between cousins. It’s based on stereotypes: the question is “How do I know you’re Indin?”
The game is in the answers: “I can count to ten in Blackfeet language.” “I read “Dances with Wolves” ten times.” “I can turn into a wolf.” “A single tear trickles down my cheek.”
Then comes Elissa Washuta, author of “My Body Is a Book of Rules” to briefly describe what it was like to be Cowlitz/Yakama growing up far from the rez and not looking “Indin” or wearing braids. She took the trouble to travel to the tribes like hers (which had been disbanded legally), learning what they were like and making friends. She speaks of the “imposter syndrome” when one is a great success (maybe as a writer) but can’t quite believe it. Maybe not being able to “feel” one’s Indianness is the same thing.
But there’s another argument not limited to the world of the indigenous, which is whether people who are NOT indigenous in a tribal way or on a rez can POSSIBLY write about those people. It’s a very emotional subject but sometimes very narrow. People say, “Must one be a dog to write about being a dog?” Others answer, “Only if you are a veterinarian.” The cats next to me enjoying the sun pouring through the window say, “If I had a book about me, I would pee on it.” And I scream. That’s such a CAT thing to say.
Seriously, I write about Blackfeet, Cree, Metis, the NW tribal people of my childhood, undefined local and whomever. But I don’t publish. That’s where the prejudice comes in. No publisher will produce a book that might lose money due to politics. I’m not “Indian.” If I were, they might consider my writing. That’s okay. I write for myself, not them. That’s been my earliest practice.