Thursday, September 04, 2008


Pinning down the exact identity and location of a person and/or creature and/or property seems to be as much a preoccupation of our age as taxonomy was in the 19th century, and maybe it’s related. What is your REAL name, they demand, and wizards who know the REAL names of things can control them.

But these seem preoccupations of Euro whites with Middle Eastern theist roots. Maybe it begins with God disguising himself as a burning bush (His first nom de plume being Jehovah when he wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets.) Or maybe it traces to the Graeco-Roman tricky gods, esp. Zeus who liked to present himself to the ladies as a bull, a swan, a shower of gold (I’m sure that was about money, not the other.) to tell them, “But of course I’ll respect you in the morning. Trust me!” At least humanity seems to have gotten a lot of good out of the mongrel crosses that resulted, all those heroes and constellations. Strangely, as much fooling around as Napi did, he seems never to have had children. Was he shooting blanks? Or were the People simply not so patriarch-focused, more concerned with Mom?

Plains Indians were “cool” about taking a new name whenever they felt changed, whether by an event or by moving to a new level of society membership, or maybe just in a new context. This drove to distraction all those missionaries and agents and sergeants trying to keep track of people and their origins so as to hand out commodities “fairly”, which is why I laughed out loud when it was announced that the Blackfeet tribe would be manufacturing the new “smart ID cards” that would have embedded electronic tricks to make sure no one pretended to be other than the official version. Blackfeet had the advantage as a tribe of ending up on both sides of the 49th parallel, so they stood in line for their moldy flour and wormy bacon from the Great White Father on this side, then traveled over to the Canadian side to see what the Queen had to offer.

Which also makes it a little ironic that Native Americans, often renamed by missionaries, sergeants and agents who couldn’t spell Native American languages (and sometimes didn’t spell English very well either) are the ones who go into war dance mode when someone purporting to be Indian writes a book or someone who is not Indian writes about supposedly “secret” and therefore privileged information. The cry is “Hey, I was gonna write that and get rich!” This is not unlike the movies everyone claims to have been stolen from the screenplay they were gonna sell some day.

Of course, in the Aquarian Age a lot of people changed their names, which might be the reason older, more traditional, white folks get mad about it, esp. when they are names like “Starshine Squirrel Nest.” They aren’t even too comfortable with a feminist name like “Mary Lucydotter” though that’s been the practice for many years in the Scandinaavian countries. It aggravates them that Asians might put “last names” (family names) first and “Christian” names last, not noticing that they might not be Christian. Then there are the models, porn stars, famous men, Middle Easterners and so on who only go by one name. How’s a person supposed to know where they came from? Or those Spaniards with ten names in a long string -- who can remember them?

Doubling back to Native American names, we probably ought to forgive the problems of some guy sitting at a rickety desk with a big ledger and a pen whittled out of a feather, trying desperately to understand what a toothless old woman with a blanket up over the bottom half of her face is saying her name is, much less wring a birth date out of her. The mistakes that guy made under the pressure of the moment have been compounded by the confusion between blood quantum and pedigree. Pedigree is the recorded parents of a person and is based on written records. Yes, like fancy animals. Records depend upon: a) writing, b) a place to keep the writing safe, c) an authority figure who is trustworthy about writing things down, d) a population small and interwoven enough to prevent people from (ahem) representing their daughter’s child as their own, e) a culture that cares about such things instead of other concerns like whether there is enough to eat.

Blood quantum canNOT tell who is an enrollable Indian or not. It MUST depend upon pedigree, recorded descent. The original idea was that only full-blood Indians would count as Indians because they were the point: people who were already on the land and entirely different from the invaders. Then there were so many half-bloods because of white men having babies with Indian women, that they were added. (Whose idea do you suppose that was?) Originally the argument was that Indians would simply die out due to intermarriage with white folks. Then quarter-blood (by pedigree) people were added. (Some controversy there within the tribes.) A precedent was in the handling of slave pedigrees which were also ownership records, so that the whites in that situation argued that the least fraction of African blood required that the person stay a slave. Owners wanted them black as possible, while slaves might want to be as white as possible so as to “pass” -- that is, pass out of slavery. (A death of the old life.)

Advertisers who say they can tell whether an individual’s blood marks them as Indian are not exactly lying, but they are exaggerating to the point of near-falsehood. They can only tell you whether you have alleles (little gene groups) consistent with one of the three main groups of Native Americans, but anyone COULD have those alleles and anyway, tribes were assortments of people in community with each other, not necessarily blood descendants of each other. Anyway, the affinities were more cultural than genetic. The two major leaders of the Blackfeet fullblood communities at the turn of the 19th century were Sanderville brothers who had a big quantum of Mexican blood. Mexican, of course, being one kind of NA mixed with Spanish.

But white people love the mystical idea of being related to Indians, now that they aren’t being murdered by cavalry anymore. Truthfully, the white people who came to this country the earliest are the most likely to have some Indian genes, often disguised as “French,” simply because the opportunities have been so many. If a genetic survey were taken of the North American population and all the Europeans with no Native American alleles were sent back to Europe, the way all the buffalo with cattle alleles are slaughtered, I wonder how many would have to leave. Ten per cent? Half?

What I’m sneaking up on is the enormous emotional reaction to authors, particularly memoirists, who claim they are Native American. This will be a thread for a while. Don’t hesitate to comment.

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