Thursday, November 10, 2011


My latest exercise in nailing Jello to a tree is an encyclopedia entry about Native American demographics. Sounds simple enough. The trouble is first of all that Native Americans don’t like census time -- they disappear -- and second of all, what IS one anyway? I mean, it’s easy enough to identify a buffalo, but an Indian? Without feathers and a horse, without a Navajo blanket and a bunch of turquoise and silver, without a tipi or a hogan or some other good clue, how do you tell a Native American from an Italian? Is an Inuit a Native American? Is a Mexican a Native American? Are Canadian Indians the same as Native American Indians? What about Hawaiians?

And then there are tribes. We used to be clear about what a tribe was and what it meant to belong to one. Now it’s a legal status: whether you’re legally enrolled. And every tribe gets to set its own criteria -- I mean, the BIA is not too swift, but they’re smart enough to stay out of fights about whose grandkids get to be enrolled in the tribe which is the same as qualifying to be a shareholder in a corporation or a cooperative. They say there are no more full-bloods, but then you find out that there are -- in fact, the number of full-bloods is increasing, because Indians marry Indians because that’s who they know. But because they met on the pow-wow trail, or in some part of the diaspora created by wartime work and Eisenhower’s plan to relocate tribal people in the cities, or maybe even met someone their age at boarding school -- they aren’t enough “descendant” of any one tribe to qualify for membership in any of them.

Anyway, full-blood is not what the rules really meant. They were talking about people old enough to have internalized the original culture of the People at the time they were first contacted. Since contact started at the east coast and moved towards the West, partly because the People were trying to get away from the European incursion with its diseases and partly because the country kept making laws that moved them to “Indian Country,” that meant the cultures that persisted the longest were the ones contacted last. Because the white and black population came in from the east, up from the south, and then, in the opposite direction, from the west coast towards the middle, the last tribes to still have their culture were the Plains Indians. Since it was dependent on the buffalo, it lasted until the buffalo were killed. 1885. To have been born then, a person would have to be 126.

When the lists of Indians were made and assigned to what the Europeans thought of as tribes and the People thought of as “Us,” no one even knew about blood types, much less genetic identity. When it came to the genetic purity of buffalo, biologists went through the remnant herds on refuges, checked for domestic cow genes and killed all the buffalo who didn’t have pure buffalo genes. I don’t know which alleles they used for markers or who determined which genes were buffalo and which were bovine. When it came to Indians, they were not so careful.

Native American blood quantum in the United States is defined by provenance: that is, who your parents were. At first contact lists of the People were made and assigned to the tribes they said they were part of, and every tribal membership after that had to be assigned according to descent from those people. The model was slavery and animals, when both slaves and cows or sheep were domesticated and records kept of their “bloodlines”.

The Cherokee were among the early contact peoples and were quick to assimilate, right down to keeping African American slaves. When the slaves were freed, the tribe decided to make them official members of the Cherokee Nation and many intermarried. Just recently the tribe realized how much money was coming to them on a per capita basis and saw the advantage of being a much smaller group, so they voted to take back the membership of all those African American descendants. You can imagine the consequences. Or check the newspaper.

When blood types were first being figured out, it became apparent to some scientists that Native Americans -- that means from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America -- were Asian. Since the impetus for determining blood types was driven by the need for transfusions in wartime and since the main opponent in the Pacific was Japanese, Native Americans were horrified to be classified with them. They saw what America did to Japanese Americans. Of course, the Native Americans had already been interned on reservations. But they sort of suppressed that and patriotically signed up to fight the enemy in their own tradition but the name of the United States.

It got worse. Because of genetics and other evidence, the scientists said that they had arrived in the Americas by walking across the Bering Straits. Sure, it was long enough ago that they were chasing woolly mammoths, but they were just early immigrants, no different from the Euros who came across the Atlantic. (They had to take boats -- no land bridge.) And if the Euros decimated the Native Peoples, well, didn’t the early NA’s eat all the horses? And shouldn’t they be grateful that the Euros brought a new supply?

So now Native Americans are really touchy about blood and when the scientists come around wanting samples, they say, “Ugh.” But at least the scientists took back the thing about walking over the Bering Straits. At least mostly. Now they talk about “boat hopping,” meaning that small boats can easily follow the coast from Asia to California and on down to Chile. There’s always something to eat on a coast and that’s the main consideration when traveling.

Each American country, depending on its history and religious morality, has handled the fact of a pre-existing population in a slightly different way. In Canada, only descendants of Native American men counted as Aboriginals, because men absorbed their women in a kind of instant assimilation. At some point women realized that their children were theirs as well, and forced a change to put all descendants of aboriginal women on the tribal rolls, creating a huge jump in the population.

Where will it all end? Our ancestor white politicians have assumed that all Indians would want to be white and this would cause them to erase themselves through assimilation. The Indians themselves said that they would always be among us and eventually everyone would be Native American again. Indians are already a big enough voting block to swing elections.

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