Monday, November 19, 2018


Among all the other current identity struggles in the world as we try to define "nation" and "sovereignty" is the complex, painful, and enduring opposition between the originally only inhabitants of the Americas and the cross-ocean invaders from Eurasia.  Almost half-a-century later than I arrived to be a witness, the terms of the problem have changed, the results remain bloody, and there are few answers.

Probably the best way to approach the dilemma (for those who are brave or crazy enough to approach it) is along a spectrum or maybe two spectrums, one for rational reflection and one for acknowledging passionate emotion.  I don't know how to think about the halves - of-tribes who have left for the cities.

In terms of the rational, the early logic was to eliminate the cost and immorality of straight-out violence by creating zones, reservations or reserves or ranchos where the land was "Indian."  But the government never gave up supervising them, as though they were wildlife preserves because one of the rationales for taking the continent was that they were not "human," but rather a subspecies.  (Now that we are reclassifying even Neanderthals as more than knuckle-draggers, this won't work.)  Another argument -- one I hear around here next to the rez where prejudice is still old-fashioned -- is that "the Indians weren't using the land anyway."  This is an idea from the 19th century when "using the land" meant growing crops, which is still done here on the flatter parts, but not everywhere.  

It also privileges the idea of "using," which is pretty much how white, older, semi-educated, conservative men see the world.  When I objected to being "used," my husband at the time asked, "What's wrong with that?"  I spent ten years helping to build his career and I don't regret it, but it WAS using.  He also used the low incomes of the rez people to get low labor costs, some of them unreported in the confusion of overlapping labor jurisdictions.  When he reached out for meaning and dreamt of becoming a "Bundle Owner," he could not in their system assume such a role without a wife.  Me.  I was honored as well as used.

Land and occupations are one way of finding identity.  Since 1961 when I first came here, "Indians" were expected to be helpers: labor, janitors, nurses, teacher assistants.  Now they are doctors, lawyers, administrators, and other primary roles.  This has confused some people who fell out of sync with education, mostly because of dysfunctional or missing families.  Their identity is tied to the tribe's definition of membership.  But whites have also been victims, losers.

In the beginning it was very clear that first contact original people were very different.  They had adapted to their ecosystem, which was dependent on the bison, so they dressed, ate and thought differently.  Their language was different and its assumptions were dependent on a different experience of the world, not just names or counting.  The reaction of the white exo-culture was double, a split rather than an increase.  One half relished being conquerers and wanted to preserve the idea of power through violence.  The other half took up a morality of compassion and recognition of humanity.  The first half depended on the Industrial Revolution (guns and railroads) and the second referenced New Testament Xian religion.

Both sides produced much literature: that of battle and heroes or that of natural nobility and continuousness with nature.  Both literatures were intensely, emotionally popular, and both produced injustice based on their fantasies.  Some men used women as murder victims, often with a sexual focus.  Many people, esp white women, tried to make tribal people into angels who would justify their romantic codependence.  All kinds of people WANTED so badly for some people to be their Indian friend, the person who could confirm their value by being their friend.  They were so easily bamboozled by anyone with long black hair and a good tan.

Two complicating surprises have arisen and are apparent on Twitter.  One is an oversimplification of the use of genomes to discover identity, based in part on a misunderstanding that blood quantum is about genomics  --but it is really about genealogy.  Its Biblical: "begats."  The fractional notion of origin is based on slavery (half-black) and should be rejected.  The heritage understanding of identity is based on paper records of descent which are Euro-inventions: birth certificates, marriage certificates, baptismal records.

Those who sell DNA tests are pushing the limits of identity: certain alleles (gene groups) are typically associated with possible tribes, but none will definitively have a label.  The story is complicated by the typical base or "operating system" of the American originals being Asian, which leads to two more complications: the political use of the idea of Beringia to define the original people of America as "immigrants" -- ten thousand years ago -- and the wariness of original peoples to supply a database big enough to be reliable, partly because of being used (!) as a source of medical ideas and partly because at the time of development, when the early versions of blood type for transfusions were defined, the idea of an origin in Asia was when Asians were deadly enemies at war.  

The other complication seems to arise from feminism of the aggressive kind which has pulled in the idea that to name something is to define it and tries to control the terminology of the discussion.  Sometimes there is also backlash against asking people personal questions about who they are.  These people insist on the names of tribes at first contact and want geography to be scrubbed of slang stigmatic names on the maps.  "Squaw" creek or valley or plant.

Deeper and more significant in terms of consequences are legal questions of jurisdiction, contracts, and entitlements.  Much of the precedent was created at a time when the people entitled were confined to reservations, could not speak English and didn't understand law.  This made them easy prey for unscrupulous dealers.  Understanding, much less unraveling these events, is hard work and often dependent on missing documents or witnesses.  This is the area where Eloise Pepion Cobell dug in her heels and fought in court.  She won.  

At the moment there are teaching jobs unfilled in both Heart Butte and Browning on the Blackfeet Rez.  These are county schools and governed by state qualifications rather than race.  What happens in the future is dependent on the students in the schools now.  The weather is beastly, the adventure is rewarding, and most of my warmest friends are tribal from my teaching days, though they don't necessarily look like it or wear feathers.  Pass it on.

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