By Celeste Kimimila Terry
“Indeed, today it is popular to be an Indian. Within a decade it may be a necessity.”
Vine Deloria Jr., Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact
Vine was onto something when he wrote this passage because as we are amidst climate change crisis and other environmental crises, indigenous cultures seem to be most in tune with nature. However, this is just one of the easily misconstrued stereotypes about Native American cultures, ideologies and values. In the 90’s, Dances with Wolves sparked a trend in Hollywood to create stories of the neo-noble savage, that would reflect three characteristics shaped by white viewers. Indianness, esotericism and shamanism are all traits often equated with the thoughts of Native Americans in mainstream culture (Wernitznig xx). The Native American is perceived as a savage being or has been turned into a sort of mystical, primal man that is esoteric in spirituality and all things natural. These stereotypes are not only misleading, but also entirely demeaning for Native students growing up in a world where Native identity goes unacknowledged because they aren’t wearing buckskin and feathers…these native students lack ‘Indianness’ defined by non-native Americans.
When you think of Native Americans, what comes to your mind? Is your idea of a real Indian something along the lines of an esoteric, primal and shaman like people? My guess, is that you never pictured a student with short blue hair, pale skin and tattoos with old English letters…but that could very well be the ‘status Indian’ in your classroom or next to you in line. Granted, these days my hair is long, naturally brown and often braided. Being half white my skin is pale, I am easily a white passing student of the Lakota oyate and many find “much like in Brazil, phenotypes are interesting in Indian Country” (Meyers). Regardless of my blood quantum, one thing remains true for myself and other native students, our identities are both political and cultural. This essay will examine how this decision was made on paper by non-natives, and is upheld by everyday people completely unaware of their participation in an ongoing systemic genocide of indigenous cultures.
“Do they have it?”, it being a Certificate of Indian Blood (CDIB). Professor Richard Meyers of South Dakota State University discusses this question in his TEDxBrookings presentation, reflecting on his work with Bureau of Indian Affairs and getting calls from hundreds of people asking if they will receive any benefits for being Native American. It’s important to recognize that Natives hold a “dual status of identity”, outlined and declared by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in 1830 when he declared Natives to be “domestic dependent nations”. The government views itself as the legal guardians of Native peoples, and these documents did not just disappear over time. To this day, Native Americans are the only minorities in the United States that carry a pedigree of blood quantum, a document to identify the Native race (Meyers). And in my own experience I have received no benefits as an enrolled member of my tribe, this is the case for most tribal members. I pay taxes too, meaning college is paid for out of pocket, with loans and regular Pell grants given that one is financially eligible.
Growing up in Aurora, Colorado it’s been quite the experience to encounter the many people who hold claim to an ‘Indian identity’ but lack the documented genealogy. That documentation is sparked by the General Allotment Act of 1887, known as the Dawes Roll, which is what started the unique roll numbers for tribal members. All this documentation, measured by blood quantum was for the liquidation of treaty native lands to be sold back to the federal government, or fractioned down family lines until everyone inherits barely a square foot of land. When it comes to Native American political identity, that decision was made in 1887, leaving a second identity up for grabs in a sense. Cultural identity gets categorized into a pan-Indian spectrum for Natives, to the point of where Dr. Meyers mentioned in his talk hearing a traditional Lakota story told by someone who was not Lakota, but chose to claim the Lakota tradition anyway. This type of conflict is an example of the role that even Natives who have no connection to a tribal community, or non-Natives who insist they are play in perpetuating stereotypes. These false or misguided claims to identity only further perpetuate the stereotype that all Native Americans are the same. There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, the one thing all these tribes have in common is the claims made by former Justice John Marshall. Other than a shared political identity, these tribes all have different cultures, ideologies and languages marked invisible by American Indian legislation and misrepresentation in media. This leaves many folks clueless to the vast diversity and history of the United States, and that ignorance just continues to partake in a cycle of oppressive behavior.
All these thoughts have led me to ask, how could a Native student like myself participate in the oppression of my own people? This is where my skin color comes back into play, because I’ve had to face the fact that white privilege is real. And while my white friends can still go on not seeing it, I’ve witnessed it as a half white person and benefit from that in having received opportunities I didn’t deserve, or being first choice even if I didn’t care to be involved in something. Historically, this has been a huge hurdle for Native Americans in social justice and mainstream media alike. When it comes to having a voice, Natives are drowned out by ‘advocates’ or people who are ‘native in spirit’. “The white professional, befriending and promoting their Indian source, thereby holding the part of the guardian and advocator, has continued with the tradition of coauthored books.” (Wernitznig 5). Implying that the Native is not literate enough to write their own stories like with Black Elk Speaks. (5) “Selling off Indian lives is nothing new” (5).
It’s been important for me growing up to recognize my participation in this cycle, and to find ways to disrupt and eradicate it from future generations. Because even my backpack made by Billabong has appropriated Southern tribal patterns, a small piece to a large problem. I’ve heard countless men tell me they have always been interested in dating a Pocahontas, as if that were a compliment to me. What makes it most difficult is dealing with those men and watching a white girl wearing a plains style headdress, mini skirt, and skimpy top walk around care free while actual Native women know “rape and sexual violence have reached epidemic levels in Indian Country” (Clairmont et al 181). Hypersexualization of indigenous women is a huge issue, and entangled in the stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood of promiscuous and polygamist conforming Native women. Media portrayal, and historical attempts of genocide make it so easy to continue systemic oppression against Natives and this all plays a huge role in the esteem and identity of Native students and youth.
Next time you feel the need to say something like, “Let’s have a pow-wow!” or “I’ll send you some smoke signals!” understand that the benevolent nature of those words make a historical impact on Native people to this very day. Native American identity is complex, and has been decided by others for far too long, it is time to allow Natives to speak about their identity on their own. Reflect on the fact that American society has not educated anyone by a standard on the true history of Native American tribes and beliefs. When you see a cute bag or cool shirt at the store that has tribal patterns and looks so trendy, think about the statement it makes to Native Americans and consider purchasing an even cooler and authentic piece from a Native designer. At a higher price you get something that was made with thousands of years of tradition and prayers, versus a machine made item that mocks the spirituality of an entire nation. Take the time to educate yourself about individual tribes, you may find that a better understanding of the people who have inhabited the land you live on for thousands of years can help you connect with the land yourself.
Clairmont, Bonnie, Sarah Deer, Carrie A. Martell, and Maureen L. White Eagle, eds. Sharing Our Storing of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2008. Print.
Meyers, Richie. “Who Gets To Be An Indian.” https://youtu.be/kHqad01OLZI. YouTube, 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Wenitznig, Dagmar. Going Native of Going Naive? Lanham: U Press of America, Inc., 2003. Print.