Fake or a Victim of Colonization?

Funny story: I applied for the Director of the Native American Program at Dartmouth. I made it to the second round of interviews, but I didn't get it. However, I am very glad to see the position filled. Natives need support to navigate the higher education system.

My disagreement with the Inside HigherEd article Indian Enough for Dartmouth? is not about the discussion of Susan Taffe Reed’s appointment as director of the Native American Program, nor is it about her Native identity. I am concerned about the way Indian Enough for Dartmouth? talks about the legitimacy of Reed’s tribal community’s identity. Namely, she belongs to a community that is not state or federally recognized—which, according to the reasoning behind the HigherEd article, makes the community “fake.”

Those of us familiar with state and federal recognition processes know (1) the history of how the process came to be (i.e., colonization), (2) about the politics surrounding the process (i.e., colonization), and (3) why it is difficult to gain recognition (i.e., colonization). Yes, colonization.

There are two ways for a community to gain federal recognition: an act of the United States Congress, or approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Recognition, tribes petitioning for recognition must prove their status as a tribe through a compelling amount of “anthropological, genealogical and historical” evidence—in other words, the community must pay academic consultants and experts to compile a significant body of evidence to prove their tribal status (this takes time and money). Currently there are a number of communities across the U.S. that have maintained social, cultural and political cohesion (in light of surviving numerous horrendous acts committed against them by the government) that are not recognized. Moreover, there are also a number of communities that have spent decades petitioning for federal recognition—only to be denied.

As a general rule of thumb, it is highly problematic, if not borderline disgusting, to degrade a community’s identity and experiences because they have managed to survive genocide but haven’t been able to successfully navigate the lengthy, costly and complex recognition process (that is specifically designed for tribes to fail). So to say “a community is not legitimate because they have been unsuccessful at gaining state or federal recognition” is victim blaming.

Now, I cannot speak to Reed’s identity or her community’s status, because I am unfamiliar with their historical and political contexts. I am not asserting that her community is even a tribe. But what I am raising is an important issue about the underlying assumption of Indian Enough for Dartmouth? Namely, should state and federal definitions of Nativeness (based upon longstanding colonization ideologies) set the bar for measuring the legitimacy of a community’s identity and experiences?

Christie Poitra holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy from Michigan State University.