Indian Identity is important discussion


In an interesting coincidence, three national Native studies journals are devoting substantial space in their pages this spring to the theme of Native American identity. This never-ending topic ? simple for some, complex for most ? is likely to be with us forever.

Several writers associated with Indian Country Today contributed to this national dialogue on identity. The three journals ? Native Americas (Cornell University); American Indian Quarterly (University of Nebraska); Red Ink (University of Arizona) ? carry a good range of articles with a very solid base of information on this topic. We recommend the set to educators.

From Native Americas:

"Claiming aboriginality in the land, indigenous identity ? just who is an Indian and just who gets to decide ? is a discussion that always generates more questions than anyone can answer. The subject is about definitions of national sovereignty, jurisdictional turf, affairs of governance; it is as well about the deepest of personal feelings, family history and memory, about belonging or not belonging, layers of definition to realize and encompass who and what we are."

A giant case of Indian law, Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, helped preserve a great principle: that Native governments retain the sovereign right to define and determine their own membership. As a result of Martinez it is near to impossible to challenge an Indian government's decisions on membership matters. This essential tribal benefit can also result in unforeseen liabilities that arise out of family or community dysfunctions. Several membership conflicts exist in Indian country. While this great principle upholds and protects tribal sovereignty, it can also be used by patently unfair Indian governments that choose to exclude their own people, and that can do so virtually unchallenged.

Mostly driving the internal conflicts over membership is the issue of resource allocation. Some tribes stretch the protections of sovereign governance to exclude some of their own people. For the Native Americas cover story, our own Indian Country Today Southwest Bureau Chief Valerie Taliman pens "Termination by Bureaucracy." In her article, Taliman surveys cases where perceived competition over resources or interpretation of traditional tenets have resulted in the eviction of members and other residents of Indian communities. Among the Paiutes, dismemberment had to do with allocation of gaming revenues. Among the Onondagas, evictions were ordered in the 1970s by the Council of Chiefs, who based their case prohibiting tribal men married to non-Native women from residing on the reservation on the matrilineal law of clan and nation.

Another writer in that issue, Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown Harjo, reminds everyone that cultural choice is crucial. Tribal membership and cultural commitment makes a Native person, but your choice of spouse or mate will define your family and can add or detract from your people.

The issue carries well a discussion of "blood quantum" definitions of identity. Applied in varying degrees by two-thirds of all tribes, this formula was ushered into Indian country as a means to severely diminish the number of Indian descendants with rights to land. Thus more than one hundred million acres became unattached and changed title under the 1887 General Allotment Act.

Another Indian Country Today columnist, former BIA Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, comments extensively on the greatly controversial, lengthy and assailable process of tribal recognition. Tribes seeking federal recognition must meet at least seven mandatory criteria and increasingly face opposition from counties and state politicians.

Impressively, yet one more Indian Country Today columnist, John Mohawk, contributes an essay that explores the intent to make the Indian disappear, a notion expressed by Thomas Jefferson and fully expected by a range of policy-makers right to the present day. Policies of forced assimilation, relocation of families away from reservations and termination of tribes from active status have resulted. Identity, writes Mohawk, is really cultural identity. This is key. "Our cultures tell us what things mean, and meaning is of primary importance." Even the use of the term "Indian" is "another people's fiction." Mohawk points out the particular linguistic definitions that arise out of indigenous "ways of life" that provide patterns of living and ceremonial life that in themselves define the practitioners as members of that people. Centuries of forced acculturation have altered collective Native identities. The path to self-discovery, asserts Mohawk, involves a revaluation of that process, and it is "a positive and spiritually enhancing step."

The Spring issue of American Indian Quarterly carries an excellent article by Cherokee professor Eva Marie Garroutte, titled "The Racial Formation of American Indians: Negotiating Legitimate Identities within Tribal and Federal Law." Garroutte cites a 1978 congressional study that counted no less than 33 separate definitions of "Indian" in various pieces of legislation. The resulting confusion makes it imperative that tribes assertively define for themselves their own criteria for membership. Varieties of experience and standards need to be appreciated and accepted.

Finally, Red Ink, the University of Arizona's Native American magazine, is devoting an upcoming special double issue in part to the subject of Native American identities and stereotypes, "subjects that always seem to arouse passions and spark debates."