Russell: Is it a good day to be Indigenous?

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Everybody has ancestors. We don’t pick them, but they in some sense made us who we are. It is good to honor our ancestors when they have been honorable even as we live down their faults. We don’t get the choice of basking in their reflected glory while ignoring that which is inglorious or even ugly.

I suppose my full-blooded Cherokee great–grandfather Henry Teehee and my Dutch settler great-grandfather Samuel Van Hooser were on opposite sides of a social conflict about which I have strong opinions in the 21st century, but I am still descended from both of them and would never deny either.

I was thinking about this when I wrote a couple of columns about the denial of tenure at the University of Michigan to Andrea Smith, who has in the past claimed to be Cherokee. After speaking to her, I’m satisfied that claim is in the past and her academic credentials should stand for what they are – impressive.

I thought about this again when I saw that the University of Nebraska Press is publishing “The World Wolf Made: Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology” by the “Comanche scholar” Raymond Pierotti.

In the interest of full disclosure, I tried to enter my only book in a competition the University of Nebraska Press holds for Indian, first-book authors, and they turned me down even before the deadline for the competition. My entry was so awful it was not even necessary to see what else came in. So I have been whacked pretty hard by that press and you may not choose to take my word that I hold no grudge. I am not as qualified as the University of Nebraska Press to say whether my book was worthy of consideration and I accept their judgment.

Prof. Pierotti has been outed by the Comanche Nation, but it’s just as significant that he was outed by his own brother. This is the thing I as a mixed blood who has chosen to retain tribal citizenship have always wondered: what do the living European relatives of fake Indians think of the fantasy? What about the European ancestors of fake Indians? Are they erased from human memory by the fraud of their descendants?

Some years ago, I was privileged to visit the Netherlands as a tourist. I had a great time and I recommend the experience, but that experience did not involve reconnection to my “Dutch roots.” I have no Dutch roots. I was born and raised in Oklahoma and my known roots go back to when it was called Indian Territory. That’s who I’ve always been and I would not go to Europe for the purpose of becoming somebody else.

For some reason, lots of folks have decided it’s a good day to be indigenous. Now, I’ve got no problem with Prof. Pierotti writing about traditional ecological knowledge. But like every other scholar, he needs to cite his sources, and I would hope he understands that there is no pan-tribal ecological tradition. In one of his chapter titles, he asks “Who Speaks for the Buffalo?” I expect him to claim that he does. The publisher’s blurb claims that Pierotti provides “a fascinating look at the complexities of his career conducting research from an Indigenous perspective and the reluctance of many university Native programs of study to recruit natural scientists.”

Native studies programs generally come in two flavors. Some have a humanities focus and some a social science focus. It’s true that a natural scientist would not be an easy fit for programs asking about the representation of horses in Joy Harjo’s poetry or how much jurisdiction the U.S. Supreme Court intends to leave for tribal courts.

In spite of the biases of Indian studies programs, Prof. Pierotti appears to claim that he has had “a career conducting research from an indigenous perspective.” I wonder whose indigenous perspective he has been using, since the Comanche Nation repossessed theirs.

Is there a Comanche ecological tradition or a Plains Indian ecological tradition? I’m not informed at this time, but I know several real Comanches I can ask. My own research often turns on what is fair, and I don’t think my ethnicity gives me seriously different ideas about what is fair.

Speaking of what is fair, I’m about to retire, and the Netherlands was a pretty nice place. And I was looking at what made Prof. Pierotti a Comanche. The argument in his family was over whether the kids were told stories about a Comanche ancestor.

Is the issue whether the stories were in fact told? It seems tacky to call a dead person a liar, so if stories make the man Pierotti is Comanche and I’m indeed Dutch.

Is the issue whether the stories are in fact true? That’s harder for Pierotti, but I still get to be Dutch because Samuel Van Hooser’s grave is marked in a family cemetery not far from his homestead in Missouri, which I still own. Of course, I never met my Dutch ancestor just as Pierotti never met his Comanche one, if such existed.

Thanks to something called blood quantum, many Indians today take blood to be culture. A full blood is assumed to speak the language and know the history and maybe even be a non-Christian. Chop the blood degree and less cultural competence is assumed. Non-Indians make the same assumption, of course, but it is stranger that Indians do because we all know somebody who does not fit the stereotype.

Blood is a metaphor, folks, and we confuse it with what it represents. If that’s not so, then everybody with an Indian ancestor they never met is in some sense Indian. If culture doesn’t count, I suppose we need not fear assimilation, because we will always have the blood. Hot dog, I’m Dutch! I can prove it! The Netherlands has better health care than IHS and a social safety net that makes ours look like a spider web. They have a much more civilized criminal justice system, too, but I wouldn’t be going there to work.

On the other hand, they have no national cuisine to speak of. No fry bread, no grape dumplings, no kanuchi or wild onions. And it’s so far from my grandchildren.

Maybe these academic fakers are right. It is a good day to be indigenous.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University - Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.