What is Indian?
- How much Indian are you?
This question was asked of a group of American Indian children
at Anderson Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Their answers were quite interesting and very disturbing.
In this circle of black, brown, and blondish hair of black,
brown, green, blue, and hazel eyes of wiry, curly, kinky,
and straight hair, they were very percent-of-blood oriented.
From 15/32 to 1/4 to 1/2 they were calling out their
individual percents, that is, until they began to laugh.
Especially when one child was asked to point to the
half of him that was Indian and the half that wasn't.
Yes, it is ridiculous.
Is this form of identifying our identity shared by other people?
When did we ever hear a Jew state that he was half Jewish?
What makes a Jew a Jew is his religion.
American Indian authors Walter Peek and
Thomas Sanders explain it this way:
"To define the American Indian is as impossible as it is
to define the Jews and for many of the same reasons.
A Jew knows he is a Jew because he recognizes himself within the
framework of a historical-cultural setting that allows him identity.
"The Native American, the Indian, the Navajo call him what you will
knows he is an Indian because of the tie to the land, the dim memory
of his people's literature that has been denied him, the awareness
of his relationship somehow manifests itself within
him and conscientiously calls him back to his ancestors.
Bill Charfield, elder teacher and historian, agrees with this philosophy.
'My cultural identity makes me what I am.
It is my beliefs that make me Indian.' ''
This brings up an interesting point:
Can an individual be Jewish and Catholic at the same time?
Can an Indian?
According to Charfield, an individual's sacred regard for language,
his concept of Creation, and his desire to live in harmony with the
natural world all must be applied when seeking to define an Indian.
While addressing a college audience,
LaDonna Harris was asked
to define the Indian.
"I can't define the Indian anymore
than you can define what you are.
Different governmental agencies define him by amount of blood.
I had a Comanche mother and an Irish father.
But I am Comanche, I'm not Irish and I'm not Indian first.
I'm Comanche first, Indian second.
When the Comanche took in someone, he became Comanche.
He wasn't part this, part that.
He was all Comanche or he wasn't Comanche at all.
Blood runs the heart.
The heart knows what it is."
Elizabeth Hallmark, an Ojibwa and Director
of the Minneapolis American Indian
Center, thinks along these lines:
"Just because an individual has a tribal enrollment
number entitling him to certain services does not,
in my mind, define this person as an Indian.
It is the heart of this person that speaks to me.
That's where my Indianness is in my heart."
One of the great Lakota-Sioux men
of our time was John Fire Lame Deer.
He associated Indianness with the heart also.
His beliefs identified him as an Indian.
He recollected at a time in his life when
he realized that to truly understand
what it meant to be an Indian .
He went on to say that even as
an old man he was still learning.
We must ask ourselves then what bureaucrat
has the right to say who is and who isn't an Indian?
Or who is more of an Indian?
To be an Indian is a way of life, a looking within and
feeling a part of all life, an allegiance to and love ...
Historically we did not judge whether someone
was Indian based on the color of their eyes or
the color of their hair, but by how they
conducted and lived their lives.
To debase our identity by reducing us to
percentages of blood is another version of genocide.
To deny our tribal nations the right to traditionally adopt
and naturalize citizens is relinquishing our tribal sovereignty.
The last time some of us were required to show papers for
proof of blood was when we wanted to breed dogs or horses.
The confusion of attempting to define what is Indian will
persist in governmental bureaucracies but will not be
shared by many American Indians who know what they are.
For many of us, to be Indian is not heritage granted
by legislation, percents of blood, bureaucratic
studies, or even by a community's consideration.
It comes from the heart and the heart knows what it is.
It seems that if the traditional American is to remain
at all visible and have a voice in the affairs of the
people, then traditional thinking American
Indians must challenge the bureaucratic system
of identifying Indians if for anyone, for their children.
Submitted by Manataka Correspondent
- Jennifer Whitefeather Attaway
PS- John "Fire" Lame Deer wrote a memoir, that is an
excellent read called "Lame Deer Seeker of Visions"