Debating The Definition Of `Indian'
December 12, 2002
Delphine Red Shirt's appalling contribution to the casino debate [Other Opinion, Dec. 8, "These Are Not Indians"] emphasizes one of the most unfortunate aspects of the furor over Indian gambling in Connecticut: reliance on ancestry to prove tribal membership.
Just when it seemed as if the category of race as a biological given was about to finally disappear unlamented from public discourse, we are again in the middle of racial arguments. Each side has to argue its case using the only language available, that of race, blood, ratios of blood ("1/32 Indian") and physical appearance as indicators of essential identity and similar unlovely mementos of past discrimination and injustice.
Red Shirt's definition of a "real" Indian displays the same chilling obsession with skin color and percentage of approved bodily fluid that racists the world over have been using for the last 200 years.
Robert L. Rumsey Winsted
My great-grandmother, Rachel Cash, was supposedly 1/4 Cherokee. I remember her smoking her corncob pipe. I remember her patience. My 1/32 Indian blood has never made me think of myself as an Indian; Welsh, maybe, because of Rachel's pure-bred Welsh husband, Great-Granddad John Ashcraft.
Thanks to Delphine Red Shirt for saying what most people think.
When Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. made his slot machine deal with the Mashantucket Pequots, I visited their casino and museum and then wrote an article that was rejected by Northeast magazine. In that article I cited a picture of a Pequot softball team that didn't look like Indians, and I wrote that I saw no Indians at the casino. I presumed my Welsh self was dismissed as a bigot, as are many who share my opinion. It's a shame that logical conclusions are too often dismissed as racial prejudice, when what only seems reasonable is verbalized.
I read Jeff Benedict's book "Without Reservation" and, if Red Shirt's words have any impact, perhaps our politicians will also read it with an eye toward revamping and repealing some of the base actions of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Richard S. Arnold West Hartford
It is about time that a stand is taken and it is recognized that to be an Indian, one must be more than 1/32 Indian. It is a farce, to consider these Connecticut-casino tribe members descendants of full-blooded Indians. Just look at them.
Spending a considerable amount of time out west, we have had the opportunity to see the abysmal poverty in which "Treaty Indians" live.
The BIA, which has a long history of broken treaties, promises and political manipulation, is apparently continuing to support a process of greed and moneymaking by individuals who have nothing in common with the Indians.
Although nothing will be done about it, the public should know the facts behind this flimsy con game.
Barbara R. And Burkhard W. Voelkening Durham
Shame on Delphine Red Shirt for using skin color as the basis for her critique of the racial identity of Connecticut's Indian tribes. This is exactly what European Americans have done to Indians and other people of color throughout U.S. history.
The U.S. government has traditionally made it difficult for anyone to legally qualify as an Indian. Usually a person must be able to document at least half-pure descent from a single tribe. There is a historical reason for this that has nothing to do with casinos. If fewer people could qualify as Indians, fewer could lay claim to traditional Indian lands. Those lands and resources could then be more easily sold or granted to white settlers.
The exact opposite is true of African Americans. Historically, anyone with one drop of African blood has been considered black. Why? The more black people, the larger the pool of free or cheap labor.
Many African Americans, especially on the East Coast, have Native American blood. But because they were never legally allowed to claim their Indian heritage, they grew more distant from it. Still, this doesn't make them any less Indian, casinos or no casinos.
I fear that Red Shirt's arguments will be disingeniously used by the anti-casino lobby to discredit black Pequots, white Mohegans and other racially mixed tribes that have not yet achieved federal recognition. Worse, if history is a reliable guide, those who use them in this way will do nothing to help all Indians - red, black, brown, yellow and white - who still live in extreme poverty and neglect.
The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek Glastonbury
The writer is pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Norwich and a facilitator for the Norwich Area Anti-racism Initiative.
To the Editor,
Reading Delphine Red Shirt's Other Opinion piece ("These Are Not Indians," Dec. 10, 2002) reminded me of a conversation I had about eight years ago:
I met a woman who is a Narragansett tribal elder. At the time I was searching for family records, and shared with her how hard a task it was to find documents on Native Americans here in New England. The elder than told me about a hurtful and indelible experience she had applying for a Social Security card as a young woman.
She began by saying that she grew up in a home with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, where she was taught Narragansett Tribal customs, traditions and beliefs. She knew exactly who and what she was -- it had been ingrained in her for as long as she could remember.
She then told me the story of her trip to the Social Security office. She said she got the required form, filled it out and in the space marked "race" she put "Indian," and passed it to the woman behind the counter. The woman read her form and when she got to the place for race promptly crossed out "Indian" and wrote in "colored." The elder said, I told the woman I am not colored I am a Narragansett Indian, and could she please have her form back so that she could correct it. The woman gave her back the form and the elder filled out a corrected one and again put "Indian" in the place of race. When she passed in this form, the woman again crossed out "Indian" and inserted "colored."
Just like that woman at the Social Security office, Ms. Red Shirt with one stroke of the pen wants to wipe out the identity of Connecticut Indians because we don't fit her outward perception of what an Indian should look like.
Joseph A. Colebut
Director of State Governmental Affairs
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Hartford
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