Wednesday, 2 May 2012

"It is not getting any brighter out there.."

Frank Zappa is quoted as having said something along the lines, “It is not getting any brighter out there. You have to come to terms with stupidity and make it work for you.” This comes to mind as I read about the political controversy that is being made about whether or not Elizabeth Warren, running for the US Senate is or is not a “Native American.”
The entire brouhaha unwittingly sheds light on the deeply racist policies that have been used in the United States to create systems of racial classification, and how that thinking still permeates society, even if the laws have changed.

Does Elizabeth Warren have ancestry from someone who was a Cherokee? That is the very simplistic question that is thrown around in the American mainstream media, and the commentary that flows from it demonstrates a deep ignorance of the way in which the United States laws classify who is an Indian. (And as an aside, which group of Cherokees do they mean? As with many indigenous groups that were forcibly relocated, there is more than one "tribe."I believe there are three distinct groups of federally recognised Cherokee "tribes" whereby each would have their own tribal membership criteria.)

Is being descended from someone with indigenous heritage enough to be able to say that a person is “an Indian”? The entire controversy kicks up around this very European-introduced notion of “blood quantum”, that a person has to be some fractional measure of indigenous blood to be “an Indian.”(See the Native News Network commentary on this at this link)

Now this was never a concept that came from indigenous groups themselves. They did not sit around measuring the fractions of blood in a way that is horrifically reminiscent of people discussing the pedigree of a show dog or horse. The basic idea is that someone has to have the requisite fraction of indigenous “blood” to be considered indigenous. Contrast that with the “one-drop” rule that said any one with one drop of African “blood” was black and not white. Why the difference? One is trying to limit the number of people who are indigenous, the other making a very group of people who are “not white.” If one looks to the differing policies that were addressed to each group in the US at various times in history, indigenous groups were the target of plans of genocide and then forced assimilation. They were supposed to disappear, one way or another. On the other hand, deeply racist sentiment towards anyone of African descent meant a rigid classification system and legal segregation that was not legally dismantled until very recently, as with for instance the United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v Topeka Board of Education in 1954 on racially segregated education.

Now the truth is that the United States has a very strange system of determining “who is an Indian.” It has split groups into federally recognised tribes and groups, that while undoubtedly indigenous, are not federally recognised ( see for instance the blog post on the Winnemem Wintu peoples). Federally recognised tribes determine their own criteria for membership. There are roughly 575 federally recognised tribes, and so, potentially 575 ways to be a member of a tribe. Some might use blood quantum. Some might use lineal descent. The thing is—there is no hard and fast rule of what someone has to “be” in order to be a member of a federally recognised tribe. And a person might very well be indigenous, and a member of a group that is not federally recognised, or have indigenous heritage, in the same way Americans self identify as Irish-American, Italian-American, German-American, and so forth without people quibbling over fractions. OK, the indigenous groups of America did not disappear. This seems to be a somewhat disturbing revelation to some, who then insist that the only “real” Indians are those who live in some cultural time warp and no one else counts. This is the thinking that fuels the “existing Indian family doctrine”.

The controversy about Elizabeth Warren to me reveals the deep discomfort and ignorance that permeates much of mainstream American society about indigenous peoples. And the controversy makes me think of Frank Zappa’s apt quote. Indeed, sadly, “it is not getting any brighter out there..”

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