Saturday morning I watched Michael Smerconish. He discussed Senator Elizabeth Warren’s allusion to her Native American ancestry. Apparently she received recognition at various times for her ancestry and that may or may not have advanced her academic career.
This is a quandry for many Americans who have been told tales of Native heritage. Most often it is not easily confirm able and the blood quantum is relatively low, 1/32nd or less. More importantly, most of these individuals have not participated in Native American culture – they have not lived the Indian way.
In fact the relationship between the Native American culture and modern America is generally not clearly understood. Modern Native American culture in many instances is focused on Native lands (and water), their enterprises, and various distinct tribal cultures. In my experience, tribal councils cherish their sovereignty and they are defined in U. S. law as nations.
Especially since the development of tribal casinos, money has become important in motivating individuals in the uncertain area of tribal identity to seek membership or citizenship. Membership in a tribe can mean annual support and potentially a priority for employment. In addition, the U.S. government has important health and educational programs that provide services to recognized tribal members.
I am one of these individuals with the family rumor of Indian blood. As the legend goes, my great grandfather, Tennessee Davis determined not to join one of the rolls of Cherokee descent, presumably around 1850. Instead, as family lore specifies, he determined to live as a White man. The family has talked about this lineage, but it has never been a factor that has brought us any closer to the tribal tradition of Tennessee’s Native American forebears. Because there has been no connection to the tribal community there is no cultural tie – certainly nothing that can be used for an individual’s benefit. If I were to try to claim it in a substantive way, a fraud will have been committed.
Nevertheless, with the rumor of Indian blood, I find it easy to empathize with Native American endeavors. The challenge is to not act aggressively on this empathy thereby potentially becoming a wannabe.
For many years of our history, it was brutal on the U.S. frontier where the cultures collided. Many White settlers and Native Americans tribal members were killed and both Indian and White families obliterated. From this statement there is no specification of proportion or any judgment about the extent of brutality by each and the basis for the actions, such as the defense of the land and family. I do know in my home-town (Porterville, California) the Yokut sub-tribe known as Koyeti that lived in the area no longer exist, they have been lost to history.
Into the twentieth century, the Native American was seen by many though not all White folk as “savages” in need of civilization. The phrase even in the early twentieth century was, I believe, “Wild” Indians. In fact, for many years they did not have the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment while living in their tribal culture. More recently, the genocide and the loss of Indian lands has been presented as a crime against the Native American, but this discussion seems to have little impact on the visibility of Native American policy priorities by the general public beyond the statements made by the tribes. I perceive there is relatively little political leverage at the national level compared with other civil rights groups.
For a discussion of civilization and savagery
By the very nature of current Native American tribal initiatives and broader public awareness, we have much disputed territory and little necessary common ground. Always the invasive encroachment of European-Americans upon Native American lands has been about conflict and dominance. All of us in the greater culture have benefited profoundly from the conquest because the land is the foundation of our culture and nation. We can see the inconsistency between professed American values and the inexorable conquest of Native American real estate.
The inconsistency is more difficult to understand today, but during the period of Manifest Destiny, the rationale was often Spencerian (e.g., “This survival of the fittest implies multiplication of the fittest. “ Herbert Spencer, Principles of Biology, 1864). The American government and people could absorb the lands because they saw themselves as dominant and they were the fittest in the fray. The conquest was in a public opinion of the times by many U.S. citizens, a noble predestination.
The resolution at the time was to place Indian people on a reservation, send them far away to “Indian Schools” or to absorb them into the general population through intermarriage – formal and informal.
The irony here is that in Tennessee where my rumored heritage exists, until 1822, the marriage between Whites and Native Americans was illegal and prohibited by anti-miscegenation laws. After that date, it was not illegal because of two alleged factors, (1) Native Americans were not enslaved people in Tennessee as they had been in North Carolina where Tennessee copied its earlier law and, (2) What Roger D. Hardaway, the author of “Race, Sex, and Law Miscegenation in Tennessee” (The Journal of East Tennessee History, Number 74, 2004) references as the “Pocahontas Effect” whereby legislators determined they may have some Native American ancestry from their forebears in either Virginia or Tennessee and they were reluctant to be subject to the prohibition. It is interesting how we normally follow our interest.
We forget in these times, though White-Native American marriage may have been legal, there was a stigma for many years. Until after 1967 (when the Supreme Court acted on Loving v. Virginia prohibiting States proscribing miscegenation) interracial marriage was relatively rare. This has been documented by Robert L. Coles, Race and Family: A Structural Approach, 2006, pp 241-243. Likely this stigma was mutual for both White American culture and Native American culture.
Mr. Smerconish had as a guest on his show Mr. Simon Moya – Smith the Culture Editor for Indian Country Today and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He makes the point why many folks out there with a rumor of Native American heritage should be cautious when asserting their family rumors.
The interview was based on an article he wrote for CNN which recommends that Senator Elizabeth Warren apologize. “We’re wondering because ever since the controversy surrounding her contested background became public discourse in 2012, when she ran for the U.S. Senate, Warren has avoided Indian country like an ex.” In addition, she has relied upon harmful stereotypes in her explanations.
This commentary is well taken and Senator Warren should move to the high ground and address it. She should consider contacting the recognized Delaware and Cherokee tribes in the United State and scheduling meetings with them and acting upon this dialogue in a respectful and supportive manner.
For good measure, she may want to dialogue with Indian Country in general and also to the general American public. According to the article, there are 8 million of us out here, and some of us may be trying to figure out what our rumored Native American heritage means and its protocols.
Senator Warren could be a leader and teach us if she accepted the invitation from Mr. Moya-Smith and publicly meet with the Delaware and Cherokee Tribes to solidify her empathy and support for Tribal initiatives.