Posted by on Aug 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

Native Identity: A Discourse

By: Ruth Hopkins

What makes one ‘Native?’ Mainstream society certainly attempts to define us by promoting stereotypes passed down from Old Hollywood movies, with stoic Italians painted red speaking broken English. Collegiate mascots depict us as brutal, war-mongering savages, and celebrities and hipster models who flood the public eye with sexualized, exploitative imagery when they pose wearing little more than imitation warbonnets misrespresent what it truly means to be Native. History written by the European invaders is also inaccurate because it is skewed to their perspective, if Natives are even acknowledged at all.

While addressing how non-Natives view us is worthy of consideration- especially for those who hope to dissuade ignorance about us, it is more important that we as Natives consider how we define ourselves- to heal our communities, and for our own well-being, as well as that of future generations of Natives. Identity is who we are. In order to know where we are going, we must first know where we’ve been and how we got here. We must remember who and what we stand for, as individuals, and as Native Nations.

For some, the answer to what defines one as being Native is just a question of ‘race.’ If only it were that simple; however, race is ultimately a social construct. People who are identified as belonging to the same race often share similar history and morphological traits like skin color, but not always. Biologically, we all have DNA containing the same components and are members of the same species. Intrinsically, we all belong to only one race: humanity. Furthermore, defining Natives by race alone is inaccurate from a legal standpoint in the United States of America. You see, to the Federal government, being Native is considered a political affiliation.

Indian Tribes existed long before the United States did, but because of the genocide that took place at the hands of European invaders who landed on ‘American’ shores, the mass theft of Native lands, war, the making and breaking of treaties with Native Nations, and related history surrounding the establishment of the United States, the Federal government imposed itself upon us and became heavily involved in defining what is Indian via Tribal enrollment. The Supreme Court of the United States says Indian Tribes exercise inherent sovereignty by determining who may be a Tribal member, yet the Federal government via the Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A.) invented rules regarding blood quantum to force Tribe’s to define themselves by blood with little regard for land holdings, culture, language, kinship, and those often imperceptible spiritual bonds that all contribute to one’s true Native identity.

Don’t get me wrong- blood ties are crucial to Native identity. Blood is ancestry. Even bloodlines do not fully explain Native identity though, because traditionally, Tribes allowed for the adoption of non-blood members. Members who originated with other Tribes, or even non-Natives, could be absorbed into Tribes via marriage or adoption; but these events weren’t in name only- as we’ve seen occur with celebrities who are suddenly and rather inexplicably adopted by Tribes today. Originally, anyone who became part of a Tribe learned that Tribe’s culture, language, and practiced their sacred ceremonies. They lived and worked in that Native community, and played an active role as a Tribal member.

Others say Native Identity is about nationality. If one believes that Tribes are independent Nations, and not ‘domestic dependent nations’ as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, then you may be correct. Still, there are many Natives that embrace dual citizenship, as Tribal members and Americans. I submit it is to our advantage to act as such. Yes, we should be proactive, responsible Tribal citizens- but the lives of American Indians are also greatly affected by the laws and subsequent actions handed down and carried out by the U.S. government. As a result, we would do ourselves a great disservice by refusing to take part in its political process. Those against us know it; that’s why the Red Vote is often discouraged, by redistricting and other efforts to silence us.

Tribes are ethnic groups. Ethnicity is more or less a descriptor of a population though, not a definitive marker of identity. So where does that leave us in our question of how do we define ourselves as Natives?

Besides blood ties, Native identity is firmly anchored in tradition. Our cultural practices, our Tribal languages, our sacred rites, all define us. Without them, we would fail to exist as distinctive Native groups. Let’s not forget what Tribes are at their heart, either. Tribes are social groups with kinship ties, where we are interdependent upon one another. A sense of community prevades a healthy Tribal system. Individualism is not the ideal, as it is in mainstream society. Rather, the success of the group is the main priority. Relatedness is key to Native identity. After all, we recognize our own.

Spirituality is also a significant attribute of all Native groups, regardless of whether a Native chooses to practice traditional ceremonies. Sure, there are Native atheists- but as a whole, spiritual ties among Natives are undeniable. Natives are living prayers. It is the recognition of the spirit that explains the pull that draws Native souls together in a crowd full of non-Natives, and calls Lost Birds home to their people no matter the barrier or distance. This intangible spiritual bond draws us together, calling us to gatherings to be with other Natives. It whispers in our ears and reminds us of who we are. This bond, like the blood, is also ancestral.

Well, there it is- my thoughts on Native identity. Yet, I am not God. It is up to each of us to determine what Nativeness really means, and live it. We define ourselves. Perhaps that is the most important aspect of this conversation. Mainstream television, magazines, and the rest of pop culture’s stereotypical imagery of Natives dreamed up by outsiders cannot and should not tell us who we are. We decide who we are, everyday. We are reminded of it by our grandmothers and grandfathers, and we see it in the eyes of our children. We Natives who are alive today are the living embodiment of our ancestors. We must take up their torch and carry it through to the next generation. It is up to us to adapt- thereby insuring we thrive as a people. A hundred years from now, when our great grandchildren look back on old photographs of us or tell our stories, how will WE be remembered? What would we want them to believe Native identity is? There, my friends, is your answer.