Native American Identity Essay

Very rarely do I read a book that inspires me as an intellectual and scholar and that allows me to reflect on and appreciate my ancestry in ways that strengthen my convictions and life course. Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance,edited by Richard Grounds, George Tinker, and David Wilkins, has done both. This collection of essays by and about Native Americans explores the historical significance and contemporary influences of Native voices throughout the Americas. Vine Deloria Jr., to whom this book is appropriately dedicated, has inspired past generations of scholars and the future of indigenous communities; this book reaffirms his dedication to indigenous studies and peoples, and opens the door to the understanding of the complexity inherent in indigenous struggles throughout the Americas. Broken into four sections that span the four directions, these essays consider the meanings of Native identity, the importance of language and stories (histories) told in indigenous languages, the impact of colonization, and the contradictory policies emerging on a global scale that continue to deny and dismantle indigenous lives.

Several themes emerge and intertwine throughout the entire book. Clara Sue Kidwell, John Mohawk, Henrietta Mann, and Joy Harjo's respective articles place Natives in proper historical perspective from origins to the present day; each claims that Native studies must be grounded in Native origins and worldviews. Inés Hernández-Ávila and Richard Grounds delve into the importance of language in reclaiming that history and in directing Native lives and courses of action. Taking this one step further, Glenn Morris, George Tinker, S.James Anaya, David Wilkins, and Cecil Corbett address the rejection of the colonizers' language in defining Native peoples, philosophies, and spiritual awareness. Ward Churchill, Michelene Pesantubbee, and Inés Talamantez round out the collection by incorporating indigenous thought into the intellectual and academic arenas that have categorically denied access to people of color. Vine Deloria concludes the book by recognizing those who have influenced him and whom he has influenced throughout his illustrious career.

Of all the essays, the most perplexing piece is Ward Churchill's analysis of Vine Deloria's influence on Native American intellectual development, not so much for its content as for the context in which he places it. After reading articles emphasizing the importance of contextualizing [End Page 198] Native histories and intellectualism in and on Native terms (see especially Hernández-Ávila and Grounds), I question why Churchill would draw from the philosophical "canon" of "western thought" to describe and critique Vine Deloria's influence. Clearly Churchill's analysis places Deloria in the canon of traditional Western philosophy, but where are other Native philosophers of centuries past and in contemporary times? Why do non-Native philosophers like Marx, Derrida, and Foucault take precedence over Native thinkers? What audience does Churchill wish to reach?

Every scholar interested in indigenous studies, philosophy, and intellectual thought should read this book thoroughly for a clear perspective of indigenous peoples' histories and struggles. It establishes acontext for the study of indigenous peoples that few other books address or recognize. It certainly inspires hope for future generations.

Rebecca Bales

Rebecca Bales (Choctaw/Cherokee/ Chicana) received her PhD in history from Arizona State University and teaches history at Diablo Valley College. She is the first in her family to receive a doctorate. Her work focuses on Native American history, women’s history, and race relations in the United States.

Copyright © 2004 The Association for American Indian Research

LEECH LAKE, Minn. I am not supposed to be alive. Native Americans were supposed to die off, as endangered species do, a century ago. And so it is with great discomfort that I am forced, in many ways, to live and write as a ghost in this haunted American house.

But perhaps I am not dead after all, despite the coldest wishes of a republic that has wished it so for centuries before I was born. We stubbornly continue to exist. There were just over 200,000 Native Americans alive at the turn of the 20th century; as of the last census, we number more than 2 million. If you discount immigration, we are probably the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. But even as our populations are growing, something else, I fear, is dying: our cultures.

Among my fellow Indians, this is not a popular thing to say. Most of us immediately sneer at warnings of cultural death, calling the very idea further proof that "The Man" is still trying to kill us -- this time with attitudes and arguments rather than discrimination and guns. Any Indian caught worrying that we might indeed vanish can expect to be grouped with the self-haters. While many things go into making a culture -- kinship, history, religion, place -- the disappearance of our languages suggests that our cultures, in total, may not be here for much longer.

For now, many Native American languages still exist, but most of them just barely, with only a handful of surviving speakers, all of them old. (On Jan. 21, Marie Smith Jones, the last living fluent speaker of Eyak, one of about 20 remaining Native Alaskan languages, died at the age of 89.) Linguists estimate that when Europeans first came to this continent, more than 300 Native American languages were spoken in North America. Today, there are only about 100. Within a century, if nothing is done, only a handful will remain, including my language, Ojibwe.

Another heartening exception is the Blackfoot language. The tribe dropped to a population of just over 1,000 in 1900, but they have grown again, and their language is on the upswing -- largely because of the efforts of the Piegan Institute, based on the Blackfoot reservation in northwest Montana, with a mission of promoting the tribe's language. Once moribund ceremonies are on the verge of flourishing again. But for many tribes -- who struggle to retain the remnants of their land, life ways, sovereignty and physical and mental health -- what is left can't really be called culture, at least not in the word's true sense.

Cultures change, of course. Sometimes they change slowly, in response to warming temperatures or new migration patterns. At other times, cultural changes are swift -- the result of colonialism or famine or migration or war. But at some point (and no one is too anxious to identify it exactly), a culture ceases to be a culture and becomes an ethnicity -- that is, it changes from a life system that develops its own terms into one that borrows, almost completely, someone else's.

My favorite example of this difference was the question posed to an Ojibwe man by the Indian agent whose job it was to put him down on the treaty rolls. "Who are you?" the Ojibwe was asked, through an interpreter. "Oshkinawe nindaw eta," he replied, puzzled ("Only a young man"). The Indian agent noted this, and the Ojibwe man's family still bears his Anglicized response, Skinaway. The man had no thoughts, really, about himself as an Indian or as an individual. The question -- who are you? -- didn't even make much sense to him because the terms of identity didn't make any sense to him; they were not his terms. Nowadays, unlike Skinaway, many of us have come to rely on ways of describing ourselves that aren't ours to begin with.

In the United States, we Natives now have sets of beliefs that we articulate to ourselves, mostly in English, about what being Indian means. We are from such and such a place; this and that happened to our ancestors; we eat such and such. Unlike the young man who was asked who he was, we think nowadays in English, and we forge our identities with those thoughts. (I am Indian because my parents are, because I live in a certain place, because I eat fry bread, because I go to powwows.)

Without our own languages, however, the markers we use to define ourselves can become arbitrary. One need only change the nouns to see the difference. Instead of "fry bread," insert "corned beef," and instead of harking back to smallpox-infested blankets, say "potato famine" -- and you arrive at a completely different ethnicity. American Indians are fast becoming ethnic Americans like the Irish and the Italians and the Scandinavians, to name a few.

The timing is strange: We find our cultures most imperiled just as some (though certainly not most) Indian communities are experiencing a kind of economic rebirth from casino money. Not only do we have some wealth -- the Seminoles of Florida own the Hard Rock Cafe franchise, and the Mashantucket Pequots own and operate probably the largest casino in the world -- we also have the basis of some political clout. In Great Plains states with dwindling populations such as North and South Dakota, Indians (who are not fleeing to the cities like rural non-Indians) have become a huge voting bloc that can sometimes determine the outcomes of state Senate and House races. Because Indians vote Democratic at a rate of about 90 percent, the power of Indian tribes is unsettling to many Republicans. In 2006, Republican Doug Lindgren ran for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives on what can only be called an "anti-treaty" platform that called into question the validity of northern Minnesota's Red Lake Indian Reservation and its treaty rights. Lindgren hoped to use deep-seated anti-Indian sentiment to consolidate his base. He lost. But our growing wealth and power has in no way guaranteed our survival.

Curiously, it is in the field of "story" that the most ringing claims are made for the continued health and vibrancy of American Indian cultures and lives. But it's not clear why so many Indian critics and novelists suggest that stories, even great ones, in English by writers whose only language is English are somehow "Indian stories" that store the kernels of culture -- not unlike those fabulous caves in the Southwest where explorers found seeds thousands of years old that grew when planted. One Indian critic recently rather self-servingly suggested that "English is an Indian language." He's wrong. English is not a Native American language; for most of us, it is our only language -- through no fault of our own, owing to a federal policy aimed at wiping out Native American languages. Cultural eradication is a process, and it was precisely through the attempt to stamp out Native American languages that the U.S. government tried to stamp out Native American cultures. To claim that English is a Native language is to continue that process.

More often than not, English was forced on us, not chosen by us. Naturally, one can (and millions do) construct a cultural identity out of whatever is at hand, and no Indian should feel bad (though many of us do) about speaking English. But I don't kid myself that my writing reflects my culture -- or can save it. My novels are exercises in art, not cultural revitalization or anthropology. And if novels published by large publishing conglomerates, marketed to a general readership that doesn't know the first thing about our lives, written in English by university-educated writers who by and large live far away from their tribal communities, don't speak their tribal languages and probably earn two or three times as much as the rest of their people are our best defense against the threat of cultural death, we are in worse shape than I thought.

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