Saturday, October 20, 2012

Native identity is more than skin deep

A friend pointed out that I have never posted the brief essay that preceded my initial Facebook post of my photograph. This was first published online on Sept. 25, 2012.

As a mixed-blood Kiowa Indian who lives in Massachusetts, you can guess I have very strong opinions about Scott Brown’s attack on Elizabeth Warren regarding her racial identity.

I can respect differing opinions as to Warren’s connection to the Cherokee and Deleware tribes and traditions, but none of us, much less Scott Brown, is qualified to declare that she "apparently has no Native American background". To all of us who have haven't been ignoring the increasingly mixed demographics of our country, it should come as no surprise that the truth of the issue of tribal identity is far more complex than Brown's black-and-white you're-either-Native-or-not attitude.

One fundamental problem is the very definition of "Native American background". Just saying "Native American" ignores the fact that there are scores of different nations (a.k.a. tribes) who have rules for citizenship that are often vastly different from one another. Even so, those rules almost all revolve around blood quanta. But that's far from being a perfect criterion; for instance, one of my ancestors was a white captive of the Kiowas in the 1800s. That person didn't have "Indian blood" and didn't "look" Kiowa, but his descendants were still considered part of the tribe in the wake of the Dawes Act. Saying that someone couldn't be a member of a tribe solely because of their appearance is ignorant, but is unfortunately how a majority of the country (and Massachusetts) understands it. But for those of us whose identity is very much wrapped up in these issues, such comments are ridiculous (Talking Points Memo has had a couple of great posts on this). If Scott Brown is ignorant of these things, then he has no business commenting on them. If he knows there's more complexity there, then he's cynically using people's bias for political advantage.

What’s more, Scott Brown and his supporters are conflating two types of affirmative action. What we (not entirely correctly) refer to as affirmative action for Native Americans far precedes that for other races in the United States, in large part because it was codified in treaties and laws in the 19th century. Affirmative action for Native Americans in its current form is descended from those earlier agreements, which were not about race, but about tribal status. And they weren't in place to combat racism, but to provide compensation for displacement and land seizures. Parker McKenzie, a great Kiowa elder who also happened to be my great-grandfather, saw his descendants’ receiving benefits from current policies to be birthrights, earned by our ancestors, not as something to counteract present-day prejudices.

That's the attitude I have now and, more importantly, the attitude I had when I checked "Native American" as my race when I applied to Rice University in the early 1990s. And it probably impacted the admissions folks' decision to admit me, as well as the scholarship committee's decision to waive my tuition. And all this for someone who is "clearly not" Native American. My quarter-blood heritage isn't as tenuous as Elizabeth Warren's (I have a tribal ID card to back me up, after all), and I do not ignore that. I'll admit that I raised my eyebrows for a second when I first read about her story. But the prejudiced roots of Scott Brown's attitude go back hundreds of years and bother me far more than whether a fellow native Oklahoman checked a particular box because of her own genuine feelings about her background. And Sen. Brown's comments leave me with little doubt that, if I were running against him right now, he'd try to pull the same ignorant crap on me.

My point: it's much more complicated than Brown's soundbite, and as a member of the U.S. Senate, which was responsible for ratifying all the relevant treaties on this issue, he should damn well know better.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Wild Blonde Indians!"

From Patrick Sauer, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York

Dear Senator Brown,

I want to show you a picture.

These are my nephews. Amos is in front, older brother Waylon is in back. They’re fun kids, I think you’d like them. If either of your daughters ever decides to have a child, these dudes are the kind you want. They're lively, spirited, rambunctious, and they have just enough of our family's Irish ancestry to be the quintessential Massachusetts natives.

Let me show you another picture.

That's my youngest brother, Daniel. You've probably figured out he's Amos and Waylon's Dad. I think you'd like Dan as well. He's a man's man, makes his own sausage, catches his own fish, grows his own vegetables, and of course, drives his own pickup truck. He's also a diehard Red Sox fan who once said that the day they won the 2004 World Series was "the greatest day of his life." (He was already married by then.)

This should perk your ears up, Senator. Dan's also a Bay State small business owner. He was formerly a rising star in the high stakes New York City restaurant racket, tutored under Tom Colicchio in fact, but as is wont to happen, he fell in love with a local girl and now he and wife Wenonah own 7a Foods. For my biased money, he makes the best sandwiches on Martha's Vineyard. They had to scrimp and save, work other jobs, and yes, cut through ribbons of red tape, but they're doing it. Dan is more or less the living embodiment of the small business owners you've pledged to fight for.

He's a lefty, but a reasonable one, and last summer he paid you a high compliment saying, "Scott Brown's alright. He's more or less a Democrat." Tell you what, Senator, you drop in on 7a Foods to talk shop with Dan and the sandwiches are on me. I'm currently partial to the "Liz Lemon," hot housemade pastrami, turkey, swiss, coleslaw, Russian dressing and potato chips on rye. Trust me, Senator. You want to go to there.

I have a few more pictures to show you.

I love this one. Look at those little guys, the camouflage just spells trouble. Can you imagine anyone having anything awful to say to my awesome fair-haired nephews? No?

How about now?

Oh, I should note that Amos and Waylon aren't playing dress-up. Family friend Ona Ignacio nailed a perfect description of Amos and Waylon on Facebook.

"Wild Blonde Indians!"

You see that man peeking out in the bottom left-hand corner? That's their grandfather, Jeffrey Madison, full-blooded descendent of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah. I'm sure you're familiar with the tribe, Senator Brown, considering their people have been on Martha's Vineyard for 10,000 years. You've at least heard of the legendary Amos Smalley, right? He's the tribal bad-ass who harpooned a 90-foot Great White Whale. It inspired a Massachusetts writer by the name of Melville. Moby Dick, does that ring a bell?

Just a couple more photos, Senator. Please, indulge me. There might be votes in it.

Oh hey, look, there's mom! Nonie isn't quite as pale-faced as her kids, is she Senator? Darker skin, knottier hair, but damn if that DNA didn't fall on the Celtic-y, English-y, Alsace-Lorraine-y side of the color spectrum. Genetics are a funny thing.

You now what's not so humorous, though, Senator Brown? Race-baiting. Pure ugly unadulterated those people are getting away with something pandering.

I thought about my nephews when those hilarious Massholes turned one of your campaign rallies into an Atlanta Braves game, circa 1995. Staffers of yours to boot? I wonder what my nephews, let alone their mother (To paraphrase Damon Wayans, Nonie don't play!), would have thought if they'd happened upon the rally. Well, Amos is his Dad's son, so he would have been oblivious. Although he might have started punching backward-hat guy in the balls just for the fun of it. Kid's got a lot of Justin in him.

Waylon, on the other hand, would have known exactly what the vibe was. He's his Mother's son, precocious, sensitive, super perceptive, and often too-smart-for-his-own-good. Just how is Nonie suppose to explain the glee your people are taking in mocking Waylon's blood relatives? As a loving parent, can you offer any advice? Have you ever had to have a conversation like that, Senator Brown? I just hope Waylon doesn't dial it up on YouTube because at five, he already knows how to use an iPad. Doesn't miss a trick, that one.

Whether my family is going to vote for you or not (SPOILER ALERT: They're not), they are Massachusetts residents. Same as the mouth-breathers equating Native American taunts and "Yankees Suck!" They're your constituents and they're Indians. Proud Indians whom I've yet to see unleash any tomahawk chops or war whoops, unlike say, the people on your payroll.

This picture is from an actual Wampanoag pow-wow. If you get re-elected, maybe you could pay a visit in 2013?

I was going to let this thing drop, Senator Brown. I live in Brooklyn, I have no dog in this political fight. And I was willing to accept that you won't tolerate that racist nonsense form your campaign workers, except then this morning, this ad was linked to on my Twitter feed. What the hell? Just because there's no war paint or headdresses doesn't mean you're not pushing the same troglodytic buttons. I'm sure you'd claim that the new ad is about Elizabeth Warren being a "liar," but at the same time, you'll be ignoring what she lied about? Subtext is the text. Otherwise, you'd be attacking her policy ideas. There is no evidence Warren gained anything through her mistaken Cherokee heritage, so could you please accept her Occam's Razor explanation and drop the bigoted Go Go Gophers bit?

And if you won't, could you please explain your reasons for demonizing Native Massachusetts Americans to this family, Senator Brown? Or maybe you can't see what you're doing.

Patrick Sauer
Brooklyn, NY

Patrick Sauer is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn (Credits include ESPN, Fast Company, Deadspin, Inc., Biographile and many other websites and magazines.)

"Testing his DNA-dar" on Rachel Maddow

Last week, The Rachel Maddow Show featured several folks who had submitted images showing how light-skinned they are, even though they have strong Native American backgrounds.

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Here's a link to the blog of one of the women who was featured, who hails from Canada:

Testing his DNA-dar; or how I became forever linked to Scott Brown, the US senator from Massachusetts