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.

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