The Difference of Indians: Addressing Elitism

“If my ancestors did not hide their identity then I wouldn’t be here today. My band of Apache was killed down to only 30 at one time…. So how can you say those who gave up their identity did not suffer any hardship from being native and their descendents are undeserving?”— A comment on native run Facebook page.

“I can’t imagine living away from my land. I can look around and see my great, great grandparents graves. I live on the land they lived on,” said the late middle age Native American visitor to the ITB convention that took place early in March 2014, in Berlin, Germany. It is an international travel and tourism event that showcases one country each year, while delegations from around the world come to promote tourism to their location.

The sentiment he expressed evidenced a sense of pride and belonging, and one other people around the world may also experience. Whether it is the Bavarian forester looking out over the mountains and valleys of his region or a generational sheep-herding family in England’s Lake country, it is an understandable expression.

“We have a special relationship with the land because of this,” he went on to say. “And still speaking our language is a part of this bond.” Yet, is this to suggest that natives who live in other countries or away from their ancestral lands have less or no relationship to the land? Is this to suggest that those tribes such as his own are the only real Indians because of that fact? Further conversation suggested so. Yet this was also a native who proudly spoke of their grandparents converting to a Christian faith, forsaking the beliefs and traditions of their people.

When I spoke of the camaraderie and alliance many of the natives I know here in Europe have achieved, the type where, you just hear about someone else, get in contact with them and its like you’ve known them your whole life, he was again dismissive. “That’s just because you’re here.”

Yet, it was the same where I lived in the US as well. We were welcoming to other natives who came in the area, and of course, depending on personality and individual factors, we often became friends or at least acquaintances, and formed an impromptu intertribal “tribe” of our own. We were Lakota, Cherokee, Apache, Tohono O’odham, Blackfeet and Ojibwe. We traveled to pow-wows together, etc. though naturally we had our own tribes and families we associated with, but these sometimes mixed, too, as we were introduced.

To that he said, “Well, on the rez it’s different.” Of course on the rez, it’s different. Again, telling me something I already knew.

“On the rez, everybody knows everybody. When you’re off the rez, sure, you can meet other people and interact and be glad to, but when you get back on the rez, that changes everything. The rez people are your people. They’re family, almost everyone. And the people you met elsewhere, even other Indians? They’re just people.”

Again, though I can appreciate his perspective, it totally smacks of a colonialized conquered mindset. That you accept what they want you to accept, which is: “Keep to the place we allow you. Keep only with your own there.” Ironically enough however, he also spoke of the offers made for work and/or money to live off-rez during his parent’s generation in their area, which some accepted. This meant some began intermarrying with others in the area, Polish, Hungarian, Anglo-American, etc, which was a quick way to dilute the blood, and a directed, though seemingly “helpful” tactic by the US government.

Conversely, some natives I know who live off rez or never lived on one themselves choose to marry only other natives of whatever blood content, who live the traditions and culture as they were taught. Not because they are separatists or racists, but rather similar to myself in that I learn, grew up and continue in the traditions of my people, and others who also do so are those I am attracted to and feel most comfortable with.


From the Ohio University website
From the Ohio University website

Many people think of Native Americans of the US and the First Nations of Canada, as well as those of central and South America as somehow being homogenous. “You’re Indians.” They think of you as having the same beliefs, cultures, and traditions, and often just having various dialects of the same language. They ask or comment on Native American beliefs, when it should actually be the name of the tribe. Each of these things can be vastly different.

Just look at a map the continents in the western hemisphere! Some tribes are thousands and thousands of miles apart. That would be like saying that Norwegians and Sicilians have same/similar languages, traditions, etc. just because they are all under the “European” label now.

But it’s not just non-natives who allowed this “heading” of Native Americans to delude them, to create divisions of elitism, belief blood quantative levels or the superiority of some groups because of their location and history. It is not just non-natives who are inconsiderate of the very diverse histories the indigenous peoples of the Americas have endured and continue to live.

“I can’t imagine living away from my land. I can look around and see my great great grandparents graves. I live on the land they lived on,” he said.

That’s great. But my Apache ancestors, who were still being hunted and killed or rounded up for removal in the early 1900s didn’t asked to be taken from their lands, incarcerated in prisons or camps, and then “resettled” far away from their homes. Though it was a pattern from US government cultural demolition across the continent, they didn’t ask to have their children taken away, forbidden their language, or in some cases, forced to live on the run or “blend-in” by accepting a Mexican or mixed African-American label in order to have work, housing or schooling.

My great-grandfather was one of the latter, who intermarried with a Cherokee woman. They had a son who came to marry a Cherokee/Welsh woman living with her family in the hills of Tennessee until they were all forced from their land they’d lived on. In the late 1950s, they came to a city in a mule-drawn wagon with a few belongings, which is all they had been allowed to keep on threat of death. My grandfather had never seen his ancestral land, but that didn’t prevent its legacy being handed down to his children and myself. Many of my Cherokee relatives were removed to Oklahoma, but others scattered across the country.

“I know my family back ten generations, and except for other natives, we never mixed with any other race,” said one Native who visits Europe seasonally as a dancer.

That’s all well and good and may be so, but children born have no control over who their parents were. The brave women who survived the rapes and abuses of the invaders but had and raised those children, didn’t have control over what happened to them either. Are those children and their descendants any less native if they honor their ancestors and live by their ways?

To some natives I’m not really a native, though that’s something I’ve experienced only with a minimum number or what’s been said or questioned to my face. I was taught the ways of my people, and especially as a former elected official to represent my region for Federal Programs Indian Education and before the BIA, my knowledge of several tribes expanded.

I live the way of my ancestors to the best of my ability even though I’m living in Berlin, Germany. It wasn’t any different than when I was in the US. I don’t have to be on “Indian” land to be Indian. In fact, as I’ve grown older, my bond has strengthened to other natives, and my mixed heritages. My appreciation has grown for what my ancestors endured, what the various People continue to, and my activism increases.

Whether its tribes disenrolling members for financial gain, prompted by self-serving laws and lies of the US government, or those natives who look down on others they see as less “pure” or exclude them as being indigenous all together because of blood quantative levels, you are hurting the People as a whole. You’ve bought into their plan to contain and eradicate you through total assimiliation into their unethical, repulsive techniques.

I am proud of the People from all nations, from all background and heritages who are stepping up and speaking up. We are fighting back as the whole world reaches a crucial point in time, and defenders are needed. It is a shame when you have to defend yourself against your “supposed” own. We, a collective “we”, must stop that as well.

Remember your traditions and cultures, but include the reality that we’re in the 21 century now, and the fight must be collective, which we were not able to do in the past. We must show a solid front against racism, elitism, and the insistent murder of the Earth, our cultures, languages and peoples, whether it is from inside or outside.

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2 thoughts on “The Difference of Indians: Addressing Elitism

  1. Thank you! Sadly, it seems impossible for most folks to get the complexity of being Native and from many parts of the US. Your post addresses this complexity beautifully.

    1. Thanks, it indeed has a complexity that most others don’t know or either dismiss as untrue or unimportant…even some natives themselves.

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