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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Harjo on Ethnicity and Wannabes

There's a lot to say about this, but I'm simultaneously mowing and planting, doing my taxes and grading essays.

It's too good not to post, however. Besides, there's nothing she's saying that I have any disagreement with. IOW, she's pretty well nailed it. Again.

Identity, part deux
by: Suzan Shown Harjo, Indian Country Today

In l'affair Churchill, many non-Native people are amazed that there are non-Native people who take on the identity of a Native person.

Pseudo-Indianism is a well-known phenomenon in Indian country. Pseudo-Indians usually have some useful skills, but their real talent is their ability to con kind-hearted, trusting people into validating them as Indians.

Here are some familiar traits of pseudo-Indians.

Eager beavers

There are many legit Indian and non-Indian people who are enthusiastically, unselfishly, tirelessly helpful to Indian people and causes. These generous traits are welcomed by many Native people, especially those who are overworked, understaffed, impoverished, stressed out or under siege.

Educator Norbert Hill, Oneida, gave Ward Churchill his first job at the University of Colorado - even though Hill recognized him as an Indian ''wannabe'' - because Hill's program needed help and Churchill was an eager beaver.

Churchill and many pseudo-Indians initially act like eager beavers. The difference between Indian and non-Indian eager beavers on the one hand and pseudo-Indian eager beavers on the other is that the pseudo-Indians are the ones pretending to be something they are not: Indians.

There are people who don't think that lying about being Native is a serious matter, or even a lie. It's more like a white lie, a pen name or a hobby. Actually, lying about being Native is more like identity theft, using a stolen passport or falsifying sworn documents. It is not victimless.

Pseudo-Indians are masters of distraction. Churchill is a classic obfuscator, as evidenced by the way he has kept reporters in Colorado running in circles chasing his biography, which is an unbroken chain of white roots linking back to southern Illinois and northern Europe.

When pressed, Churchill plays the ''Indian'' victim and makes a bid for sympathy. When pressed harder, he goes on the attack. These are typical reactive traits of pseudo-Indians.

Weeping willows

When asked about their Native nation or relatives, the weeping willows duck the answers and sob on the shoulders of peaceful folks about the mean ''inquisitors'' who hurt their feelings, when all the weepers are trying to do is to help the Indian people (as opposed to the mean Indians who don't do anything to help the people).

Prickly pears

These pseudo-Indians are defensive to the point of offensiveness. When asked about their identity, they strike out against the ''accusers.'' The pricklies attack anyone who doesn't support their false claims about their Indian-ness, usually accusing the questioners of being pseudo-Indians.

Spies in disguise

This is a unique subset of pseudo-Indians. The spy's Indian persona is also calculated for effect, but the spy is on a particular mission and the non-spies are more random. All pseudo-Indians are mercenaries - adopting Indian disguises for profit - and it's often hard for communities to know what they're dealing with until and unless there is an unmasking.

In Churchill's case, he says he's 1/16 Cherokee, although he's not been able to produce any evidence to support any claim to being any Indian of any nation. His mouthpiece, activist Russell Means, has defended Churchill in recent weeks by condemning one of his detractors as ''only 1/8 Indian.'' Let's see, that would make Churchill's nemesis twice as much Indian by blood as Churchill.

Churchill is not a citizen of any Native nation. That is to say, he is not recognized by any of the various peoples he has claimed. Muscogee (Creek) Nation says he is not a Creek citizen. Cherokee Nation says he is not a Cherokee citizen. The Keetoowah Band says he's not a Keetoowah citizen.

When confronted with these facts, Churchill attacks the sovereignty of Native nations to determine their citizenship, much as Means has attacked the sovereign authority of Navajo Nation to prosecute him for abuse of Navajo citizens.

Means says that it's what's in your heart that matters. But he knows well that his own Oglala people would laugh anyone out of the room who used that criteria for stepping into treaty deliberations, voting in tribal elections or obtaining kidney dialysis treatment.

It is important for people who deal with affirmative action and the honor system in educational settings to understand that being a tribal person is not a matter of self-declaration or a racial matter. It is a political, legal matter. It is citizenship and only a Native nation can determine its citizens.

Churchill and his supporters would substitute themselves for Native nations in deciding who are Native citizens, but tribal and federal laws say they can't do that.

Churchill's lawyer is attempting to distract the University of Colorado faculty members who are examining this issue by raising the specter of Nazi racial purity. He, his client and Means are the only people talking about blood and pedigree, and Churchill is the only German in the debate. Cherokee Nation doesn't have a blood quantum standard for citizenship.

Let us review.

Churchill is not a citizen of any Indian nation, so he is not Indian by any known political standard based in tribal law, treaties, nation-to-nation dealings or federal Indian law.

Churchill is not Indian by family. This is not a situation where a person cannot qualify for tribal citizenship, but has an Indian mother or father, or even an Indian grandparent.

Churchill is not Indian culturally. He was raised by white people as a white person in white communities. No amount of bombast turns that into an Indian cultural background. At nearly 60 years of age, he has not connected culturally with any of the Native peoples he has claimed.

This, by the way, is usually what people mean by ''Indian at heart'' - someone who sings, dances and takes part in the cultural life of a Native nation, even if that person is not Native. In Churchill's case, he has done none of that.

Churchill is Indian by imagination. He is now concocting a tale that he believed he was Indian by family mythology, to which he applied zero critical examination. He then needs to explain how this thread became specific to varying Native nations and became a special tribal, cultural experience that gave him the edge in employment and publishing.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

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