America’s rigid racial categories erase more fluid forms of Indigenous self-identification
THROUGHOUT the history of what would eventually come to be called North America, the varied Indigenous peoples living here managed the issue of national (or tribal) inclusion in a number of ways, often taking cues from individuals’ self-identification, cultural affinities, and presence in a community. Speaking a particular tribal language, for example, might be grounds for recognition as a member of that tribe. Those who acted like they belonged to a particular tribe could belong to that tribe, with no further “proof” or system of validating determinants required. “Racial” identity played no part in determining who belonged to what tribe before the European invasion.
“Traditional natives did not distinguish an Indian ‘race’ from other versions,” says Ojibwe scholar and author Scott Richard Lyons, “although they did recognize different cultural groups. […] An Indian was someone who lived with and like Indians: it was about the proximity, practice, and principles that people lived by.”
With European colonization, the imposition and proliferation of greater stricture and racialized approaches to tribal identity began to change the landscape, and continue to shape the identities and lives of millions of Indigenous Americans today. Indian blood, as a legal concept took a variety of shapes throughout the formative years of the American state, coalescing as federal law with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. At that point, the federal government dictated that only those individuals with particular percentages of “Indian blood” were to be legally considered Native American. Today, roughly one hundred tribes base eligibility for enrollment on those legally-defined identities, requiring individuals to provide documented proof of a certain percentage of that tribe’s blood. The percentages vary from tribe to tribe. Some Indigenous scholars see this as a dangerous self-imposition of European colonial fantasies of Indianness. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker write that blood quantum laws could eventually result in Indigenous extinction:
This is because Indians marry outside their cultures more than any other ethnic group, resulting in multiracial and multiethnic children. What’s more, even when Indians have children with other Indians but from different tribes, it lowers the blood quantum necessary to enroll in one tribe.
Those individuals who would otherwise identify as belonging to one tribe or another, or even just as Indian at all, are challenged by a system that has determined their “blood” to be too diluted for them to identify, officially, as that which they see themselves to be. While some Native Americans argue for the abolition of blood quantum laws, others see them needing gentle reform: lowering the specific percentages or making allowances for inter-tribal marriage. As resisters and survivors of centuries of genocidal policy, many Native Americans may feel a sense of allegiance to the idea of blood quantum because it appears to offer a means of rigidly protecting Native identity. Yet in the long term, blood quantum laws guarantee erasure.
These problems with purity laws have been compounded by a number of relatively recent federal policies enacted on Indigenous populations. Take, as one example, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, through which the U.S. Department of the Interior funded and encouraged the relocation of thousands of Native Americans from tribal lands to urban centers, where the federal government provided job training and English language lessons. This relocation, designed as an attempt to assimilate huge numbers of Native Americans into mainstream American society, appears to work in tandem with blood quantum towards one ultimate goal: liquidation.
Lyons suggests some alternatives to blood quantum, wondering: “Are any [tribal] nations offering language fluency exams to prospective citizens? Why not?” In his view, looking to linguistic fluency to determine eligibility for tribal membership builds on a potential for population growth, while also acknowledging the problem of disappearing traditional languages. “Identities always serve particular interests,” Lyons says, “and that’s probably the most important thing to figure out: just whose interests do they serve?” One of the worst injustices committed by colonialism, Lyons continues, is that it left Indian identity “in tatters: fragmented, uncertain, endlessly questioned, and something people squabble about.”
If certain outside actors–like colonists, or the state–limit the categories by which one can identify oneself and then one is forced to choose from those limited categories, and one further finds that none of the available categories get it quite right, the result is a certain form of invisibility. Put another way: on paper, you are one thing, while in real life–waking life, dreams, in your social circle, among your family, while speaking for yourself–you are another thing entirely. Where does your identity fall? And perhaps more importantly, how significant (to any of the parties involved) is the you that appears “on paper?”
IN 1853, John Gadsden, the United States’ ambassador to Mexico, negotiated the ten million dollar purchase of 30,000 square miles of Mexico, resulting in the redrawing of the 1,945 mile-long U.S.-Mexico border. When that line was redrawn, it cut directly through the tribal lands of the indigenous Tohono O’odham nation of the Sonoran Desert.
For a while, this transfer of national land ownership meant little for the Indigenous people living along the new border, as most continued to pass freely across it. But eventually, with rising concern about drug trafficking and a heightened focus on immigration and reinvigorated surveillance after 9/11, living within the increasingly militarized borderlands became an ongoing crisis for the Tohono O’odham people, particularly those without proper documentation. The increasing maintenance of the border also reinforced imposed identities among a huge portion of the more than 30,000 tribal members. When that border was redrawn, some became Mexican Tohono O’odham and others American Tohono O’odham.
The result has been a dissolution of identity–a loss whose consequences include the detention and deportation of members crossing the federal border while traveling through tribal lands as they “practice migratory traditions essential to their religion, economy and culture,” according to the official website of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Redrawing the border imposed an identity on the Tohono O’odham. Resisting or trying to skirt this imposition has resulted in a liminal, if not conflicted identity–an identity that floats somehow in between identities considered more legitimate: “American” or “Mexican.”
In the 2001 documentary, Another Side of the Border, Tohono O’odham tribal member Raymond Valenzuela explains that he travels back and forth across the border on a daily basis to go to work. “I don’t believe I’m Mexican. I don’t believe I’m American. I’m Tohono O’odham first,” Valenzuela says. “And I don’t believe that that borderline is there.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation is a federally recognized tribe in the United States, and the Mexican government also recognizes the Tohono O’odham south of the border. But as Métis artist and scholar David Garneau says, the very concept of Indian reservations “makes these sites into something like property, or settled (First) nation states.” Garneau attributes this understanding of property to “occupation narratives” and believes it is in conflict with traditional understandings of land as territory and of territory as negotiated. That traditional negotiating, Garneau says, is not only to be understood in terms of “discussion and treaty,” but also “the personal, embodied sense of negotiating space, finding one’s way through, over, or around.”
Recently, the Tohono O’odham issued statements warning that the incoming U.S. administration’s plans to further fortify the border with an impenetrable wall will be met with absolute resistance. Tribal Vice Chairman Verlon Jose told KJZZ Radio, “Over my dead body will a wall be built” on that 75-mile long portion of the border which runs through his tribe’s land.
The wall would be one of those “occupation narratives” inscribed, an even bolder redaction of the Tohono O’odham identity. It would be a more radical interruption of that negotiation-as-identity. Acoma poet Simon Ortiz says that Indian systems of moral value and oral history are “unwieldy according to the precepts of the American system,” a system which he describes as “conveniently exclusive.” The American system “finds useful only those parts which gain precedence and dominance over others.” All of this crossing-out and all of the liminal and tattered identities result from the limiting of identity categories to which one is given the option to assent. And those categories which are excluded are the ones which are more likely to be understood intuitively, like membership to a tribe based on cultural affinity instead of rigid blood laws. The testimony of ancestors; the recitation from memory of a story older than colonization, in Ojibwemowin or O’odham; uninterrupted presence in a particular territory; none of these things amount to legitimate identity, according to the American state.
WHEN the Gadsden Purchase was made, only the presence of the Tohono O’odham people, their stories and their negotiation of that space, testified to the fact that it was, in whatever way, O’Odham land. It was written into the lives and practices of the people, but not in any ledger.
And so, with nothing yet written, the Americans and the Mexicans inscribed that 1,945-mile line across the land, effectively crossing out the fact that, as Garneau says, “Indigenous domain is not a political state, in the sense of a claim of property, but a state in the sense of a condition one is in.” Instead, Indigenous domain is a sense of “the need for the collective wisdom that precedes and exceeds you.”
History is made up of that collective wisdom, what is told and retold. How can it not be the same with identity, which is subtle and evanescent? That is not to say that identities are necessarily fragile or temporary. Nor is it to suggest that, for example, Native American nations should determine enrollment in any manner other than those which they themselves see fit. Identities survive not because of delimitation or taxonomical projects, nor because they are patrolled, but because they are stories unfolding over time, unwieldy narratives that defy narrow determinants.
Far too often, the failures of certain systems–like borders, biology and citizenship–to accommodate the evanescent and narrative nature of identities are used to demand that the identities in question be more wieldy, permanent, or biologically determinable. But it is the designers of those systems who are implicated in those failures more than those whose identities are threatened. They are implicated by a need for the reimagining of those systems.
The Euro-American tendency to view the unwieldy nature of identity as being in need of fixing (in many senses of the word) is a symptom of an unwillingness to accept multiple, simultaneous and shifting truths. That which is unwritten is unproven, according to this tendency; that which is fluid, migrating, or evanescent, is subject to and even deserving of disavowal and destruction. But written proof accommodates absence in a way that testimony does not. Something which is documented and rigidly proven can be left alone, put on the shelf, referred to confidently. Living truths are never so easily proven.