© Indian Country Today May 26, 2005. All Rights Reserved
Posted: May 26, 2005
by: Editors Report / Indian Country Today
In Indian affairs, consciousness of identity origins and tribal histories is essential. Without clear tribal definitions or their memberships, lands, histories and cultures, the concreteness of American Indian rights dissipates easily.
It is easiest to define Native status in the United States when the tribe is recognized, historically and legally, within the federal system. This is a complicated and historically paternalistic system, steeped in colonialist doctrine. Yet, for tribal nations to survive as distinct political entities as the American union enveloped them, sovereign definition over membership has always been a crucial issue.
The principal goal of a sovereignty model is tribal control over membership, tribal title (ownership) to lands, both in aboriginal title and as ”trust land.” For each Native nation, large or small, the preferred nation-to-nation relationship with the United States is governmental. For the tribes, this is the relationship that is most reflective of their reality as the first self-governing societies and peoples of this land.
The defense and sustenance of the Indian tribal membership in this context has substantial history. Most always, the documented record of any tribe is rich with cases of real property dispossession and outright battles against extermination, characterized by the always strong (if not always successful) struggle to hold on to lands and territories rightfully owned by the tribe.
Beyond the status within recognized tribes fall various ranges of indigenous and tribal identities. Some of these concern disenfranchised folks from recognized tribes who are actual relations but whose circumstances fall outside legal definitions of membership. Many genuine stories of relations in this context give evidence of cultural exchanges of the most varied and interesting connections. Families long urbanized often have the most intimate, as well as distant, relations in reservation origins.
There are also the many tribes that are not federally recognized but maintain membership records that have been sustained and substantiated over time. Some of these are recognized by states and by local and regional tradition, but were separated from the historical record or from a federal-Indian relationship. Some were completely relocated; others completely Christianized, their distinct spiritual cultures dissipated.
Others were splintered by a large percentage of intense inter-marriage into non-Native cultures from which emerge people of great talent who occasionally become important Indian leaders.
Then there are Indian people in the United States, quite a few, who originate from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The Mayan nations of Central America estimate about one million of their people now reside in the United States. There are now large permanent Maya communities in Florida (Indiantown, Immokalee), as well as in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.
Add to that the many Zapotecas and Mixtecas from southern Mexico, and the large range of still-related and close-knit groups from Ecuador and other Andean regions.
In New York, Florida and Puerto Rico, people of Caribbean indigenous ancestry have re-organized related families of the Taino Nation of the Antilles, giving way to a growing cultural revitalization movement that counts many prominent representatives. Whereas in times past, immigrants to the United States were only too happy to leave behind the ”old country,” to Americanize themselves into the new ”melting pot,” the new immigrants from Latin America are not only sustaining their ties to their country of origin, but the indigenous among them are keen to maintain and consciously revitalize their ancestral identities.
Terrific kinship recognitions, friendships and alliances are possible in the healthy interaction of the three above-listed circles. This was in evidence this week at the United Nations, as Indian peoples from north and south met and discussed the many issues facing their communities throughout the hemisphere and the world.
The problem of holding on to tribal lands and resources, and the retention of intellectual properties, are important ongoing testimonies. As always, Native nations and their delegates found resistance from nation states and great sympathy from peoples and organizations at large, nationally and internationally. In the hallways and over coffee, friendships and alliances connected and developed that will last generations. Many of these small meetings were facilitated by urban Indian groups that networked Native delegations with foundations and human rights organizations.
The Indian context is complex and while alliances depend on shared identities, the respect of specificity within the context of peoples and place is equally crucial. In the United States, the recognition of American Indian nations has its own legal strictures that follow significant, if not always welcome, definitions. Of singular importance are the tribal rolls and tribal membership offices, as well as the ancient clan counts of longhouses and kivas. All have tried-and-true ways of determining their own membership and recognizing the identity of community participants.
These principles of time immemorial have their rationale, even when placed into federal stricture. This is most important because these days those most intent on destroying tribal rights claim to be Indian.
For example: One Nation, Inc., a national alliance wholly dedicated to the eradication of Indian tribal rights, issued this statement a year ago at the National Press Club: ”Do we wish to destroy our cherished American dream – a harmonious melting pot of all cultures, colors, and creeds? The current drive to revere tribalism among American Natives suggests the answer to be ‘yes’ to resurrecting the divisive apartheid we once deplored. With 562 federally recognized tribes, 291 tribal recognition applications pending, and 400 monopolistic Indian casinos supplying
outrageous funding to political parties, elected officials, and lobbyists, a new domestic crisis is exploding across America.”
One Nation Inc., United Property Owners and Citizens Equal Rights Alliance – three national coalitions of community groups, trade associations and local governments – are a growing advocacy base that is politically targeted to destroy the original peoples of America. But here is how One Nation defines its base: ”[Our] … concerns lie not with American Indians, as many of our members claim this proud heritage.” Their enemy is not Indian ”heritage” per se; in fact, they already claim the identity, as they pretend to like ”Indians” (i.e. themselves) while detesting ”federal Indian policy and out-of-control government bureaucracies assigned to serve the tribes – and some tribal leaders who don’t serve the interests of their own people.”
Considering that these days even those who avow to destroy tribal sovereignty pretend to speak for American Indian identities, a clear scrutiny of brazen claims is crucial. It is a good thing that the tribes know who they are and who their actual members are. It is equally important that Indian nations establish and formally publish their policies on all such matters so that the manipulative and deceptive practices of anti-Indian hate groups can be laid bare.
Definition is crucial in this day and age. People who support a free-for-all with respect to Indian identity might consider how they usher in the Trojan horse that seeks the destruction of all American Indian freedoms.