Behind the Buckskin Curtain: Realities of Life in Modern Native America
Christopher Scott Sewell
A recent article in National Geographic spoke of the “Rebirth of a Sioux Nation”, and highlighted the emergence of a growing nationalism and sense of peoplehood among the Oglala Lakota, a perspective that views the outside world of modern America and its people as “other”, and Lakota tradition and language as truly important to their survival as a people.
On the vast Pine Ridge reservation, a people who a century ago were predicted to be “gone”, “assimilated”, and “Americanized” by the 21st Century are in their own view as Lakota as ever, and many of the younger generation are questioning the legitimacy of the social order that has reigned on the reservation for generations, just as their parents and grandparents have.
This sense is not new among the Oglala Lakota for those who were there or remember the struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s and of the seismic effects of these times on the minds of many Indian people across America, as a sense of the potential for rebirth and renewal of Indian identity emerged from the heart of the urban Indian ghettos and windswept reservations.
In a sense the Lakota have never loss their grip on their identity as a people who have been corralled but not broken, challenged but not defeated, and who walk in peace and holiness even as the rates of murder, suicide, neglect, and poverty on the reservation far exceeds those any other communities, and for some families conditions are at times worse than those for many third world countries, smack in the heart of the American Midwest.
When I saw the cover of the National Geographic showing a young Lakota charging across the plains on horseback in silhouette on a crest of a hill, I thought of people who I hadn’t seen and years, some of whom I had found out during the last decade through the Indian grapevine had left this world, usually in a violent way.
As I perused the pages, I saw many faces and names of old friends and people who I knew well then, and had ran with twenty years ago when I was a young man brimming with energy and active in sobriety workshops, cultural renewal, and language preservation, in the cities and the reservations of the west.
The article made me think about how much change even a young man of 40 years like me has seen, and how sometimes when one is ‘steadily’ watching something, one may not see the slower changing developments happening for just this reason.
Sometimes a snapshot, such as this article in National Geographic, contrasted with the Pine Ridge I remember from decades ago, or the half century ago of some of my teachers and elders, shows how fast some things change.
As I think of the Indian Country of a century ago described by the oldest elders to me over the years in Indian church camp houses, sweat lodges, and Corn Dance arbors, compared to what I see daily in my life here in Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma this past decade, I see things unfolding that few have reason to speak of, and fewer even see.
A sense of Indianess certainly continues to grow among people choosing to identify as Native American and affiliate with the cultural traditions of various tribes, whether or not they have actually lived in those tribal communities, strongholds where ancient communal rhythms and traditions are facts of daily life, where people go to sweat lodge with the new moon and life is not a Norman Rockwell painting, places where commodities are food, checks from relatives in faraway cities are gas money, and tribal gatherings and connections the most important activity on the social calendar .
The mainstream of the American society really knows little more about what is happening behind the “Buckskin Curtin”, the invisible line that separates the people of ‘Indian Country’ from other Americans, than do many of the politicians who influence the creation of the state and federal Indian policies and procedures that partially determine the present and coming generations of Indian peoples quality and way of life.
Under the current conditions of governmental policies and practices, the social lives of many of the persons who are enrolled in federally recognized tribes, especially here in Oklahoma, is one that is not actively resisting the forces of assimilative social and economic inclusion, always touted as “beneficial” to Indian people and communities.
Economic development and other such endeavors have become the forefront of tribal goal setting and endeavors, even as small percentages of budgets are earmarked for the (in most cases) social institutions based on the ‘differences” in the Indian cultural heritage from Euro-American majority that surround the small and often rural communities where truly traditional Indian life survives in the Sooner state
American governmental policies promise success to young Indians, even as it takes youths away from building social institutions that have been historically important for tribal survival, to serve in the military far from the Oklahoma tribal or reservation communities where their presence (and the crucial generational reinvestment that they and their children represent) is lost to the larger Indian community.
Often with little commentary, the ‘patchwork’ of sovereign trust lands that are the reality for all but the largest reservations allows for a steadily increasing non-Indian population “on the rez”.
As anyone who attends powwows and community events in Oklahoma or the eastern U.S. can tell you, there is no shortage of powwows and the like today anywhere in the country, but fewer and fewer people will be seen there who can be differentiated from the general population.
Many of the feathered and enthusiastic participants at these events attest to an adherence to traditional values, customs, and a sense of self –identified ‘Indianess’, even as the intermarriage rate to persons of a ‘different’ race is highest among today’s Native American population according to the U.S. Census.
(See http://www.npr.org/2011/03/31/134421470/native-american-intermarriage-puts-benefits-at-risk for more information on how these increasing situations impact on the tribes of the northern plains and other areas).
The Office of Management and Budget defines the concept of race as outlined for the United States Census as not “scientific or anthropological”. It takes into account “social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry”, using “appropriate scientific methodologies” that are not “primarily biological or genetic in reference.
Another words, the idea of who is, and is not an “Indian” is more hotly debated as ever, even in the face of declining blood quantum degrees and increasingly self-identified “Indians” who are not connected with tribal communities or Indian population centers.
Not known by most people, if not for the geographical and social isolation of many of the dozen or so large reservations, especially in the northern plains, intermountain west, and south western region, most tribes would be like the vast majority of the Oklahoma and eastern U.S. tribes enrolled members; indistinguishable physically from the general population (regarding phenotypical appearance) and in many cases knowing and practicing little if any of the ‘traditional’ culture of the tribe, with blood quantum degrees in increasingly small fractions.
A tribal community identity, language and cultural preservation, and other aspects of tribal life are independent of concepts of race as understand to westerners, but with a swelling mainstream (and in many cases now not white necessarily) pressing in on geographic isolation of many tribal populations, ancestral genetic diversity (and in most cases non-Native American) increases.
As a case in point, in her life time my (late) ‘Auntie’ Mary Frances Johns, a Miccosukee born in the everglades in the early 1900’s, saw many families of Seminole and Miccosukee transition from “Full-blood” traditional, primarily native language speaking persons living in all Indian settlements, to the situation faced by her grandchildren, much like the children of Miccosukee Tribal Chairman Buffalo Tiger; persons of several racial/ethnic ancestries and unable to attend traditional religious green corn ceremonies due to this.
Unfortunately from my observations of many ‘federally recognized’ Indians that I share my daily life with, few want to see what is happening around them, the continuing erosion of “Indian blood” as defined through the lens of blood quantum, the loss of the few remaining identity markers that make them in anyway different from the surrounding mainstream population.
Tribal governments continually changing political/economic strategies emerge to deal with hard-to-accept social change (unfortunately for politicians and social conservatives of any ‘race’ an unending ever-changing reality), and political infighting increases as blood quantum amounts on tribal members CDIB cards continue to plunge, even as various multi-‘tribal’ ancestries increase in an individual or family, and every year more tribes switch from a ‘blood-quantum’ roll, to a descent roll.
‘Descent roll’ enrollment is a situation in which descent from an ancestor on a past roll is the requirement for current enrollment, no matter how small the blood quantum for example, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizens of 1/2000 blood quantum…I’m not kidding.
Currently the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has 300,000 enrolled members, 9 out of ten of which have blood quantum amounts in the 1/100’s or less, and who in most cases know little or nothing of the language, culture, etc. of the Cherokee…i don’t say this as a criticism, only reporting the realities i see among friends and family here in Cherokee Nation.
If I have seen anything that could put what is happening into a brief statement it is that “ISOLATION=Indian Identity (genetics, language, culture)” and that when social isolation is lost, so is most of the wide spread native traits you find in large tribal populations.
The history of Europe over the last few millennia reflects this same process of how with the end of social isolation, massive change ensues, often with the loss of previous identity markers, as any genetic and linguistic map of Europe shows, only in regions with geographical features like mountains, swamps, and islands are the remnants of the earliest Europeans found .
Social identity does not equal genetic identity though, for the process of synthesis that destroys also creates and social hybridity often chooses aspects of past identities to enshrine as “defining” features, as groups like the Lumbee, Melungeons, and other hybrid peoples show.
Though genetic research of the past decade has shown that many modern non-federally groups who identify as Indian socially have little Native American genetic ancestry, it has not slowed the struggles by many to secure federal acknowledgement by the BIA and Congressional legislation.
On the other hand, millions of Americans have a significant amount of American Indian ancestry, even as they keep this aspect of their ‘racial’ and cultural identity at arm’s length for the most part.
I am speaking about the Native American genetic heritage of the millions in America of Hispanic descent, primarily Mexican and other Latin American extraction.
Though few Academicians and NO tribal leaders want to admit it, there is more “American Indian” DNA in an east L.A. neighborhood than there is in the entirety of many of eastern Oklahoma tribes, though political realities (“Indian Sovereignty”) says that treaty obligations to tribes means that the ‘unique’ government to government relationship between tribes and the United States government means that they will still be “Indian Tribes” even when the ‘highest’ blood quantum degree in the tribe are in the 1/100’s. ( A situation faced by several tribes in Oklahoma and the Northeastern United States)
Anecdotally speaking, if you go to the ‘Indian hospital’ here in our little rural Northeast Oklahoma town, you see 95% of the people there are clearly phenotypically Caucasian in appearance ( many being enrolled members of tribes from the area like Cherokee, Delaware, Shawnee, Modoc, Peoria, Wyandotte), and are receiving free medical care, even while hundreds of thousands of southwestern United States American citizens of ‘Chicano’ ancestry are dying of diseases and health issues DIRECTLY tied to their American Indian ancestry.
For many people in Indian Country, the American Indian Movement and other organizations and personalities statements about colonialism and the like are just posturing and political hyperbole, but in many cases they are pointing our situations that haven’t yet come to the awareness of the greater Indian community.
Over the last few years ‘Direct To Consumer’ genetic ancestry testing has led to many revelations about aspects of identity that would have otherwise been unknown.
Modern genetics is another world from the rooms full of dusty records used to track the blood quantum degrees of modern Indian America, and its reality is not tied to 200 years or more of US government and Bureau of Indian Affairs ‘paper-pushing’ and supposed benevolent social control of “its tribes”, often practiced social policies bent on suppression/isolation/annihilation of Indian identity (people), and exploitation of this continents wealth to make contemporary America a world leader.
Despite Americas place as a superpower and arbitrator of affairs of nations world-wide, America’s prominence and financial success which its American Indian communities for the most part do not share in (or in many cases, like the Hopi, Mohawk, Miccosukee, and others even want to share in if it means a loss of the communal identity and life ways held preeminent by these communities.)
Even as our often neglected cousin to the south continues to be awash in blood and dysfunctional and crippling corruption directly traceable to the American hunger for drugs, Billions of dollars flow to the Middle East while the cancer of the drug trade spreads steadily.
Almost without comment the Latin American genetic heritage of the great new world civilization cradle continue to spread across the North American social landscape, a new reckoning of ‘Indian’ will emerge during this century, as most Americans ancestral heritages continue to mingle to a degree never known before.
From what I can see, a time will come in 50 years when the membership of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma will be over a million people most of whom will be of truly miniscule fractions of Cherokee or even Indian ancestry, and the general population will be of American Indian ancestry as much through ‘Latino’ ancestry as through any ‘native’ to the continental United States.
The families of many of my relatives can attest to the current realities of the impact of Latinos on the average American experience; my own, my brother, several cousins, my ex-wife, and countless friends marriages to persons of Hispanic/ Mexican ancestry right now attests to the unfolding nature of identity today.
as one of my heroes, the Cherokee Nation’s favorite son and sage Will Rogers said a century ago, “i don’t know but what I read in the papers”, and as I try to ‘read between the lines’, and this is something that is not too often reported on unless there is some money in it for somebody; Change isn’t ‘coming’ to Indian Country and America for that matter, it is here, now, and with bells on as the saying goes.
The question is who is benefitting from the changes occurring?
the new found monies flowing into tribal communities is affecting them surely, but for example, is money from the new, huge (Hard Rock) Cherokee Casino in Catoosa going to help the struggling traditionalist and stomp dancers of the nearby Kenwood and other “Cherokee full-blood” areas to preserve the social institutions (and yes, I will say it, necessary self-imposed isolation) to STAY Cherokee deep into this next century?
I am not wanting to sound judgmental of the tribal, state, or federal government, none of these governments, peoples or communities are “to blame” for the ever present and unchanging reality of social change, but as someone of Creek and Cherokee Native ancestry (among my many ancestries, like most people), i think that if the Basque, Jews, Roma, and other “old world” populations can develop cultures and identities that can ‘adapt and survive’.
I truly do hope for Americas sake that for the beautiful and culturally-vulnerable peoples and communities I have come to know and love in my life, the Euchee, Cheyenne-Arapaho, Natchez, Pottawatomi, Kickapoo, Kialegee, and, though few realize it, the Maya (yes there are many Maya in Tulsa and OKC), that the modern notions of diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism, and ‘ economic development’ are not necessarily new to Indian communities, and are not necessarily the answer to “the Indian problem” as it was once known, and that new strategies should and must be considered for the preservation of what remains of distinct native American communities.