April 03, 2007

"Indian" is cultural, not biological

Cheyfitz:  The case of the Cherokee freedmenPrior to the decision in Rogers, the category of “biology,” which began to take shape in Western thought around 1820 with the emergence of the term itself, was not a part of traditional Native thought; nor for that matter was the term “Indian,” a colonial bureaucratic homogenization of thousands of diverse cultures in the Americas. Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller sums up the situation of Cherokee identity prior to Rogers, maintaining “that the influence of the United States government in the area of identifying Indians by degrees of native blood had not yet had its effect on our tribe. To the Cherokee mind at the time, one's identity as a Cherokee depended solely on clan affiliation” in a system of matrilineal clans.

Thus, prior to the colonial imposition of the U.S. government, Cherokee identity--and this was true of all the Native communities in what would become the United States--was grounded in a cultural, not a biological, construction of identity. And as the historical record attests, this cultural construction of identity allowed indigenous communities to adopt outsiders into their social networks. No doubt inadvertently, Smith himself defined Indians as “the indigenous and aboriginal people of this land and there is a commonality of history, language, heritage and culture.” All of these commonalities are possible without any “blood” bonding being part of the equation.


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
If Chad Smith were an elected 'chief' of every Native tribe still in existence in 2007, his words in defense of his own actions indeed might have import for all of those tribes. But that is not the case; he speaks for his own tribe and that is all. To take as absolute the words of one single elected official means that one governor, representative, or senator also speaks for the entire nation, the United States. That the latter is not true means the former about Cherokee chief Chad Smith cannot be held to be true, either. He speaks for the Cherokee, just as Prime Minister Blair speaks for the UK, or Cherat speaks for France, or Putin speaks for the ASSR. Plus, if there was no biological reason to claim Native ancestry, then why would there be individual and separate Native nations genetically identifiable at all? Some bureaucrat long before now could have proclaimed, 'They're all Indians and that's how they shall be treated'. This did not happen, and it now will never happen, except in the minds of those who conclude that the fates and purposes of such people are not their to command. The white man is a mongrel, having either destroyed or absorbed all others who found themselves resistant in his path of conquest. Thus, anyone who stood in his way and survived his passage is an embarrassment to his mind. And so they even further must be reduced beyond genocide and assimilation into insignificance, or he may have lessened his chances to claim that he controls the entire world...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Re "if there was no biological reason to claim Native ancestry, then why would there be individual and separate Native nations genetically identifiable at all?" I don't think DNA testing is precise enough to tell members of one tribe from members of another. That may explain why tribes tend to identify themselves by common histories, cultures, and languages more than common "blood." And why they admitted non-Natives (whites, blacks) in the past and made them full-fledged Indians.