Being a black Indian at a Chickahominy pow wow
By Shonda Buchanan
“Didn’t you see our signs?”
“Where I come from,” I touched my heart in earnest, “everyone can dance during intertribal.”
“No,” he said. “You cannot.”
“Who are your council people?” I said. I could feel my chest tightening, and the tears came. “What are your names?” They said their names but in the heat and frustration, their names fell away.
“We are the council,” Tall Dark Sunglasses Yellow Skin said. “He’s on the council. I’m on the council. These are just our rules.”
“But those rules were set up by a white government that wanted to count and classify Indians. You’re holding me to the same standard?”
“This is what we do because the government tells us to,” Dark Sunglasses said.
“Wait.” I said. “You’re saying the government is here counting the Indians dancing in that circle?”
“Look,” Mr. Gruff Brown Skin said. “Everyone in that circle has registered and has their cards.”
None of my friends had tribal enrollment cards either. Were these Virginia Indians racist? Was I carded because I was the most visibly black, despite being adorned in a buckskin dress?
I felt my heart moving up into my mouth, swallowing the feeling that women from the tribe should have approached me, not men. Yet to be fair, I saw these council members’ point. I understand how this could be as frustrating for them as it was for me, an unknown woman who didn’t register as a dancer in their circle. Their fight to maintain their Indianness, to them, is on one level a way of protecting their heritage and culture, but on another level, it is highly exclusionary of those who are Indian without cards: black, white, Mexican.
Those who are close to our Creator never behave that way. It says a lot about them.
PlainsNative said yesterday at 4:29 AM
Why is this Chickahominy tribe on the east coast having a powwow anyway? If they are so traditional they should really ban these powwows from their area and go back to whatever it is their ancestors used to do in the first place. I bet these guys have sweat lodges and are probably trying to get a sundance going and they probably think this makes them traditional. It doesn't. It makes them misguided and foolish.
risingsun-phillips said yesterday at 11:32 PM
I've lived on the East Coast for 27 years. When I first came here there were hardly any Native Americans. Now everywhere I look there are Natives or "Natives" trying to prove their "indian-ness" to the government. Yes a lot of them have a "verbal" history but no documentation. I was always told if they look black then they are black. In order to be recognized as a Native American you have to be able to prove your affiliation with a federally recognized tribe. I am a "card carrying" Native American and very proud to be one. If you can not prove your blood line, then sorry you will not be accepted as an Indian. That is just the way it is and it will probably stay that way. Get over it, and accept your own ethnic background. The African American heritage is just as rich with history, and traditions. Be glad of who you are, quit trying to take something that is not yours to take.
Quite One said yesterday at 8:01 PM
Welcome to the politics of the powwow arena. A lot of powwows are requesting for verification with enrollment cards. Why? Perhaps to keep out the “hobbyists,” the born again NDNs, wannabe NDNs, the white skinned NDNs, black skinned NDNs, and the NDNs of Latin America, out of the powwow arena. Stick to your own tribal culture, stomp dances and green corn ceremonies.
Winnebago Indian said yesterday at 7:59 PM
The Sioux people have a saying: "Mitakouye Oyasin. All my relatives. I would never prevent you from participating. We are all related.
Kish Beh said yesterday at 7:33 PM
Oh yes I am tired of the "I'm more NDN than you" BS. I have to say that I am two tribes and adopted into a third. My daughter is of three tribes and cannot "register" for none of them. Not even blood to declare for any. We are proud of our ancestry. We can trace my family and have photos. It is not right to deny a proud Native American. Whether or not they are mixed.
you find trouble if you look for it said yesterday at 7:16 PM
If you read the rules of the "powwow" they clearly state dancers must have a tribal ID. I would think since the author has a PhD in English she would be fully aware of the implications of her dancing without providing a tribal ID and was just trying to start trouble. The organizers of the powwow seem to be a rogue group of Indians that must have an issue with non tribal members coming to powwows. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the author being black but her not following the rules. Both sides seem to have some identity issues.
Lupa said yesterday at 5:27 PM
Yeah, all that's well and good but are those claiming NDN blood willing to go to a reservation and experience the results of white genocidal policies. Usually, these Johnny come latelys are not willing to fight for treaty rights, nor help with historical trauma that results in the most important issues as domestic violence, substance abuse, the overwhelming poverty and unemployment that is part of reservation life. They don't seem to want to know that part of being NDN, or do much of anything else that goes beyond vague, sentimental ideas of being NDN and just play dress up.
Irony department: The Chickahominy may have CDIB cards proving their Indian blood--which is what we mean by registration. But they're not federally recognized, although they're trying to earn that status. Another tribe could hold a powwow allowing only enrolled Indians of federally recognized tribes. That would leave the Chickahominy out.
Of course, the Chickahominy shouldn't have singled her out because of her black skin. That's called racial profiling. If you're going to insist on cards, check everyone's card, not just the people who don't look "Indian."
The main issue
On to the main issue: whether to let Buchanan in. Buchanan may say she understands the tribe's position, but it's not clear that she really does. Alas, I'll have to side with the Chickahominy over her on this point.
I think Quite One and Lupa have the best arguments. Would any tribe accept me if I walked in and said my great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess? Then why should they accept Buchanan? Because she's more sincere than I am? Not a good basis to make decisions on.
Buchanan says she's assistant professor in the Department of English at Hampton University, of North Carolina and Mississippi Choctaw Indian ancestry. Okay, so go live and work with those Indians for a decade or two. Prove your interest in their lives and lifestyles. Then humbly ask if you can participate in an intertribal dance without a card and someone may say yes.
That's roughly what Tony Hillerman did before writing his Leaphorn/Chee mysteries. He proved his interest in his Navajo neighbors and earned their respect over time. He didn't just start writing about Indians because he felt it in his blood or whatever.
PlainsNative's statement about the Chickahominy applies to Buchanan too. If you feel the need to participate in a vision quest, sweat lodge, or powwow, what does that say about you? That you don't belong unless you look and act like a stereotypical Indian? I know many Indians who (probably) haven't been within miles of these "Indian" things, but they don't doubt their identity. They don't feel the need to dance to prove themselves.
For more on the subject, see my postings on black Indians and identity.