June 28, 2015

Vague ancestors aren't a free pass

Sherman Alexie offered a great quote on Indian wannabes. It was partly a response to the Rachel Dolezal controversy swirling in the air:

Blow-Your-Mind Quotes On Race By Sherman Alexie And Tonya MosleyAfter this, one of you white people is going to come up to me, and you're going to say, "My great-grandmother was something." You're going to say it to me. Even though I am pre-mocking you. You are so deaf to your own privilege that you're not even hearing me right now saying this to you.

I have Scottish ancestors. I would never go to Scotland, walk up to somebody Scottish and say you know what, you and I have a lot in common.
Someone asked what she should do if she really was part-Native--1/8th, 1/16th or whatever--and wanted to join in. Couldn't she go up to Alexie then?

My response:

First I'd document your Native ancestry so people couldn't question it. And I wouldn't lead with it in a conversation. Sherman Alexie doesn't need to know your ancestry to acknowledge you.

In my case, I have no Native ancestry. I don't ask or expect people to accept me because I have a Native great-grandma somewhere. Rather, I demonstrate my awareness of Native history and culture through my writings and postings. Then people can accept me or not as they choose.

I'd say the people who start off talking about their great-grandmas are just trying to get approval or attention. Problem is, they haven't earned a place at the "Native table."

They should listen, study, and learn about Natives first. Then people like Alexie will acknowledge them--because they've earned it.

Someone else had a similar response:Alexie does not need to give cookies to people who trot out their family myths to him, who primarily identify and live as non-Indigenous.

A vague ancestor does not confer being Native on a person. Why are folks not embracing OR redeeming their mostly white ancestors? I have a Scandivanian ancestor, whose last name I hold, but I do not run around claiming to be a Viking. That is not my experience. Being Native is not a costume one can put on when it's convenient. Don't be co-opting Native identity while you divorce yourself from our struggle.
More on the subject

Then I tweeted this comment:

A Cherokee ancestor isn't a free pass to a secret society of Natives. Your beliefs and actions are what gain you admittance, not your blood.

Followed by:

A Native great-grandma is one of dozens of ways you can start a conversation about becoming a Native ally. Like a white person who grew up on a rez. Or Richard Nixon's playing for a Native football coach. Or my doing Native comic books.

Then you can spend a decade or so looking, listening, and learning. And then you may be qualified to join a conversation on Native issues.

But no, your possibly mythical ancestor doesn't let you bypass all the work and become an instant Native. If Johnny Depp and Elizabeth Warren didn't get a free pass, neither do you.

So don't trot out your legendary great-grandma and expect to join the club. Nobody wants you because of a relative who may or may not exist.

Some related thoughts:

Fake Black Folks, Fake Indians, and Allies: The Native Roots of the Rachel Dolezal Saga

For more on Rachel Dolezal, see Rachel Dolezal = Indian Wannabe and Churchill, Depp, Warren, and Dolezal.

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