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.

1 comment:

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.