Of all myths associated with American Indians no myth is as pervasive as the myth of the vanishing Indian. We are all familiar with many of the other myths that were invented over the last 500 years and thanks to the work of Native activists, writers, intellectuals, and their allies we have begun to dismantle some of them in meaningful ways.
Take for example the myth of Columbus as the discoverer of America. Campaigns over the last couple of decades in the United States have led to changes at the level of local and state governments to repudiate the veneration of Columbus as a hero and instead recognize indigenous peoples on October 12. Despite the fact that it is still a national holiday it seems entirely possible that the day will come when it will be no longer.
In another example, with each passing year we see more and more media coverage on the mythic nature of the conventional Thanksgiving narrative. Not all Americans may understand the nuances of what makes this story largely a myth, but with each passing year there seems to be a growing sense in the general public that there is little truth to the story they grew up with.
The vanishing Indian myth, on the other hand, is far more intractable because it has so many different manifestations. The reason for this is because of the inherent nature of the settler state, which is to eliminate the Native. This it does in a huge variety of ways, and because it is woven throughout the social fabric of the settler state it is well concealed.
Even before the United States was created European immigrants counted on the disappearance of the indigenous population because they wanted the land, and so they narrated the reality they wanted to see as soon as they got here. It’s recognizable through every era of post-contact North America and has been written into every aspect of American history. First Indians were disappearing due to mass epidemics. Then they were disappearing through slavery. They were disappearing by being pushed out of their territories. They were disappearing through massacres and other acts of violence.
By the end of the nineteenth century when the vanishing Native myth reached its crescendo and most Indians had been contained on reservations, disappearance took the form of culturecide by assimilation. Thanks to the boarding school system which killed the Indian but saved the man, Indians throughout the twentieth century were disappearing through trauma and identity murder. Trauma—from shame induced by the boarding schools, for example—caused many Native people to deny their heritage in order to survive racism, contributing to what I call identity murder.
Identity murder is one of the most common (and insidious) modes of Native disappearance today. It takes many forms within American culture, and is always based on definitions of the “real” Indian. Real Indians dress like Indians. Real Indians live on reservations. Real Indians have reservations. Real Indians are full blood. Real Indians are at least half blood. Real Indians are enrolled. Real Indians know their language. Real Indians practice their ceremonies. Real Indians have dark skin and long black hair.
The list goes on, and it isn’t based on any sense of logic.
These impossible criteria are markers of authenticity and those who fail to meet them are deemed inauthentic, either in the minds of individuals or in governmental institutions. They are effectively eliminated as Natives.
Blood quantum is perhaps the biggest determinant of Indian authenticity, but even those who are full blood can be deemed not real based on some stereotypes or legal definitions of what real Indians are. All Indians are subject to being judged for their authenticity, and even despite high blood quantum or enrolled status they can be deemed inauthentic simply by virtue of the fact that they live in the modern world.
Because after all, the real Indians were the ones who dressed in buckskins and hunted buffalo and deer for their living, and didn’t speak English. And they’ve been gone a long time.
Non-natives, whether they know it or not, are conditioned to determine the authenticity of Native people whenever they encounter them, especially those that live in places where Indians are highly invisible, like large cities or in states with low Native populations. Because they have been indoctrinated with the idea of the vanishing Native their whole lives, the assumption that there is no such thing as real Natives anymore is like a software program constantly running in the background. So when they meet someone who claims to be Native, the unconscious impulse is to automatically determine the truth of the claim.
They do this by asking how much Indian blood you have. And depending on your physical characteristics, they’ll either say that “you look it,” or that “gee, I don’t see it.” Your authenticity as a Native person is thus based on your appearance, not on who you actually are.
For you non-Native readers, keep this in mind. Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions. When you demand to know how much “Indian blood” someone has, whether you realize it or not you are presuming the untruth of their identity claims, which is why the question can be so offensive. But most Native people don’t mind talking about who they are, so instead ask what Native nation they are from. That opens the door for a broader dialogue without subtly accusing them of a fake identity.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.