Spain brought bloodshed—and its obsession with bloodlines—to the Americas.

Spain brought bloodshed—and its obsession with bloodlines—to the Americas.

Steve Russell’s New Book, Sequoyah Rising

This is an excerpt from Steve Russell’s book, Sequoyah Rising. If you’d like to purchase it, click here or here.

There is a dark side to tribalism and that dark side may be the end of us if we can’t control it, or if we continue the failures to cooperate that have been our historical undoing.

There is no such thing as an Indian. We who maintain tribal relations understand that even if the dominant culture does not. They have historically given us “one size fits all” Indian policy. We must recognize that while all Indians are not the same or even similar, they are similarly situated vis-à-vis the United States.

This is not “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” This is a common need for cultural preservation within the federal system where all tribes are going to share a similar legal and political status whether they like it or not. This has always been the case. Our leaders have at times dealt with it well or poorly, but it has always been the case. This sensitivity to our common—dare I use the word?—plight must guide our politics more than it has.

Tribal sovereignty, if it is to survive in American law, must be more important than historical intertribal rivalries and more important than market share. The latter has been enough to set Indian against Indian and if it doesn’t stop all sides will learn the dismal arithmetic of dividing zero by whatever number makes them happy.

Race and Tradition
As I began to write these words my tribal election season was at hand. As usual, all the candidates claimed to be “traditional.” This is a claim easy to make and hard to disprove. What is traditional? We are now over half Christian, and more of us speak English than speak Cherokee. Many of the accoutrements of contemporary identity have roots in recent times: frybread, ribbon shirts, jingle dresses, pow wows. On the other hand, some items of earlier provenance, such as blowguns and turbans, surprise some modern Cherokees. We date our first written laws from 1808. Is written law traditional? More to the point, is the current Cherokee law of citizenship, a race-based law like that of most American Indian tribes, traditional?

Sequoyha Rising book cover

Russell says concepts of “race” imperil Indians.

The whole idea of “race” is, in Columbia professor Partha Chatterjee’s phrase describing nationalism, “a derivative discourse.” It is not only derived from European colonial discourse, but it has done and continues to do harm to Indian nations on a scale similar to that of smallpox and measles. Read Chatterjee’s words below (from her book, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World) and substitute “race” for “nationalism”:

Nationalism as an ideology is irrational, narrow, hateful and destructive. It is not an authentic product of any of the non-European civilizations which, in each particular case, it claims as its classical heritage. It is wholly a European export to the rest of the world. It is also one of Europe’s most pernicious exports.

Can “race” properly be considered, like nationalism, an ideology? According to the American Anthropological Association statement on race in 1998:

[Physical] variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them. Today scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.… As they were constructing U.S. society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each “race,” linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians.… Ultimately, “race” as an ideology about human differences was subsequently spread to other areas of the world. It became a strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere.

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s famous formulation of race as “man’s most dangerous myth” dates from 1942, when Adolf Hitler was engaged in a spectacular attempt to govern a modern nation by that myth. Before World War II, Hitler expressed admiration for the U.S.’s handling of race in Mein Kampf.

Montagu was certainly aware that he was lining up against Hitler, even if he could not then know the full extent of the damage racial ideology was causing. Whatever their motivation, contemporary physical anthropologists have joined cultural anthropologists in reconfiguring the conventional wisdom on the reality of race, putting forward as truisms that “[all] humans living today belong to a single species, Homo sapiens and share a common descent.… There is great genetic diversity within all human populations. Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.” The mapping of the human genome appears unlikely to alter these statements.

Race as a European Disease

The settlement of the North American continent is just as little the consequence of any claim of right in any democratic or international sense; it was the consequence of a consciousness of right which was rooted solely in the conviction of the superiority and therefore of the right of the white race.Adolf Hitler, Speech to the Industrie-Klub of Düsseldorf, January 27, 1932

Conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny.… — Chief Justice John Marshall, Johnson v. M’Intosh, 1823

It’s easy to forget, particularly after growing up “Indian,” that Indians had no such concept of themselves before being “discovered.” Most tribes had a word for “us” and a word for “not us.” And before white people, they also had a way for “not us” to become “us.” If that were not so, we would have been more inbred than European royals by the time European royals started quarreling over which of them owned us.

Cherokees were Ani-Yun Wiya, “the Real People.” I have always assumed that we called white people yonega, white, because that is what they call themselves. I have done some asking around with other tribes, and I get “white” and “strangers” and “big knives” and, of course, the Lakota wasichu, “takes the fat,” which is not particularly complimentary but is descriptive.

Tribal people separate the world between extended family and everybody else. There was also some fluidity between outsider and insider status, and early on this was possible without regard to color. To the extent that this has changed, the change appears to be an artifact of colonialism. Spanish and Portuguese colonial societies were obsessed with color as an indicator of African or Indian blood, and that obsession lives on today in Latin America. As the Indians of America del Sur learned the importance of color from their colonizers, so my people in America del Norte were instructed by our English colonizers.

History on the popular level seldom adverts to the fact that part of the “civilizing” of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes was instruction in the institution of chattel slavery. Our oral traditions tell us that Cherokees understood slavery as a concomitant of failure in warfare, at least as a temporary status pending adoption or release; if death were the result, it would happen right away. Cherokees were first introduced to chattel slavery by the English, but the view was from the bottom—as slaves rather than slaveholders. Eventually, the English were able to convert at least well-to-do Cherokees from the Indian view of slavery to the “civilized” understanding of human beings as property.

The slave trade was well established by the middle of the 18th century among the Cherokee, a people who obviously did no raiding in Africa. This unfortunate education in racism by the English led to Cherokees lining up on both sides of the American Civil War and, just as tragically, to some Cherokees finding social significance in skin color. That tragedy continues to play out in the struggles of black Cherokees to achieve formal equality in Cherokee law.

The Cherokee were not the only Indian peoples seduced by the ideology of color prejudice. Some kind of nadir was reached in 2002 by a Lakota—if not of racism, then of shortsightedness. Author and former adjunct professor at Connecticut College Delphine Red Shirt, writing in the Hartford Courant in 2002, opined that she was offended by Connecticut’s definition of “Indian”:

Why? Because I am an Indian. I grew up Indian, look Indian, even speak Indian. So it offends me to come east and to see how “Indian” is defined in this state that I now call home.

What offends me? That on the outside (where it counts in America’s racially conscious society), Indians in Connecticut do not appear Indian. In fact, the Indians in Connecticut look more like they come from European or African stock. When I see them, whether they are Pequot, Mohegan, Paugussett, Paucatuck or Schaghticoke, I want to say, “These are not Indians.” But I’ve kept quiet.

I can’t stay quiet any longer. These are not Indians.…

There are no remnants left of the Indigenous Peoples that had proudly lived in Connecticut. What is here is all legally created. The blood is gone.

So, who are they? They are descendants, perhaps—though even that seems questionable—of the once proud people who lived in this state called “Quinecktecut.” These races have died out. Here’s how:

What if, in 1700, a Pequot married a European or African, and 30 years later their half-blood offspring married another European or African and so on? By the early 1800s, that blood would be less than 1/32 Indian. By 2002, if the pattern continued, that Indian blood would be virtually nonexistent. Yet, a person could identify herself as a descendent of that 1/32 Pequot and be considered Indian.…

Is she? I say no. (All emphases added.)

It would help to accomplish understanding, if not agreement, to put Red Shirt’s remarks in the context where they were made. A number of Connecticut tribes are seeking federal recognition, and these petitions are highly controversial because the good citizens of Connecticut fear a repetition of the success of the Mashantucket Pequot’s Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Kevin Gover, the Pawnee former assistant secretary for Indian Affairs on whose watch during the Clinton Administration some of the objects of Red Shirt’s dudgeon were recognized, replied in the pages of Indian Country Today:

As I understand her position, Connecticut Indians are not Indians because they do not look like her, do not act like her, do not speak like her, do not—well, you get the picture. (They also do not have cool names like hers, but she forgot to mention that.) Expect to see Ms. Red Shirt trotted out every time some white people want to say something ugly about Indian people but dare not do so because they would be labeled as racists.

I think we brown-skinned, black-haired Indians had better be careful about what we say about New England Indians. There are fewer and fewer full-bloods among us. If being Indian means looking a certain way, then most tribes are only two or three generations from extermination.

The New England Indians did what they had to do to survive. They intermarried and accommodated the overwhelming presence of non-Indians. Yet they persevered and maintained themselves, some of them, as distinct social, political and cultural communities. Are they the same as the Indians who greeted the English and Dutch settlers in the 17th century? Of course not. But then few if any tribes closely resemble their pre-Columbian ancestors.

My purpose is not to dispute Red Shirt who, after all, only stated her opinion. I offer her opinion as an example of the conflation of tribe with race and Indian identity with phenotype that has always been common outside of Indian tribes and is now unfortunately also becoming common within them.

Citizenship by Blood Quantum
Citizenship by blood quantum alone is a guarantee of physical extinction. Know the tribal population, the required blood quantum, birth and death rates, rate of exogamous marriage, and the date of extinction is easily calculated. This is not opinion. This is arithmetic.

The reality of blood quantum extinction has swept North America generally east to west, although the genocide of the California tribes was so spectacularly successful that most of the least touched tribal groups are west of the Mississippi but east of the Rockies. Indian policy in the United States has always been marked by differences of opinion about the proper route to the goal of extinguishing the aboriginal peoples.

The conservative position was the military option that lost political traction when the advent of photography caused the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 to be perceived as a massacre. The liberal path to extermination was less barbaric but probably had more impact. The process was directed less to physical existence and more to Indian cultural identity. For white liberals, deculturation was in our best interests, as expressed in the dictum “kill the Indian in him to save the man.”

Separating Indian children from their heritage was done with the best of intentions. Whatever the stated motive, the results were the same from the reservation years until 1933: traditional religious ceremonies banned, Indian boys forced to cut their hair, Indian adults “converted” to Christianity by withholding rations, Indian children kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where Indian languages were banned, Indian adults forbidden to criticize the government and required to obtain passports to travel from one concentration camp, I mean reservation, to another. Language rebounds with difficulty, but more easily than religion, which rebounds more easily than clan organization. Some aspects of culture are simply gone.

U.S. deculturation policies also benefited from the Indian policies of other colonial powers. The Spanish got started earlier than the English on the task of destroying Indian culture. By the time the United States took what is now the Southwest from Mexico by dictating the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago (1848), most inhabitants of the area—Indian by blood with an admixture of African and Spanish—were generations removed from being punished by the Spanish for speaking Indian languages in school, so they were ready to have their children punished by the Anglos for speaking Spanish in school. And if that were not enough irony, the United States subsequently adopted an ahistorical and nonsensical identity called “Hispanic” that placed the Indians and their former Spanish oppressors in the same census category! Census categories have changed, but the disappearance of Indians in Hispanic America remains.

From the perspective of Indians in the United States, we see two waves of Europeanization: the Spanish wave sweeping north from Mexico and the English wave sweeping east to west across North America, converging in a demographic splash that is bound to get us all wet at some point. Blood quantum finds a legal role in these changes in a connection to the one aspect of colonization that is as important from the colonial perspective as causing Indians to disappear: the mechanisms for separating Indians from their land. The ground was laid innocently enough with Chief Justice John Marshall’s “domestic, dependent nations” formulation in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), a legal coup that has been compared to his magical creation of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison (1803), in that both (in the words of Jill Nordgren) “extricated the court from the rough seas of politics with procedural sleight of hand.” It is important that we are “nations” so we cede land in treaties only lightly dipped in the blood of conquest, “domestic” so that when we disappear our land titles escheat to the United States, and “dependent” so the United States can choose the time and manner of the disappearance.

The first stage of disappearance was the idea of “reservations.” The lethal idea of blood quantum entered federal Indian policy if not federal Indian law with the implementation of the General Allotment Act in 1887.

Paul Spruhan, a law clerk for the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, has produced an exhaustive legal history of blood quantum that traces its origins from the simple idea of ancestry as understood in laws of descent and distribution. As race theory established itself in law as a vehicle to disadvantage blacks and Indians, blood quantum became a method of identifying persons to be disadvantaged. By the 19th century, one-eighth black blood was enough to keep the phenotypically white Homer Plessy from sitting where he pleased on public transportation. “Blood quantum became an important method of defining Indian and tribal membership only in the early 20th century,” said Spruhan. Oddly enough, blood quantum appeared in Indian rolls (typically taken by agents of the U.S. government) before it appeared in law books.

By the time the Curtis Act of 1898 extended allotment to the so-called Five Civilized Tribes for the purpose of converting land tenure from tribal to individual in anticipation of turning Indian Territory into the State of Oklahoma, blood quantum was being collected by the Dawes Commission based upon prior rolls, sworn testimony, and by eyeballing the applicants.

Of course, there was resistance to allotment. In addition to the litigation that culminated in the leading treaty abrogation case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903), there was the “Snake Uprising” led by Chitto Harjo among the Muscogee (Creek), and there was both lobbying and active resistance led by Redbird Smith among the Cherokee. According to my middle school Oklahoma history text, it took U.S. Marshals and cavalry to enforce Creek and Cherokee allotment.

In a 1906 act purporting to finally wind up the affairs of the Five Civilized Tribes, Congress restricted the alienation of allotments by “full-bloods” and made other references to citizenship by blood in connection with “intermarried whites” and “freedmen.” Then the Burke Act of 1906 opened a big hole in the General Allotment Act’s protective restrictions on alienation by providing…”the Secretary of the Interior may, in his discretion, and he is hereby authorized, whenever he shall be satisfied that any Indian allottee is competent and capable of managing his or her own affairs, at any time cause to be issued to such allottee a patent in fee simple, and thereafter all restrictions as to sale, incumbrance, or taxation of said land shall be removed.… ”

Between 1917 and 1920, blood quantum was taken by the Secretary “in his discretion” as a proxy for competency.
When descendents of people victimized by the Secretary’s discretion finally got to court in 1985, Chief Judge Donald J. Porter observed that “[abuses] were rampant.… ” However, he found no remedy for the abuses in the law. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals repeated Judge Porter’s observation but still found no remedy. The Supreme Court denied certiorari without comment.

With blood quantum determining substantive rights during allotment, rights that were the only advantage to being perceived as Indian by the dominant culture, blood quantum as a determinant of citizenship was not a great leap.

Blood quantum as a determinant of citizenship might have been new to most Indians, but exogamy was not. As the Cherokee demographer Russell Thornton has pointed out, during early colonial times, the colonizers had a surplus of men while the colonized peoples often had a shortage of men. Intermarriage started soon after the first contact with Europeans and continues apace to this day, with a majority of Indians choosing exogamous marriages. The collective result of these individual choices is an inevitable decline in blood quantum.

University of Colorado professor Deward Walker produced a demographic study for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation that illustrates the trap of blood quantum. In connection with a referendum on changing citizenship requirements, the Tribal Council requested demographic projections based upon three scenarios: (1) changing enrollment to allow all lineal descendants of current citizens to enroll, (2) changing the blood quantum requirement to one fourth from any tribe for the descendants of current citizens, or (3) maintaining the current blood quantum requirement of one fourth Salish or Kootenai blood.
Using the current standard of one fourth Salish or Kootenai blood quantum, Walker found “the only possible projection is one of decrease.” Enrollment in the base year of 1999 was 6,953. The new enrollment and death rates converged in 2002 (65 new enrollments and 63 deaths) and the slide from zero population growth to population loss leads to a projected population of 6,400 in 2020.

Altering the blood quantum requirement to include all Indian blood in descendants of current citizens results in a short term spike up to 7,700 in 2010 followed by a steady decline thereafter.

The lineal descent from current citizens scenario naturally results in an exponential growth of the population eligible for enrollment. The number of eligible persons is projected at 21,524 in 2020 and the long-term trend continues upward. This raises a different set of questions. How many of those eligible would choose to enroll and why? Put another way, is there a reason rooted in tribal identity to choose between physical extinction and cultural extinction?

Citizenship by Direct Descent
Citizenship by direct descent alone is a guarantee of cultural extinction. In what sense is someone who has the blood but no knowledge of language, religion, or culture Indian? Answer: in a racist sense. What do you preserve when you define such people as Indian? Answer: racial privilege. My own nation has taken that path, even as the U.S. Supreme Court has adopted the position that inclusion by ancestry is exclusion by race.

The first reported intermarriage between my people and the colonists was in 1690. “White Cherokees” were numerous by 1810, and it was the one-eighth Cherokee great-grandson of a Scots trader, Chief John Ross, who led the tribe during its tragic confrontation with Euro-American greed that culminated with the death of thousands on the Trail of Tears.

The race/ethnicity/phenotype issue is further complicated by Cherokee intermarriage with blacks and with other tribes of Indians. In addition, a number of ethnically African-American freedmen were enrolled as tribal members after the Civil War ended chattel slavery. Even in the early 19th century, William McLoughlin wrote in Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic “it was difficult to define who was a Cherokee.… [The] Cherokee Nation, like the United States, was multiracial. There were different kinds of Indians living among them—Catawba, Creek, Uchee, Osage; various Europeans—British, Spanish, French, American; and there was a growing body of Africans (some freedmen, some slaves).”

The final rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes contained 101,506 names, of which 26,774 were allegedly full-bloods. “Allegedly” because the full-bloods were overstated by the matrilineality of earlier generations of Cherokees and because the full-bloods were understated by the policy of counting mixed tribal descent as mixed blood. To the extent the Dawes Commission was searching for pure Indians at the turn of the 20th century, that search was futile. The final rolls also contained about three percent adopted whites and 23 percent African American freedmen. This admixture demonstrates the absurdity of “race” as a determinant of Indian identity at that time. Subsequent events have rendered it even more absurd, primary among them the diaspora caused by federal relocation policies applied to reservation tribes and the continued exogamy that leads my nation to claim citizens of 1/2,048 blood (11 generations from a full-blood Cherokee) who do not live in Cherokee communities.

These citizens are Cherokee in a racist sense. I do not mean “racist” as a bloody red shirt, or as an all-purpose pejorative. I mean a logical corollary of the same idea of blood and culture that caused Hitler to understand Jews as a race. Everywhere we find race theory in its short, violent history, it is traveling in disreputable company. Tribal governments are unlikely to have better luck building on this foundation of sand and blood than the colonial governments have, and therefore might want to reexamine the idea of blood in any amount as an infallible proxy for culture.

Citizenship by Culture
A sovereign nation determines who qualifies for citizenship. If Indian tribes are indeed sovereign nations, nobody outside of an Indian tribe has any right to determine citizenship in that tribe. UCLA law professor Carole Goldberg has stated the most important question for those exercising tribal power when she asks, “if Indian nations want citizenship requirements to serve a particular set of values and purposes within their community, what kinds of citizenship provisions will most effectively achieve those ends?”

The community identifies individuals who by their actions constitute and define the community. This is why Goldberg’s question is so useful. She allows for the possibility that the values and purposes the community might wish to preserve are entirely esoteric, completely internal. In that case, the reactions of federal or state governments are of little, if any, relevance.

To complete the colonization process, to turn Indian governments into nothing more than social clubs, it is necessary to slip past Indian sovereignty in the courtroom and to portray Indian identity as naked race privilege in the public eye. Historically, whiteness has been the valuable commodity, and law has erected barriers to protect that property. In the case of American Indians, it is Indian racial status rather than white racial status that is thought to confer value.

While I would hesitate to liken it to property, tribal governments have the task of erecting legal barriers to the dilution of distinct cultures. All culture is learned. No exceptions. Language, religion, customs—all are learned. Leaving aside that the idea of inherited behavior is nonsense, it is dangerous because it leads to the conflation of Indian blood with Indian citizenship. It makes a “racial” classification out of a political classification.

In the court of public opinion, the rhetoric of race privilege is being deployed by Upstate Citizens for Equality in New York, Citizens Equal Rights Alliance in Montana, One Nation United in Oklahoma, United Property Owners in Washington, Protect Americans’ Rights and Resources in Wisconsin, and of course the white citizens of Hawaii who are united to prevent any re-recognition of the Native Hawaiian sovereignty. All of these groups have in common active hostility to all laws and policies that help indigenous people avoid the “melting pot,” and they have all found that framing the sovereignty issue as race discrimination resonates with the public. While public opinion matters not a whit to the esoteric, familial aspects of Indian identity, it matters greatly to anything tribes expect from federal or state governments as tribes. It is therefore in the best interests of tribal governments to devalue the currency of racial privilege discourse.

Culture tests for citizenship, as Goldberg points out, would be terribly complicated to administer in a fair manner. The United States manages to require a degree of cultural literacy for naturalization, and the problem for most tribal governments is how to add new citizens rather than how to revoke citizenships. It is not unreasonable to require applicants for naturalization to know the people to whom they wish to be relatives. For tribes with a land base, residence may be an issue because lack of physical presence interferes with one’s ability to partake in ceremonial life. On the other hand, absentee citizens may constitute a tax base that cannot otherwise exist given the economic circumstances in much of Indian country. As part of the social reality of solidary over material incentives for tribal participation, we absentees should ask not what our tribes can do for us but rather what we can do for our tribes.

Some believe that cultural literacy should trump other values. Certainly, it is hard to picture a citizenship that does not include some awareness of the social contract of which one is a part, whether or not that awareness can be termed “literacy.” For Indian tribes, many of which have lost the advantage of a fluent population or have lost their language entirely, some broader concept of cultural literacy is still important.

Nationhood or Peoplehood?
Today, we call ourselves the “Cherokee Nation” because our semi-autonomous towns needed to be a nation to deal with the Westphalian nation-states in the midst of power struggles that originated in Europe. The Spanish, the French, the British and the United States were all nations and so our governmental structure had to change.

The inhabitants of the Americas had governments before the European Invasion. At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, we have the ruins of a five-story building and archeological evidence of a vast trade network before European contact. There is evidence from archeology and from oral tradition of cities founded on agricultural surplus in the Mississippi Valley and along the St. Lawrence in addition to the better known empires of Central and South America, of road building, of trading relationships that spanned both American continents.

Indians had governments ranging from hereditary monarchies to representative democracies to “Athenian” democracies, but the Europeans were looking for kings. It is unclear whether Indians recognized fixed geographical borders in the same sense as they have defined the nation-state at least since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Of course, Europeans were just developing the idea themselves, and from an Indian perspective it is as peculiar an idea of political geography as the one that enables a king in Europe to claim the entire Mississippi watershed because one of his subjects dipped a toe in the Big Muddy.

These days we are most likely entering a phase of history where the puissance of the nation-state as the primary model of social organization is being supplanted in many respects by the transnational corporation. Nation-states themselves struggle to maintain Westphalian sovereignty, and sub-national entities are pulled along in the propwash. If this analysis is correct, then tribal governments become, like states and provinces, sub-national polities with legitimate demands for self-government. The problem is transnational in scope; the battle is over which matters are appropriate to be governed at which level, and sovereignty can no longer be conceived as absolute discretion upon a discrete piece of real estate.

University of Arizona professor Tom Holm and his colleagues offer an analysis of Indian studies as an academic discipline that might inform debate on Carole Goldberg’s question regarding the “values and purposes” to be served by tribal citizenship criteria. They postulate a “peoplehood matrix” consisting of “four fundamental elements” “a sacred history; a well defined territory and environment; a distinct language; and a characteristic ceremonial cycle.” Most surviving American Indian tribes share these elements to some degree, and we all had them at one time.

It is of course true that our histories, languages, and ceremonial cycles have been forcibly suppressed. It is also true that many of us have been removed from our well-defined territory and environment at gunpoint. Most of these governmental attempts to destroy Indian peoplehood are horrors we have in common (ironically in light of current events) with both Jews and Palestinians, in addition to tribal peoples of Rwanda and various ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia.

Neither public nor academic discourse cast human beings away from the peoplehood fire as punishment for lack of power to resist ethnic cleansing. In fact, we have witnessed since World War II the growth of an international civil society that has taken legal actions against ethnic cleansing of Jews by Germany, Chinese by Japan, and the modern atrocities in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone. The international community has even, over the objections of the United States, created a permanent forum to try crimes of the sort that American Indians have endured. Viewed from the world stage, the peoplehood paradigm represents history, aspiration, and a petition for redress of grievances. It also avoids the trap of race discourse as Tom Holm, J. Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis wrote in the Wicazo Sa Review:

The concept of peoplehood adds a new dimension to political thought concerning disenfranchised or colonized Native American groups. The concept goes beyond the notion of race and even nationality. Historically Native American peoples adopted captives of several races. Adoption meant that the captive, regardless of race, became a member of a kin-group. His or her new relatives were obligated to assimilate the new family member in terms of the four aspects of peoplehood. Race, to Native Americans, was not a factor of group identity or peoplehood.

Nations—which are primarily viewed as the territorial limits of states that encompass a number of communities—do not necessarily constitute a “people” nor do they have the permanency of peoplehood.

The “permanency of peoplehood” has a positive ring to it, and it accounts for the social reality of American Indians imagining their communities on the spiritual level before they have the secular power to make demands on the political system, a process of nation rebuilding.

My contemporary social reality carries a responsibility shouldered in part when I sent in my absentee ballot for my tribal elections and the time to grill the people who were campaigning to represent me about the meaning of “traditional” passed for another election year. However, the question is not going to go away, and the answers generated within tribal governments will determine, for better or for worse, the permanency of our peoplehood on the global map.

Where we live together, of course, that is not the whole story. The U.S. Supreme Court, speaking of the importance of religion in mainstream society in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (1963), located it in “…the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel.” Tribal identity is similar but not identical. Tribal identity is located not in individuals but in a people, and it will never be within the power of the U.S. government to invade that citadel. Therein lies the awesome responsibility of tribal governments: peoplehood can’t be taken from us, but we can surrender it in exchange for an imagined race or an illusory nation.

From SEQUOYAH RISING: Problems in Post-Colonial Tribal Governance by Steve Russell, copyright 2010 by Steve Russell. Reprinted by permission of Carolina Academic Press. Interested readers can buy the book online at a discount at:

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