Thursday, November 14, 2013

Prove It!

Pesticide residue carried by rainwater finds its way through the leafy canopy to the forest floor and into the groundwater where it mixes with other compounds and has disastrous affects on the earth’s biosphere. Similarly issues of Indigenous identity filter down through the culture, mixing with loss of language, poverty, struggles to continue traditional spiritual practices, and conflicts between government and educational systems colonially imposed on tribal societies that are in direct conflict with traditional belief systems. The cumulative effect of this toxic cocktail is catastrophic on individuals and tribal societies.

Ask who is Indigenous / Native American / Indian, and you will get vastly different responses depending on whom you ask. The U.S. Census Bureau, state governments, federal government, and tribal societies all have different definitions. None of these definitions define what an Indian is, they define who is eligible for certain services. They cannot begin to define, represent, or describe the historical, cultural and spiritual bonds that guide me as I walk in this life. My Indigenous identity reaches into the in-articulable parts of me. All of the others are definitions - with an agenda.

Native American / Indigenous identity is very complex.   For the purpose of the US Census anyone who claims to be an Indian is an Indian. In the 2000 Census, 2.5 million people identified themselves as American Indians, representing a 26 percent increase over the previous decade. More people self-identify as being of American Indian descent than are enrolled in federally recognized tribes or can prove decadence.  

So you’ve got this totally open concept on the census, if you claim it, name it so to speak. However in almost any other place that you might be asked that is not the case - you’ve got to “prove it.”  It’s all about having “the card.” The Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB card). If you are a traditional craftsperson you must have your card to identify your goods as Native American made. To be eligible for a certain forms of financial aid to further your education, you have to be a card carrying NDN. And only Indigenous folks of the CDIB variety, are granted permits to possess certain items of spiritual significance such as eagle feathers.  I’ll talk more about those feathers in a bit.

In order to enroll in a federally recognized tribe, you must be able to prove who you are. During the period of Indian removal beginning in 1831 extensive records were generated for the purpose of identifying Indian populations.  These records took the form of numerous Indian rolls (the Miller and Dawes Rolls for example).  “The rolls” were used for treaties, trade, land claims, allotments, removal, and many other purposes.  During this time period there were a great many Indian folk who were not willing to stand up and say, “yes, I’m an Indian!” Who can blame our ancestors for being reticent? Past interactions with the society “taking attendance,” had been marked with cruelty, inequity, deception and suspicion to say the very least.  At that time, in some jurisdictions people were arrested, convicted and incarcerated (or worse) simply for BEING Indian.  In many places self-identifying as Indian was suicidal!  It is tragically ironic that once we were asked to self-identify and were persecuted for that, to the point that people denied their own heritage to survive. Today our very identity is called into question.

While self-identification as Indian is much easier today, a person may be unable to enroll if their amount of Indian blood falls under their tribal society’s blood quantum requirements; or if the tribal society from which they descend never attained or has subsequently lost its federally recognized status. There are plenty of Indian folks walking around today who belong to “non-existent” tribal societies - according to the federal government. Although each tribal society defines its own enrollment requirements, the federal government decides what Indian nations exist and which do not. Part of the criteria for federal recognition is that there are membership criteria. Many tribes include blood quantum as one of the criteria. In this system, non-Indian is the default, and everyone is approaching non-Indianness. A family line can get more non-Indian, but not more Indian. In setting up rigid requirements for federal recognition and CDIB cards, a mechanism for defining Indians out of existence has been established.  As Indigenous people marry mixed bloods or non-Indians, blood quantum diminishes in each subsequent generation. The fewer members with adequate blood quantum, the fewer enrolled members the tribe has, when this reaches a certain point, the tribe may lose its federally recognized status.  When that happens to tribal society after tribal society, the federal government will finally be freed of an embarrassing obligation.

In exchange for nearly all of the land in what is now the United States, the U.S. Government made treaty agreements promising goods and services to different tribal societies. These goods and services included education, health care, food and annuity payments. Nearly all the goods and services were promised to continue in perpetuity.  A great many of these treaties were blatantly disregarded, but contemporary tribal societies are demanding that the federal government honour the treaty agreements and make restitution to tribal members.  If there were no federally recognized tribes, there would be no one to which such reparations need be made.

Now, lets talk about those feathers. Under the current laws only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain or possess eagle feathers. What’s the big deal about eagle feathers? First let me clarify that Indigenous people do not worship the eagle or its feathers. Eagles are honoured and considered sacred. They represent honesty, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, and freedom. Eagle flies higher and sees better than any other bird. Therefore, its perspective is different and it is considered closer to Creator. Our use of eagle feathers in ceremony is that of intention and focus – and honouring.  When we hold that feather, we take our highest spiritual self to Creator through our prayers. The way that an eagle feather is used might be compared to the use of a prayer shawl, or rosary. The eagle feather like these other items are tools for introspection, meditation and prayer. Have people seeking these other items been asked to prove their identity to obtain them? I’ll bet not.  The nature of Indigenous spirituality is that of interwovenness; one cannot separate the cultural from the spiritual.  In demanding proof of our political/cultural identity, we are being asked to prove that we are entitled to practice our traditional beliefs as well.

In Indigenous circles, the issue of tribal enrollment remains controversial.  Thousands upon thousands of people are unable to identify as a member of a federally recognized tribe for reasons such as lack of adequate documentation, low percentage of Indian blood, or political forces within their tribal government. I fall into that category.  People like me exist in a kind of parallel dimension, walking in two worlds, the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous, in a society that does not acknowledge or value who we are. I know my identity. I walk a traditional spiritual path, and honour traditional teachings… as we like to say “I walk my talk.” I am an active participant in a vibrant local Indigenous community. I do not need a piece of paper to validate my identity, particularly one that is issued by a colonially imposed system that is contradictory to traditional views of Indigenous identity. 

I DO resent, that my people, the FIRST people, are the ONLY people that when it comes to our identity… are asked to prove it.

No comments:

Post a Comment