Sequoyah Rising

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 3, 2011

Steve Russell’s New Book, Sequoyah Rising

By Steve Russell July 27, 2011

Death of New World natives during the Spanish conquest
Spain brought bloodshed—and its obsession with bloodlines—to the Americas.

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?

LO RES FEA photo PEOPLEHOOD 01. Sequoya Rising book cover HI RES 270x422 Steve Russell’s New Book, <em>Sequoyah Rising</em>

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.)


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