I have probably mentioned this on the blog before, but a Chumash Elder with whom I was acquainted* back in Santa Barbara used to like asking "What's the biggest tribe in North America?" When you asked him the answer, he'd respond with "the Wannabe tribe!"
I was reminded of this yesterday, as I drove with the Native American monitor on my current project. As we moved from one site to another, we discussed all manner of things, one of which was the weird notions that many non-Native people have about how Native Americans live and how they are as people. She told me about how, as a teenager, a church located in her town arranged for people from her community to go live with people in San Francisco, as a sort of cultural exchange. Based on what she told me, it sounds as if she has generally good memories of the experience, but she told me about a weird set of conversations that she had with the host family, in which they were convinced that she lived in a ti-pi, hunted for food, etc., and had a hard time grasping that she lived in a normal house, had electricity, went to the grocery store, etc. The impression that these folks had, and keep in mind that this was the late 60s, a time when the vast majority of Native Americans lived in houses, had electricity, lived in towns, etc., was that the native peoples of the Americas were "wild" and "free", a romantic (and mistaken, and in some ways dehumanizing) belief, but a pervasive one.
Her story made me think of how some people react when they hear about my own ancestry. My grandmother on my mother's side was Cherokee/Choctaw, which means that my mother was half-native, and I am one-quarter, if we go by genetics. But, and here's the important thing, my mother and I were both raised in urban areas of Stanislaus County, California. We are both blond, we both have fair skin, and her eyes are blue while mine are green. We were never treated as being anything other than white, and neither Cherokee nor Choctaw culture were part of our upbringing - I only know about them because of my training in anthropology, which is essentially an outsider's perspective. While we might be considered Native American or partially so due to our ancestry, the fact of the matter is that we are for all practical purposes Caucasian. Whatever my ancestry, I am no more Cherokee or Choctaw than I am German, Irish, Scottish, or Swedish.
It has always struck me as curious, and more than a bit annoying, when people who are, like me, essentially just American white mutts discover that they have some Native American ancestry (or, as I suspect is often the case, invent Native American ancestry for themselves) and from there begin to claim some sort of bizarre "birthright" based on what are essentially racist notions of the wild, free, mystically-tied-to-nature "Native American." Now, don't misunderstand me, I see no problem with people becoming interested in the actual cultures of other people, regardless of whether this is out of simple curiosity or out of a discovery of their own genetic ancestry (certainly, I wouldn't be in my own line of work if I didn't support such things), but that is not typically what happens. More often, people find out that they have Native American ancestry, and from there decide that this means that they have some sort of magical tie to a non-existent people (the Native Americans of myth rather than reality) and that they are somehow more tied in to some sort of quasi-divine notion of nature. Most of these folks have little to no knowledge of the actual culture that they claim membership in, and often lump all Native Americans in to one monolithic whole - a tendency which demonstrates the depth of the ignorance of such individuals- and it is a monolithic whole that owes more to a combination of Westerns and New Age nonsense than to actual history. It's culture porn in it's purest form.
When I discuss this with people, they often say something along the lines of "hey, at least they're looking to the Native Americans with respect, which has got to be an improvement over the racism of the past!" Perhaps, but it is still not a good thing. Eve Darian-smith, in her book The New Capitalists, describes how the notion of the spiritual/natural mystic Indian held by many of the Wannabe tribe, and held by many people who aren't Wannabe members but are sympathetic to them, has been used by those who oppose entry of actual tribal organization into businesses - the basic idea being that people are comfortable with "natural" Indians, but don't think that they should be involved with such trappings of the modern world as business, science, etc.** This thinking can even impact individuals outside of tribal organizations, who often report that they have a hard time being taken seriously by colleagues who see them as an emblem of some sort of magical culture rather than as the individuals and professionals that they actually are.
Darian-Smith is Australian, and from what she has told me, similar problems face the Aborigines of Australia, and I suspect that this is not uncommon in other parts of the world.
So, yeah, it's probably an improvement that most non-natives now see these people as something other than a problem to be solved (as was the case for most of the 19th and even a chunk of the 20th centuries), but the conversion into divine nature-heroes probably isn't particularly helpful. And when it becomes difficult to determine who really is, and who isn't, a member of the groups because so many people claim a culture that they don't actually have any experience with, well, it becomes more of a problem.
*It's a funny thing, I come into contact with these people because of my job, and so when I say that I know a Chumash Elder, that's not bragging or an attempt to show off my multi-cultural ties to mysticism or any other such bullshit, it's pretty much the same as a construction worker saying that he knows a safety inspector. However, as described in this entry, we have so dehumanized the native peoples of tha Americas, first by demonizing them and now by making them into inhuman avatars for a nature-based mysticism, that to say that I know an elder sounds like I am claiming some sort of claims to being close to divine power.
**All of this despite the fact that there are many successful professionals from the myriad of Native American groups.