The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, June 11, 2012

Native American Ancestry, or Lack Thereof

First off - I will be away in the field for the next week, and therefore I probably won't have any site updates unless I am able to scare up an internet connection, I may not post any updates this week other than this one.

In the meantime. here's something to consider...

Last week, NPR's show Talk of the Nation had a segment on the issues surrounding individuals declaring that they are of Native American ancestry (to hear it, listen here or go here for a transcript).  There's a number of issues surrounding this, but there are two that I find particularly interesting.

The first issue is that of the interests that different federally recognized Native American groups have to accept or reject individuals as members of their tribe and/or organization.  This is often an issue with tribes that own casinos, as people come out of the woodwork claiming to be members in order to secure a share of the casino's money.  Depending on where you are, the more prevalent issue may be individuals who are legitimately part of the tribe being rejected or dropped from the membership roles, or people who are not part of the tribe trying to be listed as such (some of whom really believe themselves to be, and others of whom simply think that it is a good way to get money).  For a variety of reasons, I'll not say too much on the topic, except to note that I know of people who were dropped from the register who were, legitimately, of the appropriate ancestry...but that I have also known a large number of people who have tried to be accepted as tribal members who had no more a claim to Native American ancestry than the British exchange student who lived upstairs from me in college.  There is a tendency for people to see the behavior of whatever group they are most familiar with as the norm as far as accepting or rejecting members goes, but there is actually alot of variation, for both good and ill, in how these matters are handled.

The second issue is the matter of people claiming Native American ancestry when such claims are dubious at best.  One thing that a guest on the show brings up is that there seems to be a pattern of these claims that a great-grandmother specifically on the mother's side is a member of a Native American group (usually, though not always, Cherokee).  While there are many, many people in the U.S. with Native American ancestry, there seem to be many, many more that simply want to be.  I don't know what to make of the claim that it is usually a great-grandmother on the mother's side (well, the great-grandmother makes it essentially an unverifiable claim as the individual is usually dead, and claims of poor record keeping can be made, but why on the mother's side?), but my own experience has been that people often claim Native American ancestry because they want to be seen as somehow magical, or special, and figure that associating themselves with a group that they have insultingly simplified and/or romanticized.

There's another, interesting and bothersome, issue also brought up in the interview: the tendency for some to claim Native American ancestry, and to sell "spiritual" services based on these claims.  This may include people running for-profit "sweat lodges" at a heavy fee, or selling magical items allegedly of "Native American Origin!"  Generally, these individuals may actually be Native Americans, or they may simply be claiming to, but either way they are cashing in on the racist notions that most people have about alleged Native American mysticism.

Anyway, give it a listen, it's an interesting show.


JakeR said...

My ex-wife's family had the classic great-grandmother on the mother's side who was a Cherokee who walked the Trail of Tears. Two generations later a member of the family took up genealogy and found that the claim is almost certainly false.

Anthroslug said...

Listening to this got me thinking about my own family. My grandmother always claimed to be Cherokee/Choctaw mix (one parent Cherokee, the other Choctaw, no caucasion), but that her father had changed his name and worked to pass as white in order to own land in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

On the one hand, I know of no reason for her to lie about this, and given her personality, it seems unlikely that she would try to pass herself off as something she's not. On the other hand, as the story contains an element to make it non-falsifiable, it isn't exactly open to testing.