What's an Indian Anyway?

I ran across a discussion on the web of Scott Momaday's degree of Indian "blood", and I have to say I always find these discussions rather amusing, as if one's culture and identity were a chemical like hemoglobin.

What Isn't?
Ward Churchill, for starters. However, that topic requires its own essay. And Jamake Highwater, in case you haven't heard.

The simple description of N. Scott Momaday is that he is a Kiowa Indian author who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, House Made of Dawn. He is of mixed ancestry, Kiowa only on one side (part Cherokee on the other), but he is enrolled as a member of the Kiowa tribe. By every logical definition, he is an American Indian author.

However, if you read The Way to Rainy Mountain carefully, you will discover that one of Momaday's recent Kiowa ancestors was actually a Mexican "slave." That dices the half-Kiowa stuff yet again. There is also some question, in The Names, as to whether his mother Natachee's "Indian-ness" was mostly wishful thinking (but does "one-eighth Cherokee" really mean anything except to a hemotologist?). Momaday touches this gently with his wonderful statement that she "imagined herself Indian." In case we should take that as a criticism, he adds that later he did the same thing.

How many white folks have attempted the same act of imagination? That in itself, "imagining you are Indian," means nothing. It is not enough to "imagine" you are Indian, especially when being Indian can make one's mediocre writing suddenly take on new (marketable) qualities. I know a guy from New Jersey who has made a career of imagining that he is the descendant of a famous mountain man. The genealogical evidence is thin. And then there's the racist Georgia redneck who wrote a famous, poignant memoir of growing up with his Indian granny — all a fiction, as it happens, but published even now as fact by a university press that needs the money. And then there's the "intellectual" "Jamake Highwater," whose American Indian ancestry, which shifted in his telling more than the San Andreas Fault, secured him the attention of PBS, a slew of not easily embarrassed East Coast publishers, and Joseph Campbell. Not to mention truckloads of grant money, royalties, and other material goodies that never benefitted a single Indian.

And of course, there's the "anthropologist" who got a Ph.D. in California and a pile of royalties after he invented Yaqui sorcery in his "memoirs" of apprenticeship to a non-existent Indian: another university press with egg on its face all the way to the bank. An CU/Boulder's notorious fake Indian, darling of the intellectual Left who continually refused to listen to the real Indians who, in addition to knowing the truth about him, happen to be politically conservative. Prejudice: It's a living.

It is the life, where and how it is lived, that validates both the blood and the imagination. Quanah Parker was Comanche. The white blood of his mother Cynthia Ann only mattered politically. It does not matter for an instant whether Crazy Horse was "fair" because he was half-white (a presumption almost certainly invented by racist whites to account for the man's extraordinary charisma). Crazy Horse is Indian. The alternative is meaningless.

Scott Momaday is Kiowa because that is the identity he grew up with, and because the foundation of that identity is immersion in the culture and life of the people who claim him. He is "Kiowa, sure enough," like his beloved Aho. In a very different way, Cynthia Ann Parker herself was Comanche, this white woman who lived as a Comanche from the time she was ten and died of torn roots when her Texan relatives "rescued" her from the Comanches, leaving behind her eldest son to become one of their great chiefs. And Quanah was not great because he was part white; his white blood was merely incidental to his life.

Blood is only the beginning, and it can be invalidated by any number of antidotes. Frank Waters, a white man who wrote more sensitively and effectively about the American Indians than anyone before 1960, was probably a quarter Cheyenne. But he didn't "grow up" Cheyenne, so he never claimed his blood to validate his work. One wonders whether Scott Momaday, the young Kiowa son of a BIA official at Jemez, is really more an insider when he writes about the secretive Pueblos than the middle-aged white man who lived more than half his life at the foot of Taos Mountain. Does blood write? Does blood think?

The BIA in exasperation arbitrarily divided the mixed-bloods of Oklahoma into Indian and non-Indian when they could no longer sort out who was who. This was not a matter of deciding "Who was Indian" but of determining who should benefit from programs that specifically benefitted Indians. Some of their decisions were, to put a nice face on it, "politically motivated." Oil had just been discovered in Oklahoma; guess whose land? Guess who wanted it? When being Indian meant partaking of ownership in potentially fabulous oil wealth, "pedigree," as Ward Churchill calls the issue dismissively while collecting money for plagiarisms and inanities that would be worthless if his customers knew he was white, matters.

Momaday's birth certificate reflects the BIA decision. He is, legally, Kiowa by fiat. But that is not what makes him Kiowa, it just qualifies him for government benefits. His life experience, and the work he created, not that birth certificate, are what matter, what make his "Indianness" significant. Perhaps his mother's act of imagination was ambitious; Momaday's certainly worked. Ironically, a white government gave Momaday Indian status according to white presumptions about race, kinship, and genetics; the same white rules undoubtedly denied it to others whose raw genealogical data was much less ambiguous than his.

We can't simply ignore the genealogical data, or we open the floodgates to accept as an Indian anyone channelling a cartoon Cherokee princess. But "being Indian" is not something you discover. It is something you may explore and shape to your designs and values, but you have to live it. And what living it confers on you is as ambiguous as the identity.

What does it mean to "be" Indian? Is one thereby spokesperson for the race, the tribe? Surely not. Are one's insights about the tribe more valid? They may be differently valid; more likely to be valid. But avoid romanticism. Do you suppose the average Irishman regarded James Joyce as the "conscience of his race" (whatever that means)? Does having an Irish ancestor make me an authority on Gaelic folklore or history? Does being "Indian" make one an authority on the environment? On Nature? On family values? On tribal wishes and needs? Please. Can we talk about former Sioux tribal chairman Richard Wilson here? If that's what it means to "be Indian," too bad.

Momaday is "Indian." So is Leslie Silko, with equally tangled roots. So is Ray Young Bear, whose lineage is no more ambiguous than an oak's. They weren't "adopted"; they didn't "discover" that their guardian spirit is a First Nations shamaness named Path of the Holy Marmot or Osage chief Big Hot Moon; their grandmas know they are Indian, and that's that.

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