Posted - 06/15/2012 : 09:11:32 AM
The Myth of Native American Blood
Posted by Francie Latour June 1, 2012 04:15 PM
The African-American grandmother of a friend of mine once summed up the laws that govern black identity in this country. "If you
ever want to know if someone's black or not," she would say, "go ask their white neighbor."
That succinct, small-town Georgia wisdom essentially outlines the rule of hypodescent, also known as the one-drop rule. The one-drop
rule emerged during slavery and hardened in Reconstruction, automatically classifying as black anyone with any trace of African
ancestry. It is the reason why, in the 1800s, the extremely light-skinned offspring of white fathers and black mothers were deemed
slaves. It's also the reason why, in 2011, the actress Halle Berry, who is biracial but identifies as black, became a lightning rod
of controversy for maintaining that her own daughter, with white Canadian actor Gabriel Aubry, is also black.
The fact that Americans with vastly different complexions know they are black by the number of cab drivers who don't stop for them
as much as by any internal measure is a dilemma on many levels. But for Kim Tallbear, an enrolled member of South Dakota's
Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe and a UC Berkeley professor who studies race, genomics and Native American identity, the tyranny of
the one-drop rule poses a specific problem in the ongoing controversy surrounding US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and her
shifting, dubious claims of Native American identity.
Because it is so deeply ingrained in us, Tallbear has argued, the one-drop rule blots out any other way of imagining racial
identity. As a result, the vast majority of Americans have never been able to grasp Native American identity. As the political soap
opera continues to unfold, Tallbear said, both Warren’s romanticized claims and the cries of fraud it has unleashed serve as more
proof that we still don't grasp it.
“When people talk about Native American identity, they talk in the language of ‘I have an ancestor who was this,’ or ‘I have an
ancestor who was part that,’ because that’s the way we think of racial identity in this country,” said Tallbear, who is in New
England for Sunday’s annual conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Tallbear serves on the governing
council of NAISA, which will convene at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Resort.
“If you want to understand Native American identity,” Tallbear said, “you need to get outside of that binary, one-drop framework.
Native Americans do not fit in that binary. We have been racialized very differently in relationship to whites.”
How do we know Native Americans are racialized differently, Tallbear said? Because a white person -- say, Elizabeth Warren, for
example -- can absorb a Native American ancestor and still maintain an identity as white. If Warren had a black ancestor, that fact
would threaten her white identity.
The dominant framework for Native American identity, Tallbear said, operates on the level of citizenship: Cherokees know they are
Cherokee because of a complex history of legal treaties, and because they can document a connection to tribes whose members were
identified and listed in official rolls. Were those rolls, which date back to the 1800s and were largely dictated by federal agents,
flawed? Certainly. "You have to imagine, you're literally lining up all the Native Americans in a tribe and inevitably it's 'Your
dad's white, your mom's Indian, let's make a decision,' " Tallbear said. "Federal agents were also using non-tribal ideas about
belonging. But those base rolls are what we have inherited, and that's what we use."
And because it's what tribes use, that documented connection -- the proof, or lack thereof, that has helped to fuel the Warren saga
-- is not merely something that would have been nice for your grandparents to have handed down to you. That documentation is the
building block of any valid claim of Native American belonging.
Put another way: Believing you are Native American based on a story about a long-lost Cherokee ancestor is akin to believing you
should have a French passport because of a story about a long-lost ancestor from Normandy.
"When you are Native American and your last name is Tallbear, all kinds of people come up to you all the times with crazy claims,"
said Tallbear. " 'My great-great grandmother was an Indian princess.' 'I'm descended from Pocahontas.' What Elizabeth Warren said
about the high cheekbones, I've had so many people from across the political spectrum say things that strange or stranger. And my
point is, maybe you do have some remote ancestor. So what? You don't just get to decide you're Cherokee if the community does not
recognize you as such."
But make no mistake: While Tallbear may be as dismissive of Warren as her critics, she is certainly not aligning herself with them
-- and especially not with Warren's opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, whose relentless, self-righteous indignation on this issue is a thin
mask hiding pure political joy.
The incessant, one-drop-rule focus on Warren's blond hair and blue eyes betrays how little her fiercest critics and the entire
mainstream media understand about what Native American identity is, where it came from and what it looks like.
By little, I mean not at all: If Native American identity operates likes that of any other nation-state, then you can be Cherokee
and look just like Warren. The same way that legendary soccer player Pelé and legendary supermodel Gisele Bündchen can both be
"Elizabeth Warren doesn't not look Cherokee by Cherokee Nation standards at all," Tallbear said. "Going back eight, nine, 10
generations, there are Cherokee that look Asian, Cherokee that look black and Cherokee that look white."
As the pundits continue to deconstruct the political gaffes, the bad timing, the amateur campaign-101 strategy, Tallbear said she
for one is willing to give Warren a pass. She acknowledges that many Native Americans don't feel that way: a scathing report in
Indian Country this week blasted Warren for refusing to speak with the Native American press, among other things.
But for her part, when Tallbear first heard the revelations about Warren's claims, her first thought wasn’t that the Senate
contender was a fraud. Her first thought was that Warren was something much more benign: an Oklahoman.
"I'm not exaggerating at all when I say the majority of white people in Oklahoma -- a real majority -- will say, I'm Cherokee.' It's
an interesting state in that way," Tallbear said. "To me, this whole story says a lot more about being an Oklahoman than anything
“I have not much to tell you except to help understand this earth on which you live. If a man is to succeed in the hunt or the warpath, he must not be governed by his inclination, but by understanding the ways of animals and of his natural surroundings, gained through close observation.”
Tatanka Ohitika—Brave Buffalo,