Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Native American Identity

Long time no hear!  I have had the pleasure of being interviewed by the daughter of a collogue of mine for a paper she was writing. After reading it, I thought it would be a great topic for this blog.  I think she does a great job of discussing the topics of White Public Space, Indexicality, and Native American Identity. At which it is the title of her paper.  Obviously you will find one "Mindy" sounding pretty close to someone you know.  I like what she has to say in this little quote 
"An individual can be both "too Indian" to function in a white space and "not Indian enough" at the same time.  Native Americans have to meet certain expectations when dealing with white people in white public spaces, but, as these expectations are primarily defined by white people, there is an entirely different set of expectations in interacting with other Native Americans."
Katie is a chemical engineering major at the Colorado School of Mines who has plans to continue on for her PhD in Archeology and this is what she had to say....

White Public Space, Indexicality, and Native American Identity
I am one eighth Absentee Shawnee. Every year, even though I am not enrolled in the school, the University of New Mexico offers me scholarship money because I am an Indian. When I was in elementary school I got to bring in authentic Indian artifacts for show and tell as a symbol of my Native American heritage. I live in New Mexico where I am exposed daily to Native American cultures. But that is the extent of my involvement with the Native American aspect of my identity. I do not feel like I can truly call myself Native American. The fact that one eighth of my ‘blood’ is Absentee Shawnee does not mean that I know anything about the culture of the Absentee Shawnee people. I have not lived with them or suffered with them. I can walk down the street without arousing even the slightest suspicion that I have Native blood. I am guilty of having what is known as ‘white privilege’ even as I, with my Certified Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card, have access to the very resources intended for those without this privilege. In searching for a job or applying to colleges I can claim to be not only a woman, which makes me a minority in the STEM fields, but a Native American as well because, according to my CDIB card, I am Absentee Shawnee. In dealing with landlords, professors, or any authority figure, I have never had to worry if I am being discriminated against due to my Native blood because I look, dress, and act white. What does it mean that I can change who I am, that I can choose which parts of my identity are emphasized, to fit the circumstances in which I find myself? This practice of changing identity is known in anthropological circles as a reframing of identity. My goal in writing this paper is to examine the ways in which reframing, in the ‘specific’ case of Native Americans, contributes to which aspects of identity are made salient during any given interaction.
            The word specific above is in single quotes because “Native American” is not very specific at all. The term “Native American” conjures up images of feathered headdresses, teepees, and medicine men dancing around a fire. The words invoke a romantic and stereotypic ideal of a downtrodden indigenous people that suffered through the destruction of their beloved homeland at the hands of the white man. But what these words definitely do not encompass is the wide range of cultures that comprise the groups of people that lived here before the Europeans arrived. Author Lila Abu-Lughod, in her article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others”, points out the dangers of homogenizing any group of people. Even within a group of very similar individuals there is always variation in values. Categorizing all 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States using only one term is homogenization on a very large scale. In my paper I am going to analyze reframing of identity as it pertains to Native Americans. Unfortunately it is not within the scope of my work to fully analyze a single particular tribe; nor can I analyze even a fraction of all the tribes in the United States, let alone the entirety of the Americas. The tribes that are specifically included in my analysis in order to develop my argument include the Sioux Indians, the Navajo Nation, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. While I understand that my findings will not reflect any particular tribe nor can they accurately reflect the situation of the entire group of Native American people, I believe that the data I have chosen can be used to make comparisons and establish general trends. I do not intend to misrepresent a very diverse group of people by analyzing only a handful of them; however I will use the term “Native American” throughout my report because I am analyzing general patterns and because using one term is much more succinct than listing all 565 federally recognized tribes.
            In order to paint a complete picture, I am going to define several terms that will appear throughout my paper - first, identity. Identity, to borrow from Bucholtz and Hall (2005), is “the social positioning of self and other” (p.2). Identity is important only because of the impact it has on interactions with the other. It is a very fluid concept that incorporates pieces of all of the aspects of an individual’s life. The idea that identity is dynamic rather than fixed makes it essential to establish the context in which taking advantage of this feature, or reframing, becomes necessary.
This leads me to the white public space. Jane Hill develops this concept in her paper “Language, Race, and White Public Space” as “an arena in which …disorder on the part of whites is rendered invisible and normative, while the …behavior of members of [minority] populations is highly visible and the object of constant monitoring” (p.6). In other words, a white public space is an arena of interaction between two groups in which whites, with their invisible privilege, can act however they wish without any fear of social reprisal, but where members of minority groups face negative repercussions for any deviance from expected behavior. In such a space, acceptable behavior is defined by whites. In the United States most, if not all, interactions between the majority and minority take place in a white public space. This may not be a conscious decision on the part of the interactants but it tends to be inevitable because the creation of a white public space is often invisible to the white participants.
Cultural capital, as it will be used in this discourse, is what allows individuals to succeed in white public spaces. Philippe Bourgois, in his article “Workaday World – Crack Economy”, examined the motivations behind the creation of a crack economy in Harlem. He found that most of the cocaine dealers he spoke with actually preferred legal work but they felt that they could not find a place in corporate America due to their lack of the requisite cultural capital. Not only were their living conditions and educational opportunities a world apart from those of their white counterparts, but they also felt that the opportunities they did have forced them to reject some of their cultural values, especially their dignity. Gaps like these, gaps which would seem to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, have forced cocaine dealers into choosing between working outside the law or accepting demeaning positions that force them to participate in a white public space. This discrepancy between the cultural capital that a group possesses and the cultural capital required for success in white public spaces, the same discrepancy that leads to reframing, is reinforced by indexicality.
            An index, much like the index finger on the human hand, points from one object to another. The classic example is smoke as an index of fire. If there is smoke, it means that there is a fire. Indices are not the same thing as stereotypes. Stereotypes do not have to be, and rarely are, based in fact. Stereotypes index a society’s belief about another group of people. The stereotype that all New Mexicans speak Spanish or that we need green cards to travel to other states is an index of the popular belief that New Mexico is comprised mainly of illegal immigrants.
All of the anthropological definitions discussed so far do not have any purpose except where they are used in analyzing people. I am going to examine some of the ways in which these definitions impact the identities of Native Americans.
Historic Interactions
            Historically, relations between whites and Native Americans have been conducted from a platform that reflects white beliefs in their own superiority. There was a sense of duty: whites must educate the backwards Indian and save him from himself. This ‘white man’s burden’ was used to justify many of the historic interactions between the whites and the Native American tribes. These historic interactions set the stage for the development of a white public space. The wants and needs of any society are culturally defined. As put by Ruth Benedict, in her book Patterns of Culture, “Each [culture,] from the point of view of another [culture,] ignores fundamentals and exploits irrelevancies” (p.24). Thus some character trait or behavior that is highly valued by one group of people may be of next to no importance to another group of people. The institution of poll taxes is a clear example of this concept as it pertains to my research question. Native American tribes were self-sufficient and independent. They could get whatever they needed from the land that they lived on. By demanding a poll tax, the white settlers forced the tribes to change their lifestyles. Not only was the concept of money distinctly European, but the skills needed to acquire it favored European cultural capital.
The shift in focus from things that Native Americans were good at, areas where Native American cultural capital was extremely valuable, to an arena dominated and dictated by white men, an arena where the only cultural capital of import is that of the white men, led to the devaluation of Native American cultures. Poll tax is not the only instance of forced societal change in a way that privileged white skill sets. Rather than changing the demands of the white public space to appreciate the cultural capital of minority groups, Native Americans were sent to boarding schools and forced to speak English in an attempt at assimilation. The goal of such measures was to equip Native Americans for success in interacting in white public spaces by eliminating every trace of their culture.
            White public spaces operate based on behavioral expectations. In other words, an individual can only interact in a white public space if they operate within acceptable behavioral boundaries. More often than not, these acceptable boundaries are defined and reinforced by whites, although they can also be defined and reinforced by Native Americans themselves. Jessica Cattelino has written several papers on the subject of casino gaming in the Seminole nation. She has found that the Seminole nation is caught in what she calls a “double-bind”: the Seminoles have become relatively wealthy as a result of gaming, but white expectations are that Indians are supposed to be poor. Since the Seminoles have defied that expectation there has been a push to terminate their federally recognized status as a Native American tribe, the very status that allows the tribe to operate casinos in the first place.
Kelly Fayard conducted research among the Poarch Creek Indians during her examination of the role that blood quantum plays in defining Native American identity. She found that, to the Poarch Indians, “defining someone as ‘Indian’ had less to do with a Certified Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card than with the way in which they acted or looked” (p. 82). Specifically, “what draws the people together [is] discrimination” (p. 82). The Poarch Creek Band of Indians expect other Indians to be discriminated against. A lack of discrimination is indicative of a non-Indian status.
Peggy Wilson looked at the academic performance of Sioux Indian high school students. She points out the many structural and cultural barriers that prevent Sioux students from achieving the academic success of which they are capable. These barriers range from the physical layout of non-reserve classrooms to the racist remarks of white students. One Sioux student observed that attendance policies that were lax when a white student missed class were suddenly strictly reinforced when a Sioux student missed class (p. 375). These very real, but overlooked, issues create the expectation on the part of non-Native faculty members that the Sioux students are actually incapable of reaching the same educational standards expected of white students. Expectations on the part of white teaching faculty create a white public space in which Sioux students are ill-equipped for success. Rather than accounting for the difference in cultural capital, Sioux students are held to the same, or sometimes higher, standards as white students and are punished the moment they fall short of those standards. These expectations are clearly communicated to the Sioux students and, in response, many do not try to fight an unfair system: they drop out of school. This reinforces the expectation that Native Americans are not capable of obtaining a high school education, which in turn eliminates any possibility of removing cultural barriers, which means that Sioux students have to struggle to develop the correct cultural capital, which means that they have a harder time than white students, which means that faculty expect less of them and treat them as less than, which leads them to drop out, and so on. Wilson summed it up nicely: “Low expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. 379).
Stereotypes and Indexicality
In all of this talk about expectations and white public space, I have yet to touch on stereotypes. As stated in the theory section, stereotypes index the naturalized associations that one society forms about another. In other words, stereotypes about Native Americans index white beliefs about Native Americans. They reinforce the expectations that lead to white public spaces. There was a recent controversy that reflects the power of indexicality. No Doubt recently released a music video for their song “Looking Hot”. In the video lead singer Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal are depicted as Native Americans that are captured by the other band members, who are depicted as cowboys. Many of the complaints against the video had to do with its generic nature. The clothing, behavior, and symbols used in the video did not reflect on any one particular tribe but rather represented white ideas of what Indians are, namely that they are not white. This stereotype indexes the white belief that Native Americans can be lumped together into one large group of non-whites. As discussed earlier, this view is inaccurate. Unfortunately it plays a large role in white public spaces. The uniqueness of each tribe is often overlooked in Government policies even as the differences between “Indians” and whites are emphasized.
Another example is embodied in the phrase “off the reservation”. This phrase is often used when talking about some action or thought that is viewed as completely crazy. Not only do the words themselves imply that Native Americans belong on reservations, but the concept serves as an index of white beliefs that it would be irrational for there to be a space for Native Americans in mainstream white society. The term “Indian giver” is applied to individuals or groups that give a gift and then take it back. This term could be an index of white beliefs that Native Americans are unwilling to share, which leads to ideas like those propagated by Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas when he refused to believe that the Natives had no gold. On the subject of Pocahontas, popular media has constantly indexed white beliefs that all Native Americans are spiritually connected with the land and, being so involved, are unwilling to fully exploit their resources.
Indexicality serves as a constant reminder of the expectations placed on Native Americans and their role in the white public space. They must be in tune with the Earth, as exemplified by Pocahontas when she teaches John Smith to “paint with all the colors of the wind”. They must be generic, as perpetuated by media like “Looking Hot”. They must accept the idea that they belong on reservations, as indicated by the catch phrase “off the reservation”. But most of all, they must not expect to find a place in white public spaces if they do not meet indexed expectations. Perhaps the concept was put best by Vine Deloria in his book Custer Died for Your Sins: “…the Sioux were presented with an authority figure who bemoaned the fact that whenever he visited the reservations the Sioux were not out dancing in the manner of their ancestors. In a real sense, they were not real [Indians]” (p. 87). White expectations were that the Sioux lived just as their ancestors did; that their culture is static. When the Sioux do not fall into that neat category, when they gather the cultural capital to make a stand in white public space, their status as Native Americans is denounced, both by whites and by other Indians. This is where reframing comes in.
            All of the previous discussion has been building towards a single idea: an individual can be both “too Indian” to function in a white public space and “not Indian enough” at the same time. Native Americans have to meet certain expectations when dealing with white people in white public spaces, but, as these expectations are primarily defined by white people, there is an entirely different set of expectations in interacting with other Native Americans. These Native American expectations were briefly touched on earlier in the discussion about Kelly Fayard’s work, but I do not feel knowledgeable enough about Native American cultures to outline them as I have done with white expectations and indices. Likewise, I do not wish to reduce my conclusion to broad assumptions based on the very indices that lead to reframing in the first place. Since I, as stated in the introduction, am not a Native American and I cannot therefore evaluate instances of reframing in my own life, I decided that the best course of action would be to interview an individual who is intimately familiar with the situation from the perspective of a Native American. In order to answer my research question I interviewed a Navajo woman to whom I was introduced through a mutual acquaintance. For the sake of anonymity I am going to refer to my interviewee as Mindy.
            I do not want to be guilty of one of the things that Vine Deloria criticizes anthropologists for: seeing what I want to see. At the same time I struggled with asking neutral and non-leading questions that would provide the answer to my research question of their own volition. Being a novice in the art of interview, I hope that I have achieved some balance between the two extremes, however I would caution the reader to remember that the following is my, probably very biased, interpretation of another complex individual’s life and that I may have taken some key response out of context in a way that negates the spirit in which it was given. If that should be the case, I apologize to my source. It is not my intention to misrepresent her in any manner; I am extremely grateful for her assistance. With that being said, after two email interview sessions I have found several instances of reframing in the context of a white public space in Mindy’s life.
            One of the things Mindy spoke about was her upbringing and her challenges in ensuring that her children are raised differently than she was while remaining appreciative of their positions in life. These challenges include instilling in her children a knowledge of their Navajo heritage. She talked about some of her difficult childhood experiences and how she simultaneously wants to “show them how lucky they are without exposing them to the pain” that she and her husband faced growing up. She pointed out that her children only see the struggles that are part of the lives of most Native Americans in the media or through their parents’ stories. Mindy also mentioned that it is difficult for her to teach her children about their Navajo heritage because they do not live near the reservation.
            Mindy is married to a man form San Ildefonso Pueblo. Being Navajo herself and working and living in a white public space, Mindy has to navigate between the expectations of three very different cultures on a daily basis. We had a brief conversation about her experiences working in a white public space and the different responses she got from the people in her life. Mindy said that her “own Navajo family has always pushed education to better us and to pursue [a] better way of life, so they have always been supportive” of her decision to find employment. On the other hand, her husband’s family “doesn’t ask about [her] work, and generally views [her] career as ‘selfish’ and not being very motherly”. This view is the exact opposite of that held in the white community, namely that it is selfish to stay at home and focus on being a parent. In order to even obtain a job in the white public space, Mindy had to get a higher education. Since she lives closer to her husband’s family, this meant that she “had to ask for them to help support [her] husband and 3 children” while she attended school. Traditionally, her husband’s Pueblo is patriarchal. His family’s disapproval of Mindy’s educational achievements is an index of the patriarchal nature of the Pueblo.
            Mindy works as a women’s health care provider. She described some of the ways in which her occupation in the white public space interacts with her Native background. She specifically mentioned the role of traditional ceremonies and dances: “When someone dies, they hold a 4 day event and they choose cooks for the event. In the Tewa or Navajo tradition, when you are asked to do something like this, even to participate in a particular dance, you can’t turn it down. So whatever outside job you have, you basically have to take time off to attend to your Native traditional doings.” In a white public space that does not recognize something even as universally necessary as maternity leave, taking time off to attend to important ceremonies is likely not encouraged, and yet this is an integral part of Mindy’s identity as a Native American. In another instance, Mindy talked about some of the ways that she combines traditional Navajo beliefs with her job. She prays “with [her] corn meal prior to going into work to have a clear mind” and she “care[s] for women in a way that aligns with …traditional [Navajo] teachings of thinking, speaking, and acting in a positive manner”. I believe that this is an instance cultural hybridization: Mindy is not hiding or diminishing her Navajo identity, nor is she hiding or diminishing her scientific education. Rather she is blending the two together to create a new public space; one in which the beliefs and expectations of Native Americans bear just as much relevance as the beliefs and expectations of whites.
            Essentially, Mindy has to maintain her identity as a Navajo woman while socializing in an environment dominated by Pueblo expectations and working in a white public space. Thus, when Mindy goes to work, although she is still a Navajo woman, she is primarily a health care provider. When she visits her husbands’ family, she is primarily a woman. When she is teaching her children about their heritage, she is primarily a Navajo. All of these are very subtle instances of reframing of identity.
            I examined reframing of Native American identity in light of the creation of white public spaces, indexicality, and expectations. In order to do this as accurately and objectively as possible, I interviewed Mindy, a Navajo woman. Through my interaction with her I learned that identity reframing does indeed occur in the daily lives of Native Americans. While the work I have done here is by no means conclusive, I have found that the reframing of Native American identities brings historical interactions, white expectations, Native American expectations, and stereotypes together in a very complex way. Simply stating that a Navajo woman acts differently at home than she does at work in a white public space does not do justice to the forces at play within Native American cultures and interactions with white public spaces. Unfortunately, I do not have the skill set to perform a more complete analysis.
1.      “Anthropologists and Other Friends”. Vine Deloria. Custer Died For Your Sins, Chapter 4, pp. 78-100.
2.      “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others”. Lila Abu-Lughod. American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, No. 3 (Sep., 2002), pp. 783-790. American Anthropological Association.
3.      “Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach”. Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall. Discourse Studies, Vol. 7(4-5).2005. pp. 585-614. SAGE Publications.
4.      “Language, Race, and White Public Space”. Jane H. Hill. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 680-689. Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
5.      “‘Out here we just thought everybody who was part of our family was Indian’: Race and Indian Identity in Poarch”. Kelly Fayard. Kinship and Blood Quantum, Chapter 4, pp. 82-106.
6.      “The Diversity of Cultures”. Ruth Benedict. Patterns of Culture, Chapter 2, pp. 21-44 (1934). First Mariner Books, 2005.
7.      “The Double Bind Of American Indian Need-Based Sovereignty”. Jessica Cattelino. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 2 (2010), pp. 235-262. American Anthropological Association.
8.      “Trauma of Sioux Indian High School Students”. Peggy Wilson. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Dec., 1991), pp. 367-383. Published by: Wiley
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9.      “Workaday World – Crack Economy”. Philippe Bourgois. Conformity and Conflict. (2000), pp. 172-180. Published by: Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    Great post and great paper by Mindy. She should submit it to the symposium that is being organized next October in Mississippi. Although the symposium is being organized in collaboration with the Holocaust Museum, and, I suspect, will mostly be related to African American and Jewish identity, Native American identity is (or should be) very much part of the conversation.

    Here is the information I received about submission: "The deadline for receipt of proposals is June 13, 2014. To propose a paper, please send an abstract of no more than 500 words of your proposed paper, and a curriculum vitae that indicates your current academic affiliation, to Krista Hegburg, Ph.D., Program Officer, Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, at khegburg@ushmm.org.
    Submissions must include the speaker’s name, institutional affiliation, current position, contact address, and email. The symposium organizers will provide lodging for the duration of the conference and a stipend to help defray transportation costs, as well as some meals and local transportation."

    My interest in this comes from my own pursuit of a PhD in international development and my work with youth on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana where I live and work. I was doing a quick search regarding the literature related to the topic of symbols or race in public spaces when I came across your blog and Mindy's paper.

    Best to you.....