A Line in the Sanda

This site is offered as a place where the debate over where to draw the "Line in the Sand" on the issues of cultural property, Native American sovereignty, Native American identity, ethnic stereotypes, the commodification of Native American culture, and all related issues, can take place. The issue of cultural property includes both real property, the land, the burials, the "ruins", etc., and intellectual property, the writings, the languages, the images, the culture itself. These issues thus force us to deal with museums, archaeology and anthropology, schools, churches, commercial development, and even international law. Intellectual property discussions must deal with the suppression of indigenous cultures, the survival of languages, copyright protection and who can make "Indian art." On the issue of ethnic stereotypes, we have taken the attitude that we can do no better than to let the Native peoples speak for themselves. Therefore we are providing a reading list of fiction and non-fiction, online and paper, of work written by native authors about their own communities to allow the reader to see with eyes trained through another lens.

We want to be careful to note that this "line in the sand" will not lie at the same place for everyone. We must recognize that not all Native American communities have had the same historical experience, either before or after 1492. For this reason, the members of these communities will have different opinions. There will be different opinions both between and within communities, just as there are in all human communities. As an example, the original Native communities on the east coast had different experiences than did those in communities farther west. Their first encounters with Europeans even occured with people having different cultures. The tribes of the Caribbean, Central & South America (as they are now known) and ultimately California and the desert southwest encountered the Spanish (and Portugese). Among the Spanish were many "converso" Jews who were accepting postings to hard service in the colonies in order to escape the Inquisition. On the Middle Atlantic coast and farther north, the northern European cultures, the Dutch, English and French were the colonizers. In Alaska, it was the Russians. The degree of extermination, both physical & by assimilation and acculturation varied greatly as well. Intact tribal structures are hard to find in the east. It was perhaps easier to survive there by becoming invisible. This "invisibility" was compounded by the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Some found it easy to pass as white. Others joined the black population, preferring slavery to being "Indian." These personal decisions, made over 100 years ago, have repurcussions yet today, dividing the eastern community into "black Indians" and "white Indians." Greater physical isolation allowed the social structure to remain more intact in the inland west. As a result, the number of full-blood tribal members is much higher in tribes located there. The Coastal west is a yet different story with tribes there suffering wholesale extermination. The most famous of these exterminations was dramatized by the last member of the Yahi tribe, who named himself only as Ishi, a man, when he walked out of the forest in 1910 and into Oroville. Ishi spent his last years as a "living specimen" in a museum in northern California in the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and his wife.

The question of identity is heavily interwoven with U.S. government policy. Are you a member of a federally recognized tribe? Yes, there are tribes that are recognized by some states but which are not federally recognized. In fact, they may not be recognized by the state just across the border. Whether or not a state recognizes a tribe is complicated by issues such as tribal gaming. To recognize a tribe may mean that they will then wish to operate a casino. If the state does not want a casino, Or wishes to operate one themselves, they will not extend recognition to the tribe. There are further complications when tribes are split by international borders. This occurs both on the Canadian border, where the Kahnia'kehaka (Mohawk) Nation lies in New York, Quebec and Ontario. In the southwest, the Tohono O'odham and Yaqui Nations were divided by the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Families on both sides of the border still meet to exchange good over the barbed wire fence that divides their lands.

Are you enrolled in a tribe? This, itself, is a very complicated issue. There are full-blood Indians who refuse, as a matter of principle to enroll because enrollment admits of complicity with the federal government in establishing their identity. However, in an attempt to protect Native artists from the flood of imitation "Indian art" on the market, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (see U. S. Code, Title 25, Chapter 7a, § 305e and surrounding sections) was passed. To have his work sold as authentic Native American art, the artist must be a "certified" Indian. This law does not find uniform approval and can be very hard on those who grew up away from the reservation. It makes it imperative that the source of Indian identity be clarified. Is it determined by enrollment (the U.S. government), by the tribe itself, and, if so, how is that to be done? There is a very intelligent and sensitive article on this topic by Joseph Marshall III in On Behalf of the Wolf and the First Peoples.

Enrollment was imposed upon the tribes as a part of the allotment process. In the pressure to move west, it was decided that the Indians had "surplus" land on their reservations. That is, this land was not being used as it would be by a European who would put it to "productive" use. To "free" this land for use by Europeans, members of the tribes were enrolled and an allotment of land was assigned to each member. The size of the allotment depended upon the status of the individual (married, children, etc.). Then the unallotted (read "surplus") land was returned to federal government ownership and opened up to purchase by outsiders. Perhaps the most famous such occurence was the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Tribal membership can be a very touchy subject. Different tribes can and do have very different policies. Some welcome members with open arms. Others guard their membership rolls carefully. The more "certified" tribal members the smaller each person's part of what federal benefits there are may become. After all, this is a phenomenon seen commonly in all societies. In times of plenty we are all willing to share for the public welfare. When money gets tight, the knives come out, be it in academia or on the street. Nonetheless, there must be some consistency between the attitudes on children being adopted out of the tribes and thereby losing their cultures and the willingness to bring back into the culture those who have been removed by some other accident of their life. Important explorations of the meaning of identity in this culture are found in the work of James Luna and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie.

The current system of tribal government, the tribal councils, are a governing system imposed from above by the federal government. They are a paternal system replacing what was previously, in many cases, a matriarchal society. Certainly the tribes were more loosely governed societies; they had no centralized government. Some view the tribal councils as no more than an arm of the federal government. It is evident that the tribal council system has been made to work better in some tribes than in others. In some cases it has been the source of great internal conflict within the tribe, i.e. the Wounded Knee 1972 confrontation. In at least one traditionally matriarchal tribe, the women recently led a march on the polls because the tribal council recognized the children of men married to white women as tribal members but did not extend the same recognition to the children of women married to white men.

The question of the appropriation of the culture of others has many aspects, commercial gain, (the Pelli-People), ethnic stereotypes (see the editorial by Paul Gonzales in Indian Artist, the Summer 1996 issue), and the general New Age phenomenon. Some Native Americans accept the New Agers as something between harmless and amusing people and people seriously trying to learn about Native cultures. Others see them as a more harmful phenomenon, stealing the culture and perverting it for their own ends. This debate takes place online in chat rooms and in the halls of academia. Where is the line to be drawn in the sand?

A line in the sand has properties that can be very useful. It gives us something to talk about but is not immovable. We can adjust the location of that line as we talk to each other and learn more. These questions are intended to be provocative and to stimulate discussion (NOT flames). Well thought out comments/essays will be gladly accepted here and placed online (with your permission). We will be happy to do the HTML markup for you. The copyright will remain with the individual author. This will be clearly noted on each individual piece. We will be vigilant in protecting your copyright. Neither flames nor personal attack of any sort will be considered.

As a service, we will also provide links to legal resources online, recommendations on fees you should expect for use of your work, and hope eventually to provide a list of tribal contacts for people who seriously wish to pursue projects having Native American cultural content so that the proper community permissions and oversight may be provided.

a While the phrase A Line in the Sand is not a new one, this particular use of it was inspired by Jolene Rickard's essay in the Aperture volume Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices.

Purchase Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices, Peggy Roalf (Editor), Aperture.

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