New Indians

There’s this thing going on. Whites turning into Indians, at least in part. Lots of hand wringing from purists, but it’s not actually clear how this will turn out.

Ethnicity is a tricky thing because it is commonly understood as something fixed and essential rather than what it more likely is: an unarticulated negotiation between what you call yourself and what other people are willing to call you back. . . .  

The way the ethnic negotiation works depends on what part of the country you are located in. Native Americans recognize that there exists a kind of spectrum. At one end there are Indians living on a well-established Western reservation in a tribe that is branded as seriously authentic — Hopi, say — where many in the tribe retain the classic Indian physical characteristics. Moving along, you encounter various tribes that have intermarried a lot — like the Ojibwe — yet whose members still feel a powerful sense of authenticity. But once you visit tribes of newcomers, where few members knew their Indian ancestors personally, you begin to sense a clawing anxiety of identity. At the far end are hobbyists, those Indian groupies who hang around powwows, hoping to find a native branch in their family tree. They enjoy wearing the traditional tribal garb and are, as the University of Michigan history professor Philip Deloria titled his book, ‘Playing Indian.’

What’s the right response when a White person finds an Indian ancestor, then wants to become Indian? It feels fake. Most people would say it is fake, even if the ancestry is real. I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise but my strong first reaction is that Indian-ness is cultural, not biological. Confusing the two seems like such a White thing to do.

More Information

  • Justin Howery Swanström, “Blood Quantum“, SwanKnight <>, Oct. 3, 2011. Retrieved July 4, 2020.

Revised July 4, 2020 to update link.

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