Sometimes I like to say controversial things, like the title to this article: “Being In’din’s a party and everyone’s invited.” The stodgy conservative Native crowd gets upset with me. I hear comments like, “You’re undermining sovereignty,” or “Don’t give the wannabes more fuel to misappropriate.” All this is said with a fervor of control and a need for validation. Interestingly enough, I always wonder why they need me to validate them. “Who am I? I’m nobody,” as my elders say before espousing wisdom. So let me hand you a little myself.
I straddle a line, and I’m not looking to find friends–only to find peace. Everyone knows my stance on wannabes and if you haven’t spent time on my blog here’s an article that’ll give you a full perspective on my personal thoughts: How Academia Disrupts Native Progress by Reinventing “The Pristine Myth”. And my position hasn’t changed.
So why would I make comments like the one above? For sensationalism? Because controversy sells? Those of you who have been around my social media and blog know me better than that. The reason falls more in line with autonomy. I’ll explain. Firstly, I can give you numerous examples of the importance of autonomy in traditional Kiowa and Cherokee societies. But I’ll give you one from each tribe for the sake of time. Both will be situated in the context of war.
As with many plains tribes, Kiowa warrior culture survived by independent and creative thinking on the battle field. Every warrior “autonomously” moved through the battle field, and were constantly aware of the position of their fellow tribal members, making moves accordingly. This autonomy continues to be exemplified in our gourd dances today. Each gourd dancer moves around the drum in whatever direction they want, but they don’t stand to dance until the “Head Man” starts to dance. Then the dancers move independently on the dance grounds. And all follow the same drumbeat. It’s beautiful coordination and filled with rich symbols that, unfortunately, I don’t have time to explain here. What’s important to note is that all Kiowa are respected as autonomous beings moving to the same beat as our community.
To follow a similar line of thinking, this time with regard to Cherokee culture, I’ll point out our historical political system being based in matriarchy, which respected the autonomy of familial kinship. If Cherokees decided on combat with neighboring tribes, it was matrilocal leadership who decided if they would allow anyone in their family to fight. So if the female leaders in a family did not feel it was right for their children or grandchildren to participate, then they didn’t participate. So autonomy was respected.
Now we have some context. As an autonomous being dancing in a different direction than my brothers and sisters on the dance grounds, I see the world from angles they might not. And I’m a product of the matriarchs in my family who have taught me to care for not only myself but anyone who needs guidance, help, and acceptance.
So when stodgy conservatives tell me that I’m undermining sovereignty I kindly remind them that I’m interacting with human beings–not nations. Our ancestors did not fight and die so sovereignty could be used to attack individuals. Case in point, the American Indian Movement (AIM) used sovereignty to “speak back to power.” So in fact, the stodgy conservatives, aka “wannabe chasers,” are the ones undermining our sovereignty. How? They’re weakening its validity with their racism. Yup. RACISM. As a liberal progressive, I’ll say this, “Don’t distort our tribal sovereignty by USING IT AS A TOOL FOR RACISM.” Its by using sovereignty to attack individuals that turns our legal agreements with the United States into paper tigers and insults our ancestors.
Think critically. Be smart. Watch who you associate with.
Now lets tackle this claim to misappropriation. Will wannabes misappropriate? Yes. Will my statement above make this misappropriation worse? No. Why? Because any fake seeking to be counted as Native will NOT go through Native communities. We’ll tear them to shreds like Timothy Treadwell trying to live with grizzly bears. Even for those of us who are actual tribal members it’s brutal. If I get attacked, imagine what we do to fakes. There are non-Natives at our traditional dances all the time. Many of whom marry into the tribe. So what’s the difference? They don’t claim to be Native. They’re people who are there to support their family and to learn appropriately. They’re not trying to make money. They don’t have careers based in a Native identity. There is no exploitation.
But fakes exploit no matter what I say or you say.
So then why do I say, “Being In’din’s a party and everyone’s invited?” The reason has two parts. One has to do with a changing society. The other has to do with tribalism’s mechanism of inclusion. Yes, to be included. The term “tribal” has been hijacked by a current divisive political system. It’s not about kicking someone out and separation. In fact, historically the opposite is true of tribes. Just ask any Plains tribe elder about adoption practices. We Plains Natives love to adopt people. It holds some of the highest honor. Kiowa history is filled with adoption of various people (like Spanish and Irish) and various tribes (like Plains Apache and Arapaho). Tribalism’s internal practice is to constantly pull people in. There is a long history of white people “turning Indian.”
Now let me give you a scenario that’ll highlight our changing society. Let’s say you were born into a culture that historically made itself successful through brutalizing others. Now let’s say you’ve decided to change the directional path for yourself and your family. You will no longer continue to rob people of their dignity for comfort. Now, how do you go about that transformation? You look around the world and you find other expressions of culture that are not situated in brutality. Let me ask you this: why would we not want you to change your identity? Of course we would! Or, I should say, as a liberal progressive, I get the impulse to purge negative ideologies. My identity is in constant motion as well. The only people who would not want people to change are people who have created an identity in violence–they need contention to have purpose.
When someone comes up to me and says, “I’m part Cherokee,” I don’t doubt them. In fact, I’m very grateful they’re willing to even acknowledge any type of diversity in their lineage. When people tell me about their family lore, in the back of my mind I’m remembering Donnie Beartrack. I was eighteen years old when he was lynched by three white men for being Cherokee. Many of you might not remember. But I was a teenager and he was a teenager when he was murdered. I couldn’t help but think, “That could’ve been me.” If you had to choose between extermination or admiration, which would you choose?
So where I dance on these grounds doesn’t look the same as it does from where others stand. I don’t see any reason to dismiss someone’s claim to Native ancestry. It’s a hurtful position to take. It’s racist. Then to grossly distort our tribal sovereignty with xenophobic rhetoric? That’s a disservice to future generations. If an issue is immoral, like co-opting a culture for gain, then just say that: It’s immoral. No one should steal from a group of people who are struggling to keep footing in an oppressive society. We have enough to deal with without “pretend friends to Indians” conquering and colonizing space with niceties and favors. And at the same time, I have enough mental capacity and common sense to know when genuine people are approaching me with genuine heart about the Native ancestry in their lineage. To this effect, “Being In’din’s a party and everyone’s invited.”
Unfortunately, Native conservatives are overly obsessed with revenge and want a body count equal to genocide. They won’t stop, like all conservatives on this planet (White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis, al-Qaeda, MAGA, and “wannabe chasers”) until they’ve murdered enough people (metaphorically or literally) to satisfy an identity created in violence.
These backward Natives are quick to forget how our ancestors suffered and sacrificed for us to be here. But more importantly, they forget how our own ancestors adapted and survived by making allies: not enemies.
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(Image of painting by a Kiowa 6 artist borrowed from National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum website, and image of painting “She Speaks for Her Clan” is by Dorthy Sullivan and borrowed from Indian Country Today website)