Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What an Indian Is, to Them and to Me

Throughout the 5 Tribes Story Conference held at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma an underlying theme pervaded the event. Many of the speakers were there to articulate the process and procedure of the written and oral non-fiction stories of Native American myth and lore, they somehow continually dovetailed into discussions of “Indian or racial identity.”

I found the intersection intriguing and perplexing at the same time. On one hand you had many of the speakers like the former Historic Preservation Officer of the Creek nation as she talked about her “green-eyed, half breed” mother as well as others who seemed to have a need to preface their discussion with the admission that a parent or ancestor was “white” or “mixed blood.”
Panel on Fictional Depictions of Removal, Boarding Schools & Land Thefts

Joyce Bear, Linda Hogan & Diane Glancy

This became a continuing thread that was quite noticeable and when I looked back at the talk given by professor Pete Cosar, I had to ask myself why there was such an emphasis on identity and what is an Indian?
Panel on Stories for Cultural Preservation and Awareness

Choogie Kingfisher, Laurie Robins, Dr. Pete Cosar & Philip Harjo

I couldn’t help but consider the issues in contemporary times with issues of Indian Territory freedmen descendants seeking recognition and inclusion in the tribes as citizens based on their history of ancestors being enslaved in the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee) and Seminole tribes and now seeking citizenship in the tribe of their ancestor’s birth.

This theme of “identity” was probably being addressed to the audience which was a mixture of what appeared to be white and “Indian” people. The purpose of the conference was supposedly about storytelling and Native American fiction so I could cynically say that this notion of an Indian identity as was promoted by several speakers was part of that fiction.

When listening to the presentation of Dr. Cosar and others I couldn’t help but wonder how they arrived at their theories on identity and the most I could make out is that a more in depth definition can only be told to “Indians” behind closed doors.

Dr. Cosar began with the notion that “allegedly” a case for “Indian identity” could be made from “documentation” but there was more to being an “Indian” than mere paper. On the surface I’m inclined to agree with that position but when you look at the history of the so called Five Civilized Tribes you would be hard pressed to include logic to a determination of “who is an Indian.”

The history of the Five Slave Holding Tribes demonstrates clearly that the documentation that is used for establishing citizenship (the Dawes Rolls) is a flawed system. The segregated rolls that ignored the Indian ancestry of children of slave owners denied them not only their "heritage" as Native American people based on their "paternity and genealogy." It also denied them a sizable amount of land wealth in the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations that should not be so easily dismissed.

It would appear that back in the day the quest for land and natural resources denied many people with Indian ancestry from receiving their full rights and privileges as an “Indian.” Now it seems that very document that was used to deny thousands of people thousands of acres of land is now being coyly dismissed for the proposition that Indian identity is determined by “community, mother and the beginning of time.”

The freedmen and their descendants were every bit a part of the community of the five tribes despite the adversity of Jim Crow, the marginalization by the whites of Oklahoma and the tribes in which they share a unique history. Clearly we have evolved as a people with many of the freedmen descendants having little contact with the tribes of their ancestors.

One of the other themes of the conference was the reclaiming of “Indian identity” by the participants but it is unclear if they rediscover what makes them an Indian will also help today’s citizens discover their connection to the descendants of the people who were enslaved by their ancestors?

Perhaps that is something else that needs to be discussed behind closed doors?


  1. Bravo! estelusti. simplicity has been complex. wonderful insightful observation.

  2. Ever since I started my research, I took pride in my Native roots and started speaking the language of my other nation. I even introduce myself as a Afro-Native. I'm proud of both of my roots.