We are not your dead ancestors

Playing Indian and white possession


This essay was given in an earlier iteration as a keynote at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) on June 9, 2021. Slight changes were made for word count and clarity.

Some of you will know my anthropology of science work represented in my book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science that challenged twenty-first-century racial science and disputed genetic definitions of “Native American” identity. More recently, I bring my critiques of genetics, race, and whiteness to bear on a related problem. To put it bluntly, we are in the middle not only of a viral pandemic, but also a Pretendian Pandemic. “Pretendian” is of relatively recent coinage; it refers to individuals who make false or tenuous claims to Native “identity,” often via distant Indigenous ancestry. I put the term identity in scare quotes because as I frequently write and say of late, “identity is a poor substitute for relations.” It leans toward the individual and choice more than the collective, and it implies a property interest in said identity rather than necessarily requiring relations to exist.

Two social scientists, American, Circe Sturm, and Canadian, Darryl Leroux, have each written important book-length examinations about groups of white people who “race shift” in their terminology into self-defined Indigenous identities. In 2010, in Becoming Indian, Sturm wrote about whites across the US south who shift into an identification as Cherokee based on recent discovery or even undocumented suspicions of having a Cherokee ancestor. There are only three recognized Cherokee tribes, but race shifters have organized over 200 self-identified, so-called Cherokee organizations. The race shifters Sturm wrote about understood their whiteness as “guilt, loneliness, isolation, and a gnawing sense of racial, spiritual, and cultural emptiness.” In their search for fulfillment, they focused on their actual or perceived and very often “thin” Cherokee ancestral lines as informing their total identities. They sought “transcendence” and conversion from their whiteness (83 and 87). In 2019, in Distorted Descent, Leroux wrote about tens of thousands of French-descendant people, many in the eastern provinces of Canada and also in Vermont, who shift into an Indigenous identity based on discovering an Indigenous ancestor in their genealogies 300 to 375 years ago. Some have no documented Indigenous ancestry at all. Such individuals have also self-organized so-called Indigenous organizations or “nations” that have challenged actual Indigenous peoples’ resource rights and who have sued as Indigenous people themselves for hunting, fishing, and logging rights.

There are more high profile, documented cases, names, and dubious claims to Indigeneity that I could cite and share here in addition to those I have named—stories of reverse passing broken by major news outlets in the US and Canada in the last several years. They include individuals who have had lucrative and prestigious careers as writers, film directors, and academics, either with no documentable Indigenous ancestry or with an Indigenous ancestor or two who lived three to four centuries ago. In the centuries in between, they are descended from many generations of ancestors who lived as white. As I write this, an “Investigation into false claims to Indigenous identity at Queen’s University” was released earlier this week on June 7. It provides detailed publicly accessible genealogical documents for six academics and other people publicly claiming and benefiting professionally from Indigenous identification at the prestigious Ontario university.

Eighteenth-Century Revolutionary Indians as Prop and Hindrance to American Identity

The so-called pretendian phenomenon might be a more recent flowering, but it has three-hundred-year-old roots in evolving American law, politics, and self-understandings. Historian and member of a famous Dakota family, Philip J. Deloria, in his 1998 monograph, Playing Indian, traces the origins of dressing up and performing Indianness in the United States. His historical account begins in the eighteenth century and winds through the late twentieth century as he recounts incidences of playing Indian from the Boston Tea Party, in scouting and fraternal order rituals and romanticized literature that eventually informed anthropology, and finally in New Age appropriation of Indigenous spirituality. Deloria’s historical investigation sets up an analysis of what eventually became a more literal form of playing Indian: making false or tenuous claims to “identity,” often via distant Indigenous ancestry. In twenty-first-century acts of Playing Indian, the players probably do not recognize their role in this dog-eared yet evolving script. Neither do the viewers necessarily understand the centuries-long national play they are watching.

In Playing Indian,Phil Deloria quotes early twentieth-century British writer D.H. Lawrence’s description of an “essentially ‘unfinished’ and incomplete” U.S. American consciousness that produced “an unparalleled national identity crisis.” Lawrence saw the Indian as “at the heart of American ambivalence…Savage Indians served Americans as oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self. Coded as freedom, however, wild Indianness proved equally attractive, setting up a…dialectic of simultaneous desire and repulsion” (3). Deloria summarizes:

“The indeterminacy of American identities stems, in part, from the nation’s inability to deal with Indian people. Americans wanted to feel natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape they had to destroy the original inhabitants…half-articulated Indianness continually lurk[s] behind various efforts at American self-imagination” (5).

Surprisingly, Deloria barely touched on false claims to Native ancestry and identity in his 1998 book, when it was already a commonly recognized problem. Yet he built sturdy historical scaffolding for understanding the emergence of false or very distant ancestry claims that proliferate in the early 21st century. Let me guide you up and through Deloria’s architecture so you too can understand how we got here. After a brief history lesson, I’ll move onto critical race theory literature, and discuss the roots of “pretendianism” in settler-colonial law.

Deloria begins in the revolutionary war era by showing how “Americans” dressed up and played Indian in various anti-British colonial actions such as the Boston Tea Party. Deloria writes that “the Tea Party is a catalytic moment, the first drumbeat in the long cadence of rebellion through which Americans redefined themselves as something other than British colonists” (2).

Deloria shows that “New Englanders used Indianness to create an identity psychologically attuned to resistance and, eventually, rebellion” (26). This new American identity “was both aboriginal and European and yet was also neither” (36). It occupied an in-between space, between the “oppositional savage” that Americans needed, on one hand to exterminate, and the noble “Indianness that lay at the heart of American uniqueness.” Deloria explains that “there was, quite simply, no way to conceive an American identity without Indians. At the same time, there was no way to make a complete identity while they remained” (37). As the US moved beyond revolution to nation building, Deloria writes, the Indian rebel and savage became threatening once again (40).

The Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Search for the Vanishing Indian, Authenticity, and Hope

By the 1830s, Indians were firmly imagined as part of the past. This coincided with the removal of Natives from the eastern territories to west of the Mississippi, which simultaneously generated nostalgic images of Indians (at least in the east) and the classic “vanishing Indian” trope (63-4 and 140). Fraternal orders shifted from mainly urban men’s societies into organizations in which men would gather around campfires in the woods and proffer “nostalgic, metaphor-drenched poetry and prose as prototypes of a national literature,” although they did not actually publish much of it (73 and 79). Lawyer-turned-anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s New Confederacy of the Iroquois did not want the Indians to disappear in total; documenting the vanishing Indian past and practices became vital. Literary production turned to historical and anthropological research, including a more formal practice of participant-observation of the Indian Other (93).

Deloria writes that “After establishing the nation, fraternities and agrarian protestors wrestled with the Indian many times, shifting the figure back and forth across social borders in a series of redefinitions always compromised by the contradictory presence of real Indian people.” The Boy Scouts organization gave boys “Indian teachings” in the outdoors to build masculinity in a post-frontier era of increasing urbanization. Their sister organization, the Camp Fire Girls, taught supposed Indian crafts, costume making, and water sports, and were indoctrinated into domestic labor versus paid labor outside the home (96 and 111-13).

Similarly, the early twentieth century saw white people “go Native” and insist on perfectly authentic Indian garb such as the classic 1900 photo, “Frank Hamilton Cushing in Zuni Garb” (119).

Such Americans were attempting to cross the line between modernity and the primitive Indian Other in order to extract authentic knowledge and representations from the inevitably vanishing Indian. For Deloria, by this time, the “pure authentic Indian … meant hope for modern society” (120).

Then in the mid twentieth-century, the hobbyist movement begins. Whites and other non-Natives dressed up and danced in their own pow wows that sometimes coincided with actual Native dances and celebrations. This is the part of Deloria’s history that touched the beginning of my own life. I was born in a Public Health Service hospital in Pipestone, Minnesota in 1968, just miles from an important Dakota site, the ancient Pipestone quarries, where the red stone is harvested by Dakota and other Native quarriers and carved into ceremonial pipes. I was born to a young Dakota mother who not only shawl danced in pow wows—now we call them wacipi with language revitalization—but also wore her dance outfit to guide visitors to the Pipestone quarries. After reading Deloria’s history, I can imagine a photograph of my own mother in her mid 1960s era pow wow dress, moccasins, and beadwork, still with black hair in two braids walking in stereotypical “young Indian maiden” style. I can see her leading white visitors through the wooded monument site with its trees shaking in the summer breeze, sunlight dancing between shadows of leaves on the path below, over the small bridge that crosses the babbling brook, and back around to the quarries where Dakota and other tribal people (usually, but not always men) do the backbreaking work of harvesting stone for pipe.

On the surface, the Pipestone quarries with their “Indian maiden” guide were a serene setting. But that was hardly the whole truth of the 1950s and 60s in rural Minnesota and South Dakota, or anywhere in the US. Deloria writes, “detachment, alienation, and anomie had become popular culture buzzwords.” Such cultural developments did not pair well with a country obsessed with individualism. Personal identity became of paramount concern to especially “the newly expanding white middle class” (130-31) Enter white desires to become other. Whites explored multiple kinds of racial otherness at that time, including again playing Indian. But in this era, something was changing on the racial landscape: the rise of multiculturalism.

Deloria explains the contours of the hobbyist movement. “Object hobbyists” were interested in replicating the historical artifacts and dress of Indians; “people hobbyists” were also dedicated to the “intercultural contact and boundary crossing” they could find at Native people’s own powwows (135). The vanishing Indian once again created anxiety, as the authenticity of living Indians, made manifest in their Indian-made artifacts, their bodies and their ancestral knowledges, was sought after to shore up meaning and individual identity for white Americans. But with the advent of multiculturalism, Native people existed “simply as members of one among many equivalent cultures [and] living Indians could be considered as authentic as dead ones” (140). Deloria also notes examples of whites who appropriated Black and Latino culture and representations in this era, especially through literature and performance. Since culture can be learned, might not non-Natives be able to learn Indian ways and thus “grasp hold of the authentic”? Might they not “consolidate a unique personal identity” through their hobbyist activities? (141)

On the other hand, the very fluidity of multiculturalism threatened the authentic Indian needed to anchor a unique American identity. The claim-making was too easy. Fortunately for hobbyists, biological race concepts never seem to die, and the concept of Indian blood sustained sought-after authentic essence. Federal relocation programs of Indians from reservation to city after World War II helped ensure that “the highest possible degree of authenticity inhered in the traditional, reservation-based full-blood” (143). People hobbyists gravitated toward such individuals; proximity to them conferred a stronger sense of individual accomplishment as hobbyists moved deftly between modernity and the Indian’s tradition. Deloria wrote that “few hobbyists actually went Native. That was not the point.” The point of their weekend play was to establish their difference and specialness in their otherwise mundane American lives (147). And many Indians took advantage of economic opportunities to be cultural experts and performers afforded them by hobbyists.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the rise of anti-war movement, Black and Red Power movements, and the era of “Indian Self-Determination,” the cultural and political landscape changed radically. Deloria writes that Native people “began installing cultural boundary lines of their own” (153). Ethnic power-based social movements were not multicultural. Natives, like other groups, were asserting their difference, and their sovereign rights to what American society had taken—land, children, ancestors’ remains, and cultural and governance authority. I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s in an era of increasing Native pushback to white appropriation. For example, I saw the passage in 1978 of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in response to the tragic numbers of Native children removed from their families and communities. ICWA aims for Native children to be placed with Native relatives and families. I saw the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that aims to return ancestors’ remains, funerary and sacred objects to tribes, often taken by outright theft and desecration of grave sites. In terms of local tribal governance, and likely to the chagrin of hobbyists, I witnessed, the rise of rules forbidding non-consensual photography of individual dancers, and quiet derision of whites who came to pow wows or wacipi in regalia and danced. Even as many tribal communities look multi-racial, the hobbyists stuck out.

Erecting boundaries to dissuade incursions by appropriative cultural outsiders coincided with the rise in the 1980s of the New Age movement that included new forms of playing Indian. I distinctly remember in my teenage years that spanned most of the 1980s, the contempt and making fun of anything remotely New Age in both my reservation and urban Native communities. Not all New Agers necessarily engaged real Indians. Some of them, like the object hobbyists and Revolutionary Indians of old, were content to dress up and appropriate Indianness. For the New Ager, Deloria writes, “Indianness—coded as a spiritual essential—was the common property of all Americans” (171)[1] Thus New Agers like those who played Indian in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and like growing numbers of “Pretendians” could divorce their experiences from actual Natives who might be the original carriers of the essences they fetishize, be those ethical, spiritual, or biological. New Age spiritualism was historically consistent. Deloria wrote that violence against actual Indians always parallels US fetishization of Indians. The rise of the New Age coincided with the weakening of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in the 1980s in which federal decisions allowed settler land-uses that impeded Indigenous religious or spiritual practices and protection of sacred sites (171).

Neither Hobbyists nor New Agers have totally disappeared from the North American landscape, but they are not the predominant groups who now play Indian.

Playing Indian in the Twenty-first Century

I have given you more of Phil Deloria’s thinking on Playing Indian than my own thus far. But I am thinking hard on his historical accounts. They make clear the temporal and cultural depth, and the intractability, of our present-day predicament. I feel intellectually fascinated in this cultural moment. But given Deloria’s historical analysis, my twenty years of writing against the de facto genetic definition of “Native Americans” in human population genetics research and DNA testing, and recent experiences on social media in response to my work on this topic, I also feel newly hopeless that we will push back the latest crushing wave of Indian play. That wave formed probably in the late 1960s when, as Deloria writes, “cultural boundaries opened up” and “Non-Indians began taking up permanent native identities in order to lay claim to the cultural power of Indianness in the white imagination,” in ways that hobbyists and New Agers had not (168).

Deloria certainly did not mean to pre-sage the era of genetic ancestry testing that began just a few years after Playing Indian was published in 1998, but I am struck by his accidental prediction. In writing about New Age spirituality seekers, he wrote that actual “Indian people were basically irrelevant. Indianness—even when imagined as something essential—could be captured and marketed as a text [my emphasis], largely divorced from Indian oversight and questions of authorship” (170). Substitute test for text, and you have precisely the kinds of claims that are made by “Native American DNA” test takers, for example, US Senator Elizabeth Warren, to essential Indianness in their ancestry. Such claims to belonging based on a 23&Me genetic ancestry test that points to probable distant, un-named, and non-tribally affiliated ancestors are indeed claims and definitions of Nativeness “divorced from Indian oversight and questions of authorship,”—that is, tribal bureaucratic regulations and social and familial precepts that govern such matters. Warren’s claims had been refuted by the Cherokee Nation and its genealogists since 2012. She had also been warned since 2012 not to take a genetic ancestry test that tribes do not accept as evidence of the relationships they care about. Despite tribal pushback on her claims and explicit warnings about the inapplicability of the DNA test, she took a genetic ancestry test in 2018 and used it to continue claiming Indigenous identity - in the absence of ties to community.

While Deloria barely touched on false or exaggerated Native ancestry and identity claims, his analysis of New Agers offers yet more historical gems for understanding how their deployment of a multicultural identity-on-demand was an important step between the age of the Hobbyists and now, where we are in the middle of a Pretendian Pandemic in both the US and Canada.

Deloria described New Age thinking as tending “to focus on ultimate individual liberation and engagement with a higher power [and as] having little interest in the social world that lies between self and spirit” (170). In addition, “self-creative cultural free play was the prerogative of individuals, and it had little to do with the relations between social groups or the power inequities among them” (172). Too many ancestry claimers show little interest in adhering to the social and legal restrictions that Indigenous communities and governments place around citizenship and belonging. Often, those who falsely or exaggeratedly claim Native ancestry and consequent “identity” appear to view it as a form of common property, the right to which they can purchase for $99 on-line in the form a DNA test or an ancestry.com subscription. Native ancestry, alleged or distant, becomes a form of property that aids them in their search for self-actualization, their higher power. And it does not require the agreement of the actual Indigenous peoples they claim, for example, the Cherokee, Métis, or Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (171).

Like some of the New Agers who called on “essential Americanisms—freedom of religion and equal opportunity” and loftily denied that “skin color” should stand in their way “to acquire and practice sacred traditions,” would-be Natives claim similar individual freedoms and equal opportunity. They often also call attention to their skin color and accuse Natives of colorism when tribes or First Nations are instead asserting political and cultural authority over citizenship and kinship parameters. It’s not that “skin color” or phenotype never come into play as they tend to correlate with blood quantum rules in tribal citizenship or in federal Indian status, a complicated historical and bureaucratic topic for another time.[2] But the point of tribal or First Nation political authority is key, and colorism can often be an argument used to deflect from the fact that ancestry claimants deeply object to the assertion of Indigenous cultural and political power when it challenges their claims to Indigenous resources, including our biological and cultural patrimony, as Americans’ or Canadians’ common property.

Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism and Pretendianism

Taking up permanent Native identities, a move begun in the 1960s, was aided by the rise of multiculturalism as a supposed antidote to hard racial divisions. Deloria writes that “the breaking down of inequities and social restrictions enlarged the numbers of people who fit multiple categories at the same time: one might be Swedish, Dakota, and Latino all at once.” Add to that “a cosmopolitan focus on culture-crossings and simultaneities” and suddenly ethnic identity becomes in part a matter of choice. Cosmopolitan multiculturalism becomes “license for anyone to choose an ethnic identity—Indian, for example—regardless of family, history, or tribal recognition.” The New Agers and Pretendians are cultural contemporaries although on the surface they often seem quite different. Deloria writes that when “non-Indian New Age followers appropriated and altered a cosmopolitan understanding of Indianness, they laid bare a slow rebalancing away from the collective concerns with social justice that had emerged in the 1960s and toward the renewed focus on individual freedom that has characterized America since the 1980s.” Consuming other cultures was a path toward “healing a wounded Self” (173).

Where the Revolutionary Indians sought to heal and form a new national self, the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls sought to redeem that national self as ethical. The hobbyists carried on the redemptive national and ethical project while also individualizing redemption. For the New Agers, they were not consciously building or redeeming a national American self although they were certainly formed of its deeply-held notions of individual liberty. They were in part resisting what they saw as a violent and immoral nation while they hyper-individualized their resistance. And the Pretendians, who come in diverse political, class, and racial stripes—although I focus on the mostly white and public facing individuals who benefit most—are also trying to heal a wounded self. That is clear in their rhetoric and in their defenses of their claims, which are increasingly under the spotlight in both the US and Canada. My deep dive into Deloria’s Playing Indian makes clear that such claimants are actors reading from a script that has been performed upon the American national stage for three hundred-years and counting.

“Diversity” and “Reverse Passing”

I cannot spend as long on the critical race scholarship that I draw on in my analysis of this moment of widespread false and exaggerated Indigenous ancestry and identity claims in the US and Canada. But I want to call attention to key scholarship that picks up where Phil Deloria left off, in the 1980s.

While the concept of Black people and other people of color “passing” as white in order to avoid discrimination is a commonly recognized cultural artifact of our white supremacist society, the concept of “reverse passing” was until very recently a far less recognized phenomenon. In her important 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris argued that whiteness and the right to and control of property became so strongly linked that the racial category of whiteness became a form of treasured property, a valuable thing in and of itself. Those who were seen to possess it were accorded rights and privileges that the US legal system then defends. One of the rights and privileges of whiteness is the right to define and control the legal meaning of group identity. White-controlled institutions such as the courts define who counts as Black and who counts as Native. I’ve written in Native American DNA and elsewhere on white definitions of Indigenous identity, including genetic definitions.

“Reverse passing” emerges later, according to Khaled Beydoun and Erika K. Wilson, in their 2017 UCLA Law Review article by the same name. While racial passing as Native is technically a multi-racial affair, it is whites as a group who materially benefit most. Beydoun and Wilson explain how the concept of “racial diversity” aids reverse passing. It was “conceptualized to mean increasing the number of nonwhite persons in a particular space, particularly with respect to coveted university seats and employment opportunities” (289). Supreme Court affirmative action jurisprudence, they argue, produced a “situational value in nonwhiteness” in which there have arisen “incentives that previously did not exist for whites to reverse-pass” (282).

The era of diversity, narrated by Phil Deloria, coincides with white backlash to affirmative action protections and consequent lawsuits by white plaintiffs. Beydoun and Wilson write that in 1978 the Court held in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that “rather than remedying the generalized lingering effects of past societal discrimination, diversity is the compelling state interest that justifies the consideration of race in college admission programs” (289). They explain that “the Court extolled the virtues of racially heterogenous groups while diminishing the relevance and propriety of using affirmative action programs as remedial measure for historic discrimination against minority groups” [my emphasis] (289-90). Remember Phil Deloria’s explanation of how 1980s New Agers revealed a national movement away from collectivist social justice concerns that emerged in the 1960s, the same era in which affirmative action policies emerged? The New Agers and the nation returned in the 1980s to focus on individual freedoms and self-actualization. Court cases in that decade also struck blows to 1960s and 70s group gains toward collectivist remediation from previous centuries’ exclusions and the consequent employment, educational, and economic harms.

Beydoun and Wilson explain:

“By supplanting discrimination remediation with diversity as the sole compelling state interest, the Supreme Court removed the import of actual ‘lived experiences,’ particularly lived experiences of marginalization and discrimination experienced by people of color. The Court instead reduced nonwhite racial identity into phenotype and culture… Such a reduction of nonwhiteness makes it an identity that some whites can easily perform and present for purposes of capitalizing on racial identities coveted by diversity-driven programming…These performative contributions [to classrooms, campuses, and society] are divorced from the broader lived and existential dimensions that remedial affirmative action programs previously took into consideration when considering nonwhite applicants for university admission” (291-92).

After Beydoun and Wilson’s extensive legal argument, most of which I’ve not done justice to here, it seems straightforward to make a restorative justice case for the most marginalized against reverse-passing or race shifting. But there is also a wider institutional case to be made against reverse-passing. As I wrote last month in a post to this Substack newsletter, there is great risk to Indigenous well-being with the “structural trickle-down” that occurs when “non-Indigenous people with non-Indigenous community standpoints who pose as Indigenous and who are invested in sustaining that deception ris[e] through the ranks to represent us and theorize Indigenous peoplehood, sovereignty, and (anti-)colonialism. These people become ‘thought leaders,’ institutional decision-makers, and policy advisors to governmental leaders with regulatory and economic power over our peoples. They then shape academic and public discourse about who we allegedly are, what our lives allegedly look like, and what they think should be done about and to us.” Playing Indian has consequences for our well-being and for our very survival.

Conclusion: “I Will Die with You”

I and others have encountered pushback in the last several months due to our direct challenges to the structural problem of false or overblown Indigenous ancestry claims. It has become clear to me that confronting this form of theft is as formidable a challenge as confronting the core theft of settler colonialism: false and illegal claims by the US and Canada to Indigenous lands and waters. The nation state’s debt for genocide committed against Indigenous peoples, and the almost total appropriation of Indigenous land and resources will never be repaid. Genocide cannot be undone. Even #LandBack, an at once inspiring and pragmatic move, cannot restore our ancestors who were stolen, starved, who died of broken hearts, massacres and sickness. Even #LandBack is still unfathomable to most non-Indigenous citizens. It is unfathomable to some Indigenous people too. Imagine how many Canadian and US citizens would balk at the idea that Canada and the US illegally occupy much of their territories, that they lack moral authority? That is essentially the same conceptual mountain we face in saying that well-paid and well-known people like politician Elizabeth Warren and academic Andrea Smith in the US, novelist Joseph Boyden and film director Michelle Latimer in Canada have no moral or legal rights to occupy the identities they claim and the attendant resource and psychic benefits of reverse passing.

I said earlier that I feel hopeless for the first time that we will push back this latest wave of Indian play. My life’s work, whether earlier as a planner for tribes and tribal organizations, or now as a Native Studies scholar, has been about defending Indigenous knowledges and interests for a future in which I believed our distinct Peoplehoods might survive for the good of this world. But in the last several months I’ve witnessed refusal after refusal to believe or address the massive fraud involved in this Pretendianism Pandemic, including by our own people. I’ve seen Indigenous people—sometimes those who have always been connected to community, but more often those who say they want to (re)connect—cling to individualized “identity” and a worldview that emphasizes individual choice and long-ago ancestral essence over the rights of living Indigenous collectivism, however impure and struggling with/in colonialism those collectives might be. I should not be surprised. I am more of a social constructionist than a biological essentialist. But the threat is existential when our biological relations with less lived experience in Indigenous community find common cause with pretendians formed by settler individualism.

I now expect that Indigenous futures, at least in the US and Canada, will be ever flatter shadows of our ancestors’ ontological fullness. I expressed my newly found despondency to a respected Indigenous Studies colleague. I told him I had suddenly lost the purpose of my life’s work. I am working my way toward understanding my own ontological grief as part of a global ecological grief that I had already understood to be present. He said he’s never felt the hope that had been my guiding light. I was incredulous: “What then are we doing in Native Studies?” I implored. “Harm reduction,” he responded. Okay. Lessening suffering is good work.

I want to tell you a short story before I end this piece. I’ve told this story in multiple places, and I quote myself here:[3]

“In August 1862, a group of young Dakota men were hunting unsuccessfully. Their hunting grounds diminished by white encroachment and suffering long-term hunger, they stopped at a settler’s house to ask for water and food. The settler threatened them with his gun. The young men argued—who among them was brave enough to stand up to the white man? They shot the settler and several others at the home. This was the beginning of war...

After killing the settlers, the young men returned to the camp of my four-greats grandfather, Chief Little Crow or Taoyateduta. Legend has it that he made a great speech…:

You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows. We are only little herds of buffaloes left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. The white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one -- two -- ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.

Do you hear the thunder of their big guns? No; it would take you two moons to run down to where they are fighting, and all the way your path would be among white soldiers.

You are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the hard Moon (January). Taoyateduta is not a coward. He will die with you.”

I am nowhere near the person that my ancestor Taoyateduta was. Nonetheless, and despite the incomprehensibility of the white supremacist state making restitution for what it has stolen and continues to take, I will die with Indigenous collectives in this struggle. I will not cease, along with growing numbers of scholars, journalists, and other Indigenous community members, resisting the big guns that are fetishization of one or two long ago real or imagined ancestors, genetic ancestry testing, and reverse-passing. This struggle doesn’t only manifest in the form of individuals like Warren, Smith, Boyden, and Latimer. It is a continuation of struggle that we and our ancestors have collectively lived for centuries as we have resisted the theft of land and children, the extinguishment of Indigenous governance structures, and the theft of ancestors’ bones, and our literal blood and DNA. Indigenous Peoples as collectives, as relations, as humans, are not the property of the white supremacist settler state, nor do we belong to its “multicultural” citizenry like the land stolen and occupied. We are not your dead ancestors. We are living Peoples. We belong to ourselves.


6/18/21 Update: In the NAISA 2021 session, “The (Recent) Settler Turn to Indigeneity: Indigenous Self-Determination and the Challenge of “Race Shifting” and Circe Sturm notes between 6-7 mins that by 1980 is where we really see the race shifting to Cherokee beginning in earnest. There were major shifts in Native self-identification between 1970 and 1980 US census.

[1] Also see Deloria 1998, page 175 for more on Native “cultures as ethnic gifts for a pluralistic American whole.”

[2] See Kim TallBear, “The Political Economy of Tribal Citizenship in the US: Lessons for Canadian First Nations?”

[3] See, for example, Kim TallBear, “The US-Dakota War and Failed Settler Kinship,”Anthropology News, Vol 57, issue 9 (September 2016). I re-published the essay with an updated introduction in April 2021 in my Substack newsletter, Unsettle.