Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i let non-indians speak for them anyways) [Point]

by Guest Contributor Gyasi Ross

Like any ethnic identity discourse, the “Native” conversation is complicated and convoluted. Yet, in the twin pursuit(s) of political correctness and genuine good intentions, most people make good-faith efforts to trudge through the discourse in a respectful manner.

We do the best that we can.

Unfortunately, the singular exception to those good-faith efforts is for the Native people of this continent. When Native people are the topic of discussion, we don’t “do the best we can.” Instead, non-Native people assume that they inherently know about Native people, without listening to the Native voices themselves.

Since the beginning of Native/non-Native interactions, non-Natives have had a racist, dehumanizing and insulting pattern of propping up—irrespective of Native people’s wishes—completely inadequate, improper and many times, illegal leadership to speak on Native people’s behalf. The historical record shows that the leadership that non-Natives (typically the United States government, but also representatives from Dutch, French, British and Spanish invaders as well) typically employed to speak on behalf of their individual Nations were individuals that were not appointed by their Nation. Instead, the invaders/colonizing forces identified and empowered individuals to speak simply because they said what the non-Natives wanted to say, typically in direct opposition to what the majority of Native people actually wanted. Native people protested, but to little avail, as those colonizers needed a justification to achieve their goals—usually the taking of millions of acres of land and resources from Native people—and their propped-up leaders helped accomplish that task. Those “Native leaders” told the narrative that the colonizers wanted to hear, without any approval or consensus from the people that they supposedly represented.

Non-Natives appointed shills, frauds, and hucksters that had zero credibility amongst Native people.

It actually made sense—the European colonizers’ interests was in direct opposition to Native people’s interests; we were their “enemies.” Therefore, in a perceived zero-sum game, enemies do horrible things to accomplish their goals.

Non-Native people’s pattern of propping-up false leaders continues today. Unfortunately, it’s not only the “enemy” that does it anymore.

Indeed, because of a shameful lack of knowledge about Native people, liberals, progressives, racial commentators and educated folk—precisely the people one might reasonably expect to actually do some research to understand Native people better—sometimes do exactly the same thing, as displayed at the recent W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Second Annual America Healing Conference.

And that’s actually kinda worse than when the enemy does it.

Ok, but first, before tackling that discussion head-on, I want to throw a couple absurd scenarios in your direction.

1) In the early 1990s, there was a terrible hip- hop group called the “Young Black Teenagers.” The group, YBT, was comprised100% of white boys with dreads that spoke in every single ebonics/hood/ghetto stereotypical slang possible to man and wore gold teeth. Those ground-breaking wiggers, as indicated by the name, purported to be black. True story—do a youtube search. Comical, but true.

2) In 2012, a slick-haired, terminally uncallous-handed presidential candidate named Mitt Romney tried very hard to shake off his image as the poster child for all things wealthy, privileged, and white; he wanted to court voters not already within the Republican wheelhouse. Therefore, in a stretch of reasoning to top all stretches of reasoning, his handlers floated the idea that he would be the first “Mexican” presidential candidate because one of his equally white ancestors moved to Mexico to continue to practice polygamy. Hence, “Mexican.” Yeah, I know; ridiculous.

Ethnic identity is complicated and convoluted. Yet, both of these examples were obviously of unworthy people attempting to carry the “ethnic champion/ spokesperson” mantle for the black and Latino ethnic groups. In fact, the idea of either of these—the white Young Black Teenagers or white, super-privileged Mitt Romney—being a spokesperson for ethnically black or Latino people is facially (and racially) ridiculous. Moreover, those who see themselves as being on the forefront of promoting a respectful racial discourse, such as Racialicious and or the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s, would never allow these non-worthy ethnic champions to speak for black or Latino people, no matter the complicated/convoluted nature of ethnic identity discussions generally.

It would be disrespectful for them to do that. Obviously.

Yet two champions of racial equity, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Racialicious reporting from the Racial Equity conference, do not show the same respect for the Native ethnic discourse. They’re not alone—nobody else does either. It’s typical.

See, a woman that looked phenotypically black spoke on behalf of Native people at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Second Annual America Healing Conference. No big deal—there are plenty of Native people who are mixed with black, white and every other ethnicity. Still, she claimed to be a member of a Tribe that is not federally recognized, nor is there much of a historical record of such a Tribe’s existence.

Still, despite her lack of Native credentials, the W.K Kellogg Foundation and Racialicious treated her speech as if she was a worthy speaker for Native people. Now, when a phenotypically black woman claims to come from a Tribe that hardly anybody (including other Natives) even seems to know about, purports to speak for Native people, it should raise some initial questions in people’s minds about her legitimacy as a spokesperson. It should raise some questions just like it would raise questions if she were phenotypically white or phenotypically Asian and spoke as a representative of Native people. Although “looks” aren’t the only criteria to be able to speak for Native people, someone that looks distinctively like a member of another ethnic group should still raise some reasonable questions.

Native people do, after all, have criteria. We are not an all-inclusive club that only requires a few feathers and/or a cool sounding “Indian Name” for membership.

Some of those questions might look like this: “Is she a member of a federally recognized Indian Tribe?” Being a member of a federally recognized Indian Tribe is definitely not the only criteria for authenticity, but it holds a certain level of presumptive validity. In this case, the answer is a resounding “no,” and in fact, the Tribe she purports barely anyone has ever heard of before. Importantly, that question might lead to another reasonable question such as, “If he or she is not a member of a federally recognized Indian Tribe, do other Native people recognize that purported Native person as a leader or spokesperson (or even a Native)?”

Native leadership is a small circle, and when very few (or none) of those leaders know about a purported fellow leader, one might be inclined to be suspicious about letting that person speak for Native people assuming they value an honest Native discourse, as they value other honesty in other ethnic discussions. An additional question they might ask is, “If they do not meet those above criteria for authenticity, is there any indication that they might be a person that is not, in fact, a worthy spokesperson for Native people (like Young Black Teenagers are not for black folks and/or Mitt Romney is not for Latino people)?” If they asked that simple series of questions, they’d likely find that she is not the best spokesperson for Native people.

To wit, the idea of her—a purported member of a Southeastern tribe—wearing a headdress, a Plains Indian custom, might say, “She doesn’t seem to know a lot about Southeastern people. Perhaps I’ll look for someone more universally accepted as a Native leader/spokesperson.”

But those questions weren’t asked. Not even by our friends at Racialicious and W.K. Kellogg Foundation—experts in ethnic discourse.

I’ve been writing about ethnic identity, especially as it pertains to Native people, for quite some time. I have a book entitled “The Thing About Skins” coming out which has a substantial amount of its pages dedicated to that discussion; it’s a complicated matter. Still, it behooves all of us—the experts at Racialicious and W.K. Kellogg, non-Native academics, Native academics, Native people—to expect the same level of learned and respectful conversation about Native ethnic identity as about all other ethnic groups. In short, it is just as important that the experts at Racialicious and W.K. Kellogg (and other expert groups as well) practice the same amount of due diligence regarding those who purport to be spokespeople for Native people as they do for other ethnic groups.

It only seems fair, right?

Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation; his Blackfoot name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is an attorney, a writer and a lecturer. He writes for Indian Country Today Media Network in a column called “The Thing About Skins”; he also wrote a book called “Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)” available at and downloadable from Barnes and Noble and Amazon as ebook. Finally, he has a book entitled “The Thing About Skins” coming out in the summer of 2012 on Cut Bank Creek Press

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  • Pingback: What do people see when they look at you? (1 of 2) « Born That Way()

  • C W

    “Curious if anyone here angry at Gyasi’s post is also running to webpages defending Elizabeth Warren”

    What an incredibly silly false dichotomy. Frauds are frauds.

  • Pingback: Is “Queen Chief Warhorse” Native? And Who Gets To Decide? | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture()

  • Willow

    When did “wigger” become an acceptable term to use? You set up an argument, and then nullify it. Why mention this woman’s phenotypical looks at all if it doesn’t matter in the assessment of her authenticity? You try to downplay that her blackness should make us “suspicious,” but that’s exactly what you mean. Why not just say it? I think maybe you should examine some of your own internalization of dominating ideas of race and heritage before you write article accusing others of a lack of respect. Seriously, you lost me at WIGGER.

  • Dr Skylaser

    I agree that there are some troubling things about this piece, but I would like to hear more from Mr. Ross on what specifically he thinks should have happened that didn’t, both on the part of the Kellogg Foundation and on the part of Racialicious, particularly since it seems he misunderstood the role of Racialicious in this conference thing.

    • Gyasi Ross

       Thank you, Dr–that’s a very fair and important question.  Ultimately, the question should be “What, prophylacticly, should the Kellogg Foundation and Racialicious have done, and in the future, what should they do to ensure that they do not get hucksters pretending to be Native speaking for Native people?”

      For the Foundation:

      1)  Stop being white supremacists and assuming that you are the arbiter of who is Native.  WE determine that.  Not you.  Elizabeth Warren, Ward Churchill.  Queen Warhorse.  Lt. Aldo Raines. (for you folks that say that this episode arose because “she’s black,” simply look at the way Indian Country reacted to the white Ward Churchill faking his Native bonafides and becoming a “spokesman for Indian people”–we chased him out too.  Do some research before you speak about things you don’t know about).

      2) Actually vet the speakers; that is, show Native people the same respect and due diligence that you do Black folks, white folks, Latinos, Asians, etc.  Native people are not the local all-inclusive Water Buffalo lodge where one merely needs to give themselves a cool “Indian name” and wear some pseudo-pan-Indian fashion.  We have criteria, and will not be silent, obviously, when gatekeepers attempt to tell us who our people are.  To hearken back to the Mitt Romney/YBT example, those people would obviously not suffice as speakers for the communities that they emulate.  Well, we have some standards as well.

      3)  (This actually goes for both the Foundation AND Racialicious) Consult with consortia of tribes and do a bit of research; don’t assume that you know everything about Natives–obviously you don’t.  When someone mentions that perhaps this person is not a legitimate speaker for Native people, do not get defensive and say that they’ve been vetted.  No they have not.  Or at least not properly.  A simple google search of this particular huckster reveals that there are myriad concerns about her authenticity as a Native person. 

      4)  Assume that Tribes are 100% empowered and self-determinant about defining ourselves–we do not need anybody else’s approval.  This is the classic white liberal fallacy, to assume that we are this fuzzy group of people that accept everybody as long as they want to “get into touch with their Indian side.”  Nonsense.  You’ve watched too many Brady Bunch episodes.  We are not the Boy Scouts, and our culture and inclusion into our culture will not be reduced to simple fashion accessories–this is white supremacy at its most malicious, to say that we do not even have authority to determine who “we” are. 

      For Racialicious:

      1)  Don’t become defensive when someone points out a potential huckster (as you did)–use that as a learning opportunity to do some research. 

      2)  When that research turns up that the person probably IS a huckster, acknowledge it and move on.  Don’t defend hucksterism against Native people–it will cause you to lose credibility.

      Fair list, Dr?

  • Gyasi Ross

    Thank you all for the comments, even the anonymous ones :-).  I appreciate you participating in this discussion.  Also, big thanks to Latoya and to Racialicious for engaging this head-on; it would have been easy to simply place all culpability for excusing this silliness on the Kellogg Foundation, but they didn’t.  Thank you. 

  • Guest

    A very disappointing  article/argument from an author whose work I usually enjoy reading because he challenges the safety blankets that we Native people often retreat to. The presumptuous (assuming the organizers did not consider issues of authenticity) and passive-agressive (throwing into the mix phenotype and federal status and then taking it back) tone of this article was jarring. I personally feel that we as Native people need to sincerely acknowledge that none of us as a singular person or a tribe/nation is an arbiter of authenticity. We often criticize non-Natives for essentializing us, but we too often do it to ourselves to our own detriment. We have a multitude of perspectives, phenotypes, political statuses, histories, and “traditions”. We say that Native identity is not a club, but we often treat it as such, like there is a some sort of universal litmus test that will completely affirm or deny membership. Perhaps Chief Warhorse’s message, which the author does not elucidate, resonated with some Native and non-Native people. And to be clear, please don’t box me in as some sort of Chief Warhorse apologist or critic. I don’t know her, never heard of her before these series of articles, but I’m okay with not knowing. (Yes, sometimes it’s okay to just not know!) If I ever do have the chance of meeting her or someone belonging to her tribe, we can at that time have a discussion about her tribal identity. 
    Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair to the author as he may not directly be guilty of all of the above, but I feel as though the crux of his argument feeds into an unhealthy obsession some Native (and non-Native) folks have with exposing so-called “frauds”.

  • Joe Downs

    Gyasi, I laughed outloud when you came to the part that liberals and “friends” of the Indian often are worse than the enemy. It is so true and so sad as to be hysterical.
    Regarding Romney….besides the crossing of the European made border that divides Mexico’s and the USA’s natives artificially (there are substantial Native and Euro accounts of vast trade networks that connected our people)….Romney and other Mormons have added a Native American legacy to their creation story that is playing out in very negative ways in Mexico. The lost tribes of Israel became divided in their devotion to god and of course…the sinners became blackened as a punishment. The Nephites (ancestors of the Mormons) built all the pyramid and mound societies of North and South America but were laid waste by the darker Lamanites (Native people).   These descendants, called Latter Day Saints , now hold out an olive branch to tribes of the U.S. Great Basin tribes and to Mexicans as an offer to the economic benefits of being white while it really is a surreptitious way to CO_OPT WHOLE CULTURES!!!!!!!!!

    You are right….Native identity is complicated to be sure. In the USA, tribes are mixed but culturally Native and in Latin America, they are less mixed but culturally European (spanish).

    So sad.

  • Shaina

    Dear Mr. Ross, I very much appreciate your perspective.  I too think it’s important to do due diligence when attempting to identify someone to act as a spokesperson for a far from monolithic ethnicity. I do wonder however, as the grandaughter of a  biracial (Choctaw and Black) woman who was raised in isolation during the last decades of the 1800s in the bayous of Louisiana, whether there is a mechanism for the many people of mixed indigenous and “other” ancestry who wish to connect with lost parts of their cultural history racial identity to find a place within Native circles (not as the self-appointed spokespeople of Native peoples of this continent, but rather as cousins and allies in struggle for recognition and equality).  As a person of multiracial heritage, the stories of my father’s people (from Russia) and my mother’s people (from Louisiana and the Dominican Republic) form the fabric of a rich identity which I wish to explain and preserve for coming generations, without venturing into the territory of insulting misappropriations of another’s identity.  I had the good fortune to know my grandmother until she passed away when I was 10 years old, and I grew up fascinated by her stories of the bayou, of her Choctaw mother who chose to marry a former slave and live in some isolation from her people.
     I presume that Chief Warhorse probably heard similar stories about a Native ancestor or two and hungered for a way to connect with that lost identity.  Quite obviously she created an identity of her own, seeking to honor this family mythology in a way that unfortunately harkins back to stereotypes of Native people and

    exoticization of their customs.  Should she be put forth as a spokesperson for Native people in the Americas.  Obviously not.  But I’d venture to say that comparing her to Mitt Romney or the young black teens is a bit unfair.

  • Sarah

    I’ve been watching videos of interviews with Queen Chief Warhorse. She comes across dismissive of actual federally recognized tribes.  She regularly says she’s done a lot of historical and genealogical research but unfortunately the specifics are not shared.

    Her story has changed over time, back in 2002 she said her heritage was Cherokee from an ancestor named Andrew Green who came to Louisana from Georgie.

    I think it would be fine for her to form a heritage interest group, to research, and encourage pride in heritage. But calling her group a Tribe (one that rightfully should be in nation to nation negotiations with the USA) is really problematic. 

    A con artist could form a group, be a charismatic leader, tell folks that they are chosen members, get grants and funding based on their declared identity, collect social security numbers of members, insist that questions are attacks ……………… this does happen from time to time so I believe it is wise to freely discuss, research, and observe.  Questions and discussion don’t have be viewed as attacks.

  • Laura

    Can someone fix the text wrapping on this post? It’s an important piece and the formatting is making it hard to follow.