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 www.dkmai.com 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