Is “Queen Chief Warhorse” Native? And Who Gets To Decide?

by Guest Contributor Deb Reese, originally published at American Indians in Children’s Literature

Yesterday (May 2nd, 2012), Latoya Peterson of Racialicious published my post about “Queen Chief Warhorse” at her site. In it I questioned the use of “Queen.” Latoya also posted an essay by Gyasi Ross and one of her own. The three generated many comments. Some people question the import of federal recognition. Some people see the discussion as racist. This is my response to that conversation.

In Part One (below), I return to the remarks made by “Queen Chief Warhorse” that night in New Orleans. Here’s the video, and beneath it are her remarks, followed by my thoughts (then and now) about what she said. In Part Two, I address some of the Latoya’s questions.

PART ONE

Warhorse:

“All glory go to the Creator. It’s an honor to be here today, but I love the theme: America Healing. But first, let’s think about something. Where did America come from? Have it always been America? Or was it just created to be America? Who are the real Americans? America keep changing and changing and changing.”

Debbie’s response:
With her “let’s think about something,” she asked the audience to hit the pause button and be critical thinkers. That’s a good thing for any speaker to do.

I invite you (and her) to think critically about her question “Who are the real Americans?” It is factually incorrect for her to call the Indigenous peoples of this land Americans. When Europeans arrived here, they entered into diplomatic negotiations with leaders of Indigenous nations. The outcome of those negotiations were treaties, just like the treaties the US makes today with nations around the world. They didn’t make treaties with “First Americans.” They made treaties with hundreds of Indigenous nations. None of them were called “America” and their citizens didn’t call themselves “Americans.” (If you’re interested in treaties, you can read some of them online, but I urge you to get the two-volume set, Documents of American Indian Diplomacy, edited by Vine Deloria, Jr. and Raymond J. DeMallie. It is more comprehensive and it provides context for reading the treaties.)

We were, and are, sovereign nations. Categorizing us beneath the multicultural umbrella obscures our status as sovereign nations and leads people to think that we want to be Americans, just like everybody else. In some ways we do, and some ways we don’t. For the most part, that multicultural umbrella is about people of color. We (Indigenous peoples) might be people of color, but we are, first and foremost, citizens of sovereign nations. Some of us look the way people think Indians should look, but some of us don’t. Some of us look like we ought to be called “African American” instead, and some of us look White. What we look like doesn’t matter.

Some might think that the “we are not people of color” statement is racist, I hope you see it isn’t about race. It is about sovereignty.

Any nation–the U.S., or Canada, or Spain–has the power to decide who its citizens are and what criteria they will use to made such determinations. We might not like the criteria, and we can work to change that criteria…but until it is changed, it is pretty much what we abide by. Indigenous nations in the United States also have that power. Most people in the United States don’t know that, because most people in the United States think we vanished, that we came to the end of the trail. We’re still here, however; and when we see errors, some of us point them out. If you were in France and someone said something incorrect about the United States, you might speak up and correct that error.

By the way, “Queen Chief Warhorse” isn’t the only person to make that error. President Obama made it, too, in his children’s book wherein he writes about “thirteen groundbreaking Americans.” Among those thirteen is Sitting Bull. One of Sitting Bull’s grandson’s said emphatically that Sitting Bull did not consider himself “American.” That error is made a lot because people don’t know enough about who we were–and who we are. Given Racialicious’ audience, I’m glad to see the conversation because having it creates the opportunity for knowledge to be gained, and spread.

Warhorse:

“Let’s go back in time when the American Indians look like I look…”

Debbie’s response:
Does she really think that all Indigenous peoples were phenotypically Black? Or did she misspeak?

Later on (her remarks went far longer than the minute-long video), she said that reservations are “prison camps” and like the “projects.” There is a kernel of truth in that statement. There was a time when one had to have permission from a federal agent to leave the reservation, but that isn’t the case today. Does her audience know that? Does she? There is poverty and substandard housing on reservations but, for some of us, they are far more than that. We (at Nambe) are on a reservation, but we were never moved. We are on the land we’ve been on for hundreds of years. (Through carbon dating, our current village is dated to 1300, and ones we were in before are far older than that.) Our traditions are strong.

Warhorse:

“…and roamed the southeast part of the United States, freely.”

Debbie’s response:
Her use of “roam” is another indicator (to me) that she is steeped in stereotypes of American Indians.

Think critically about that word, who uses it, and when it is used. Basically, what she is describing is the movement of a people. That movement may be due to seasonal changes, or to follow herds, or to go where water or resources are more plentiful at a given time of the year. That movement is different than what the word “roam” means. You can look it up if you wish. It means to move about without purpose or plan or to wander over or through. See why it doesn’t work when applied to the movement of a people?

In 2009, I did some research on the use of the word “roam.” It is often used to describe the movement of Indigenous peoples. Here’s what I found:

On the web—

Search phrase: “Pioneers roamed”: 129 hits
Search phrase: “Cowboys roamed”: 938 hits
Search phrase: “Indians roamed”: 9,910 hits

I repeated the search in Google books—

Pioneers roamed: 23 hits
Cowboys roamed: 135
Indians roamed: 688 hits

Obviously, pioneers and cowboys were doing the same thing Indians were doing (moving from one place to another), but I think the discrepancy in use of the word is worth noting. The Indigenous peoples in the southeast part of the United States weren’t roaming. Using that word takes away from their intellect, their agency, and their humanity. It lets us think of them as “primitive” or animal-like.

Warhorse:

“I love what the Mayor said… We have to tell the truth. We cannot heal America till we fix the foundation. Can we start right there?”

Debbie’s response:
I agree. We do have to tell the truth and fix the foundation, but given her lack of substantive knowledge about Indigenous peoples, we can’t start with her.

PART TWO

Latoya poses the question: Who gets to say if “Queen Chief Warhorse” is Native? She, like anyone in the world, can say anything they want to. My guess is that she (like Elizabeth Warren) learned about a Native ancestor from stories handed down from family members. And with that story, she built a way of “being” Indian that is based on stereotypes. That’s too bad. It undermines the work she is trying to do to get recognition.

“Queen Chief Warhorse” has organized a group of people who share that story. They’re trying to get recognized but they’ve got a long way to go. As Gyasi pointed out, it is a difficult process but an important one. Among other things, it protects all of you (Americans) from being ripped off by someone who claims they’re a tribe and then charges you for performances or products that aren’t, in fact, accurate or authentic.

Do you know about the Indian Arts and Crafts Act? It is a federal law that says that items marketed as being American Indian must be supported by documentation that the maker is a citizen of a federally recognized tribe. There’s a lot of pushback on that law because a lot of people who are Native can’t get enrolled due to the way that a tribe’s criteria is laid out. It isn’t fair, as many point out, but changes can be made to those criteria. Many tribes are making those changes, and many have other ways of recognizing individuals who don’t fit the criteria for enrollment.

The thing is, there’s a lot of hucksters out there, claiming American Indian identity.

Do you remember when that Sacajawea coin came out? There was a group in the Midwest who said they were a tribe, and, they marketed a small bag in which you could store your coin. When they were called out as fake, they had to return the money to people who bought those bags (I didn’t bookmark the page. I’ll look for it but, in the meantime, if anyone finds it, please let me know).

And do you remember that group that said it was a tribe, and was selling “citizenship” to people in other countries (particularly Mexico)? Those individuals bought that citizenship and came to the US, only to find out they’d been the victims of a fraud.

Latoya points to the idea of sovereignty and how a group decides. “Queen Chief Warhorse” has a group, and, she’s Queen and Chief of that group. Apparently, they think that’s fine. Therein is the key. Who is “the group” and what are they doing to become recognized? If Latoya has Native ancestry in her family line and she starts researching it, I don’t think she would create a tribe and start wearing a headdress at various functions. I don’t think “Queen Chief Warhorse” is like the two fraudulent tribes I noted above, but I do think her speech and adoption of stereotypes is undermining her claim and chance of recognition. “Queen Chief Warhorse” says she is Chahta, which is Choctaw. Does she have any contact with the Choctaw Nation in Mississippi? Or the one in Oklahoma ? If she and her group want to learn what Chahta’s culture was/is, they could go to either one of those nations and learn from them. Have they done that? If you’re trying to recover something you lost, where do you start looking?

Latoya also says that the conversation leaves us “not much further than before” but I think she’s wrong about that. She knows a lot more, as do her readers. Prior to this, I think the conversations at her site (regarding identity) were grounded in pop culture, and Gyasi and I are trying to ground them in the politics of Indigenous nations.

If you want to learn more, the Cherokee Nation has an excellent video:

As David Cornsilk (citizen of the Cherokee Nation) said to me, Mayor Landreau’s recommendation of her as a speaker isn’t without context, too. If she’s successful in convincing people of her group’s status as a Native nation, the city stands to gain money from those who would give her group funding, based on its claim as a Native nation.

If you read Gyasi’s piece and you’ve read this far on mine, I hope you feel that you know a lot more now than you did before. Carry that information with you, and share it with others. And the next time you could across someone who says she’s the queen of an Indian tribe, I think you’ll hear that claim in a different way than you did before.

Part of why you accepted the idea of an Indian “Queen” is due in large part to what you learned in school. Most children’s books you read were full of errors. The stories might have been page-turners or award-winning, and they might have felt accurate, but they weren’t. American Indians in Children’s Literature, in publication since 2005, has been providing readers with critical analysis of those books, and, tools to help you spot the problems yourself. If you’re reading this essay at another site, please visit American Indians in Children’s Literature, and let parents and teachers know about the site, too. In the top right are lists of books that accurately represent American Indians. For your convenience, they are grouped by grade level.

Update: Sunday, May 6, 2012, 4:38 PM

Over the last couple of days, I’ve watched several videos in which “Queen Chief Warhorse” talks about her group. To view them, search Youtube and Google videos using “Chief Warhorse” as your search term. In watching them, I found some answers to questions I posed above:

When she said “Let’s go back in time when the American Indians look like I look” she means it. By watching the videos, I understand that she means it just as she said it. She believes that this continent was first populated by Africans who came here on entrepreneur ships. The people of federally recognized sovereign Native nations today, she says, are descendents of her people who came here from Africa and mixed with people who weren’t from Africa. The real Indigenous people, she says, look like her. To use her words, real Indigenous people would look “cocoa brown” like her and not “vanilla.” We (federally recognized sovereign nations), she says, are not legitimate and the federal government is being ripped off by us.

She says she is from a long line of royal chiefs. Hence, she believes it is correct for her to use “Queen” as her title.

Above, I wondered if she has made efforts to visit the Mississippi Choctaw or Oklahoma Choctaw Nations to reestablish connections with them. By watching the videos, I understand that she doesn’t feel the need to do so. She says that the Oklahoma Choctaws use of “Choctaw” is incorrect. She says that the people who moved to Oklahoma started using “Choctaw” and then went down to Louisiana to observe her people and how they did things. Then, they went back to Oklahoma and mimicked the ways of her people.

My thoughts on that? I find it interesting and, when I have time, will look into it. In some ways she seems to be determined to discredit and even usurp the federally recognized tribes, putting her people in place as the “First Americans” who have rightful claim to this continent. On one hand, she seems to dismiss us and, on the other, she adopts stereotypical Plains Indian ways of being, but it is possible she addresses that in one of the videos and I didn’t see it. (Several people have written to me privately about horses, and how they weren’t in the swampland.)

Why do I bother, some of you might wonder, with any of this?!

Here’s why… In the 1950s, the federal government instituted the “Termination” program through which it hoped to be rid of federally recognized tribes. In American Indian Politics and the American Political System, David Wilkins writes that over 100 tribes were, in fact, terminated. Carrying out the policy proved disastrous and it ended in the 1960s. Some tribes have been successful in having their sovereign status restored. In comments at Racialicious, someone pointed to a news article that reports that U.S. Department of Interior officials met with her in Louisiana, and that it is the first time the government has met with a group that doesn’t have federal recognition. I also found an article about her success in getting a three-digit code from the U.S. Census by which to count the members of her group. It seems she is making inroads with the federal government, but to what end, and what does the federal government stand to gain by meeting with her?


Update, Monday, May 7, 6:13 PM

Indian Country Today ran a story today about Elizabeth Warren. Here’s an excerpt:

“The mainstream media definitely has added to this controversy due to their well-known ignorance about tribal citizenship and other tribal issues,” says Julia Good Fox, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. Good Fox notes that the media has largely failed to explain tribal citizenry and blood quantum issues to give context to the situation because these aren’t easy stories to tell. It’s easier to label the case “convoluted,” blame Warren, and move on to the next political gotcha story.

“Unfortunately, for the most part, their coverage is just adding to the confusion and threatens to feed racism or anti-Indianism,” Good Fox says. To do better, she says the media should start by noting that tribal nations have a right to determine who their citizens are, rather than focusing on the misunderstood notion that tribal citizens can only be determined by U.S.-imposed mathematical fractions.

To read the entire article, go to Elizabeth Warren Finally Teaches a Lesson on Native Identity.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JGBRGCT2IKYELPLVLEQ4DYQQNM Joe Commuter

    Nicely researched post. I shouldn’t have focused on the proof issue and just saw the writing on the wall. I really like your closing statement in regards to fractions. That is a real pet peeve of mine.

  • Missk

    So….after reading all these posts, my sense is that “Queen Chief” is another misguided They Came Before Columbus/Isis Papers-pushing  Afrocentrist doing some cultural cherry-picking. I’m not shocked this has become so emotionally charged and divisive a topic. But on the most basic level, she seems like folks I have met and heard of before in certain black circles, and I would neither buy her incense nor her (snake) oils. I also think folks may be conflating the fact that *some* black Americans have Native ancestry with *this* black American having Native ancestry. Even if she does, does that give her the right to speak on behalf of Native issues when she seems to be peddling some serious misinformation and dangerous misconceptions? Honestly, sounds she’s talkin’ out the side of her mouth. Look, I learned some years back that I have Filipino ancestry through my granddad’s (very black identified) family. That part is a genealogical fact. What would be problematic is if I started getting paid to speak as an expert or representative on Filipino issues but started rocking indigenous Japanese Ainu garb or rice paddy hats in some weird paean to pan-Asian pride. AND then I started talking about how the US were totally right to colonize the Philippines and we should have MORE military bases in the country. What’s the point of proclaiming your heritage if you’re going to use that proclamation to do harm to that very same community?

  • rochelle

    Good to know ad-hominem attacks based on skin color are welcome here at Racialicious.

  • Jay

    Getting out the dictionary is not an answer to a question about whether certain words may have developed subtle negative implications in some contexts. Examining actual usage is the right way to address such matters; it’s what linguists do, and it’s how lexicographers gain information that they use to revise the dictionary and add new senses of words and details about how they are used.

    The dictionary is not scripture. The language as used by its speakers comes first, and the dictionary describes that usage. As language changes, the dictionary also has to be revised to reflect this. If evidence suggests that the word “roam” may have become caught up in negative tropes about Indians, pointing to the dictionary does not make that evidence irrelevant.

  • dersk

    You mention that the tribes are sovereign nations – but clearly they’re not sovereign in the same way that, say, the Netherlands are. Can you recommend a site or book that describes the current status of the various nations? And thanks for the list of kids’ books – my daughter’s never lived in the States, and I think having a real understanding of American Indians is one of those things I want her to know about being American (European markets are crowded with white kids in dreads selling fake dream catchers).

    Also, I hadn’t heard the theory - well, hypothesis – that the Americas were settled by seafaring Africans. I had a professor back in ’89 who taught (well, preached, really) that it was parallel evolution. Is there any real doubt any more that it was the Aleutian land bridge? Just curious…

  • dersk

    You mention that the tribes are sovereign nations – but clearly they’re not sovereign in the same way that, say, the Netherlands are. Can you recommend a site or book that describes the current status of the various nations? And thanks for the list of kids’ books – my daughter’s never lived in the States, and I think having a real understanding of American Indians is one of those things I want her to know about being American (European markets are crowded with white kids in dreads selling fake dream catchers).

    Also, I hadn’t heard the theory - well, hypothesis – that the Americas were settled by seafaring Africans. I had a professor back in ’89 who taught (well, preached, really) that it was parallel evolution. Is there any real doubt any more that it was the Aleutian land bridge? Just curious…

  • dersk

    You mention that the tribes are sovereign nations – but clearly they’re not sovereign in the same way that, say, the Netherlands are. Can you recommend a site or book that describes the current status of the various nations? And thanks for the list of kids’ books – my daughter’s never lived in the States, and I think having a real understanding of American Indians is one of those things I want her to know about being American (European markets are crowded with white kids in dreads selling fake dream catchers).

    Also, I hadn’t heard the theory - well, hypothesis – that the Americas were settled by seafaring Africans. I had a professor back in ’89 who taught (well, preached, really) that it was parallel evolution. Is there any real doubt any more that it was the Aleutian land bridge? Just curious…

  • dersk

    Yeah, so in a sense pioneers and settlers don’t roam. They travel.

  • dersk

    Yeah, so in a sense pioneers and settlers don’t roam. They travel.

  • dersk

    Yeah, so in a sense pioneers and settlers don’t roam. They travel.

  • Anonymous

    This article was great. I have learnt a lot about Indian, or First, nations. I absolutely love it when blogs like Racialicious engage with political theory, and it’s very important to talk about citizenship and sovereignty when discussing racism, colonisation and imperialism. Thank you very much for this post.

  • Jay

    It couldn’t be clearer that there are multiple challenging issues at play here. Thank you for bringing them to the forefront.

  • RobinGraves

    My understanding is that “First Nations” was developed as a term of resistance in Canada against the prevailing rhetoric of the English and French being the founding nations of the country. The term has actually only been in common use since the Constitutional debates of the late 80′s and early 90′s.

  • Anonymous

    Here is a repost from a Dr. Mack from the State of Louisiana
    I am the director of the Bureau of Minority Health Access for the state of Louisiana. My office is domiciled in the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. I first met Chief Warhorse of the Chahtah Tribe in 2004 when she was seeking better access to health and social services for her people. When she called me, I told her that her tribe was not on my list of state and federally recognized tribes which I received from the Governor’s Office on Indian Affairs. When I asked the Governor’s Office on Indian Affairs about this tribe, the director at that time  says, “Oh, yeah. They are there.” She spoke as if she did not want me to know they were there. So I later told Chief Warhorse that I would get back to her.So I set on a quest to investigate this Chahtah tribe and why they were not on my radar. I could not assist them with there problems until I investigated them thoroughly. So looked through archives in St. Tammany parish were they are from,  contacted college professors from Louisiana State University, Southern University and University of New Orleans. Now I am from Kentucky, so this became a great project for me. Each historical expert and professors of history I spoke with, local and  state officials and elders who knew the history of Chahath all told me about their existence and their history. They told of how they at one time occupied thousands of acres of land and how they were a force politically for centuries. If you go to the archives, you will see the Chahatah ancestors and especially Chief Warhorse’s grandfather and great-great grandfather and how they occupied the land and excelled in their crafts.I can go on for days talking about this tribe with all I have uncovered. Queen Chief Warhorse is who she says she is and she has tons of authentic proof to back up her claim. The history of Louisiana is a difficult one, filled with suppressed  authentic evidence that has been lying dormant because of racism. The Chahtah had their recognition and lands stripped by decree and racism, then the nobles of that time period tried to bury them along with their history. It is my suggestion that rather than criticize or question the tribes authenticity, you can do two things: you can write or visit the St. Tammany parish archives and look at the old maps to see where the Chahtah came from and where they settled, or you can call me at the Department of Health and Hospitals at 225-342-4886 and I will be glad to speak with any you further about this wonderful, hard-working tribe. This tribe is responsible for successfully evacuating hundreds of people from hurricane Katrina, developed  a plan to assist the poor and underserved communities with establishing their own emergency preparedness plan within the state’s emergency plan that saved thousands of lives. FEMA uses their plan to this day. Chief fought for better access to health care services. She lobbied for cleaner drinking water, held the state’s first health fair in conjunction with their POW-WOW festivities that drew hundreds. As I said before, I can go on-and-on about this wonderful tribe. If you want to know more just call me. The number I gave is my direct line.

    • Sistah Kitteh

       Ummm….Don’t know where you got your bogus info but the Bureau of Minority Health Access does not have a Director by the name of Dr. Mack. http://new.dhh.louisiana.gov/index.cfm/subhome/15/n/168  There is a Rudy Macklin who is involved with Louisiana Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He is neither a director, a government official or a doctor.  He is a basketball player.  The number you provided, when googled, leads to the basketball player.  A basketball player who obviously has no idea about how sovereignty works and no idea about factual history of the authentic Choctaw/Chahtah.  If I am supposed to believe the words of a basketball player over my own cultural immersion then I guess I need to hit Sport Authority to learn how to be a real Indian.

      Contrary to popular belief, there are many enrolled black/dark skinned Indians who know more about their culture than a professional athlete and uninformed people who are posting here.

  • Anonymous

    Being part Native (Piscataway which was just recognized by the State of MD) and African American,  I think that part of what makes Queen Chief Warhorse’s dialogue confusing results from some of the exclusionary actions of some Native Tribes who rather openly (see Cherokee Nation) exclude (or want to expel)  African Americans who have been parts of their Tribes for years.  So what you get is a mixture of both identities from a people who have not been able to completely learn of their African heritage as it relates to specific countries, but probably through family via oral tradition have learned of their Native roots.  But it can be just as difficult to learn of your Native roots if when you approach a group they give you the side eye and the run around because they really don’t want your Black ass in their Tribe.   

    I would agree that perhaps she is not the best spokesperson for the Choctaw people, however,  the dilemma she presents to the Native community should open the dialogue about inclusion of African Americans in Tribes, especially those which are/were in the south,  where there was a LOT of intermixing since the Africans arrived.

    Warhorse is not the only person who makes the statement about skin color.  In the DMV there are a lot of Black Indians like Tsunee Matema who tell school systems in particular that their classification systems are off and that many children who look like one thing are in fact Native.

    I myself am STILL waiting to receive paperwork and applications for my Tribe and hope I receive it before my 86 year old Aunt who has the documentation dies.   This is part of the problem when you talk about research and proof.  The communication and facilitation has to go both ways.

  • Montclair Mommy

    Thank you for your post.  Very informative.