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.
“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.”
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.
“Let’s go back in time when the American Indians look like I look…”
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.
“…and roamed the southeast part of the United States, freely.”
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.
“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?”
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.
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:
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.