Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Black Indians

A student of mine loaned me her issue of Wired magazine, which I had never read before, because it had a story about black Indians, something that I guess I had made a reference to in a lecture. Here's the link to Brandon Koerner's article.

Black Indians present an extremely complex issue in America's crazy race relations. Here's some of the facts and my opinions.

1. The "Five Civilized Tribes" were happy to pick up the practice of African slavery to work their cotton fields. In fact, many fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy.

2. The Seminole nation is heavily black because many slaves from southern Georgia and northern Florida used the Florida swamps as a place to escape too, where they were taken in by the local Indians. This was especially possible when Florida was still owned by Spain.

3. Intermarriage has always taken place between Indians and peoples of other races. There are pure-blood Indians, but really not all that many.

4. The United States government has played a big role in creating this insanity because from the Dawes Act of 1887 came the idea of "blood quantum." Blood quantum was how the government determined who was "Indian" and who was not. It depended upon how much Indian blood that one had. If you are 1/8 Indian, you are no longer Indian. Related to this is that a person can only register as being a member of one tribe with the tribal governments and thus the federal government. Money from the federal government often depends upon the number of people in a tribe. Thus there is great pressure on mixed-Indian Indians to register with one tribe or another, even though in their hearts they embrace both traditions. Here's some interesting commentary on blood quantum issues. Here's a petition to get the BIA to reverse this policy.

5. Making this even more complicated is the relations between Indian nations and the federal government. Obviously, for most of American history the federal government has looked to exploit Indian peoples at every turn. But over recent years, the feds have seen the light of day and have increasingly allowed Indians to govern themselves with minimal federal interference. This has only grown since the passage of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which led to the rise of Indian casinos and serious economic power for many peoples. Now the government has to reckon with Indian economic power if they want to take them on. And as we all know, money matters more than anything. What does this mean? That is it going to be very hard for the federal government to enforce their idea of blood quantum on Native Americans. First, do they care enough to? Second, do they want to spend the resources to do so?

6. In any case, is it the role of the federal government to determine who is Indian and who is not? Wouldn't doing so just reinforce the exploitation of Indian peoples by the federal government and undermine the autonomy that many of us find great value in? I don't see how the government enforces this without it being easily interpreted as another example of colonialism. This is true regardless of what is actually fair and right in this case.

7. As to what is fair and right--clearly the black Indians are completely in the right. By any reasonable standard, many of these people should be considered Indians with full rights. Why aren't they. Several reasons. Greed is huge. With increased economic power has come great greed among the leaders of some tribes. Making membership inclusive of all those who are actually Indians would mean sharing the wealth. Can't have that. Also, we should not underestimate the snakepit that is tribal politics. It makes the machinations of Washington look down right tame. The level of corruption and nepotism in Indian politics is unbelievable. It may well be that many of the people of these various tribes would be happy to include their darker-skinned relatives in the tribe. But that will never pass the tribal leadership. Theoretically tribal governments are usually elected. But cheating, intimidation, and bribery are very common. So on most reservations there is a pretty big disconnect between leaders and people and a great deal of disillusionment and fatalism among the average tribal member.

8. Finally, we should discuss the relationships between Native Americans and history a bit. As we know, history can be a powerful political tool. This is particularly true in the modern age when increased respect for Native Americans and other minority groups has made America listen to their stories. The only problem is that there is great hesitation to challenge these stories when they are false or misleading. It doesn't serve the interest of the Oklahoma tribes to talk about their slave-owning past. So they don't. Admitting these black Indians to the tribe would make the slave past central to their history. They know that's not the image they want to portray.

If we take all of these causes and factors together, I think we should realize a couple of things. First, that racial problems in this country are far from black and white, literally and figuratively. They are tremendously complex in ways that most of us don't even think about. Second, there are no easy answers here. History, politics, and money all get in the way of fairness. Third, God bless anyone who wades into this quagmire to try and solve these problems.