Who gets to say?

this post also appears at The Wrong Half

I was reading this post on Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature blog today in which she addresses the 2010 census finding that Native Americans and NHPIs have the highest rate of reporting more than one race.  This isn’t news and common sense and a little knowledge about colonialism would kind of make you go “duh”.  This fact isn’t what I’m posting about though.  What I’m posting about is Debbie Reese’s information on who gets to be labeled Native American and who doesn’t.

For those of you who don’t know, although I don’t know how you can’t, since she starts off every other post like this, Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled with the Nambe Pueblo in New Mexico.  She is currently an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at University of Illinois, Urbana Champgane, and I happen to really enjoy her blog – most of the time.  Whenever Debbie starts discussing who gets to call themselves Native American and who doesn’t, I start to get uncomfortable.  She seems to believe that you need to be tribally enrolled to be able to confidently (and appropriately) check off the “American Indian” box for race-based questions.  I derive this assumption from the following passage from her blog:

I’m tribally enrolled with Nambe Pueblo. I grew up there. My daughter and I, like my parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, etc., live our identity as Indians of Nambe Pueblo.

I teach at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. In every class I teach, I’ve got a handful of students who say they have a great grandparent who was Native. They don’t know what tribe that ancestor was, and, they usually have only a vague idea of what it might mean to be Native. Most of them have no idea of Native Nations, of Native sovereignty, of being on a tribal census, what treaties mean, that dances might be sacred…   A great many of them romanticize an Indian identity based on popular culture and (sadly) biased teachings in school. Some of them manufacture that identity, putting it on in the form of, for example, a bone choker. They mean no harm. In fact, they wear such things with great pride. But! They don’t live a specific Native Nation identity.

Yet, many of them check a box on school enrollment forms, and, likely on the U.S. Census, that says they’re part Indian. And so, the statistics are kind of… skewed.

This bolding of live and idea that you have to be tribally enrolled to call yourself American Indian is problematic.  Especially for mixed-race people who have no control over where they are born or how many generations ago their families were no longer tribally enrolled.  I get what she’s saying.  She’s saying that anyone can check a box.  Anyone can appropriate a culture and at some point we just have to say NO.  we have to be able to separate the people who are from the people who aren’t.  but, its a fine fine gray line.

Hawaiians have the same problem.  Maybe even a little more (or a little less) so because we don’t have anything to enroll into.  We don’t have tribal nations.  We have OHA (who does I’m not really sure what because they don’t seem to do a whole lot), we have a lot of people with big mouths, and we have a lot of people appropriating our culture who havent even been to the islands.  But where do we stop?  Where do we say “I’m Hawaiian, but you’re not?”  Is it blood quantum?  Because according to some blood quantum laws, I, personally, am not Hawaiian.  According to the US Government, I am less than 25% Hawaiian.  In fact, I’m about 12.5% according to the US.  But, as with any family, there are secrets and things that no one wants to have changed around legally, and its too late anyways, so I am more like 25%.  But the people doling out Hawaiian Homestead don’t care.  They only care about me not being 25%.

And really, does it matter that I’m 25% or does it matter that I live my Hawaiianness?  Do I cling onto those secrets so that I can feel more Hawaiian because there are people running around like Debbie Reese telling me that the blood that runs through my veins isn’t valid because I’m born and raised in California?  Because I am a visitor to the ‘aina?  I feel bad for my children if this is certainly the case because they will be less Hawaiian than I am.  I’m not going to be procreating with a Hawaiian (as far as I know anyways), making the blood running through my children’s veins worth less according to these Western standards of who is who and what is what.

One of my biggest issues with subscribing to this idea of blood quantum and being enrolled shit like that is that these are Western constructions which were constructed to divide us as a people.  To make in-fighting occur so that we cannot band together and be successful.  So that the minority can continue to degrade and the government can continue to get all they can out of those colonized.

Ultimatley Debbie’s point is about education – educating yourself to know where you came from.  Don’t just say you’re AI, say what tribe you’re from.  Know what island your family is from.  What schools they went to.  Know the things that are important to those people out there who are judging you.  Who are trying to tell you what you can and can’t be.

There was a great post over at Diacritics a few weeks about about this issue of “-Ness”.  Hawaiianness, Vietnamesness, Filipinoness, Whiteness, and what it all means and what role it all plays.

And, just on a final note, Debbie also references an article in which she says that mixed-race college students said that “race doesn’t matter” to them.  That being AI “doesn’t matter”.  I wonder if these are the actual words these students used or the words that the journalist put into their mouth.  Because, as a mixed-race student, I heavily believe that ALL of my races, countries of origin, and ancestors matter.  Not just the brown ones, not just the white ones, not just the Hawaiian ones or the french canadian ones.  Maybe these college students who live in co-existence with all their races and have them in harmony may seem like they “don’t matter” individually because to do so would put dominance over one race, over one parent, and what child wants to make that choice at any age?


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