A Primer On Indians
There are a lot of misperceptions around Indians. Often even Indians have misperceptions around other Indians.
Think of this as a primer.
Start with the term Indian – that is a Constitutional term. Indians are explicitly called out in the Constitution. Many people are unaware of that. The Constitution says that we will not be taxed, that the Federal government can regulate affairs between the Federal government and the various nations but not the internal affairs of the tribes, we are exempt from the 14th Amendment, and the Founding Fathers were quite explicit in that Indians would be dealt with via treaty, i.e. negotiated with not dictated to.
Fair to say, the Federal government has completely abandoned the Constitution in regard to Indians. That abandonment started with Worcester v. Georgia in 1832 and Andrew Jackson having allegedly said “John Marshall has made his decision now let him enforce it.” Regardless if he actually said that or not, both the Federal government and the state of Georgia failed to follow the ruling of the United States Supreme Court and no government since then has seen a reason to return to the Constitution in regard to Indians.
My point to this is that the term ‘Indian’ is a top down term. The Federal government has an Indian Policy, they have a Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc. However most people that the Federal government recognizes with the legal status of ‘Indian’ choose their identification as a citizen or enrolled member of a specific nation (and there is a legal difference in citizen and enrolled member, they are not synonyms). For example, while there is certainly a Pan-Indian movement (to which I do not subscribe), I am a Cherokee. I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
While I have a legal status of ‘Indian’, I am a Cherokee. In my mind Cherokee is not a sub-category of the Indian category – Indian is the legal status that the Federal government has assigned to me, Cherokee is what I am. See the difference?
There is no generic Indian culture, just as there is no generic ‘Asian’ culture. A Korean in Seoul and an Aimak in Afghanistan are both ‘Asians’ but they have darn little in common. A Cherokee and an Inuit have darn little in common other than a generic legal status assigned by the Federal government. We all have different cultures, we made different decisions and we have had different outcomes. Our legal status is different beyond the common legal status of ‘Indian.’
Most people get tripped up because they do not understand that we are all very different peoples. They get even more tripped up by not grasping that we all have different legal status’s. Then they just get dizzy when they try to grasp that there are 567 Federally recognized nations and that each of these 567 nations has a separate, distinct, unique to them relationship (legally speaking) with the Federal government. This is the part that makes peoples head spin. A Lakota has a different legal status than a Cherokee. For example the Cherokee government in Tahlequah can do things that the Lakota government on Pine Ridge could not dream of doing. Why is that?
Different cultures led to different decisions that were made at different times that created different outcomes. Some of those different outcomes are legal outcomes. Culturally the Cherokee were unique in that we were a very open society. If a man would show up, embrace the language, fight our wars, embrace the culture, do the right thing by his neighbor – then he could become Cherokee. Men joined us to be Cherokee by the thousands and thousands. Some historians believe that as many as 25% of the Cherokee warriors in the French and Indian Wars were actually European men who had been adopted into the Cherokee Nation. Who are the most famous Cherokee of all time? Probably Sequoyah, Will Rogers and Sam Houston. Sam Houston had not a drop of Cherokee blood in him but was one of these men adopted into the Nation – the adopted son of Chief John Jolly and the husband of Talahina. I use that as an example – you could become Cherokee in a not dissimilar way than immigrants come to America to become Americans. This is something fairly unique to the Cherokee. What this cultural uniqueness created is that the Cherokee are probably the most ethnically and racially mixed people on the planet. Cherokee range from looking as European as I do to looking completely African – but we are all Cherokee. People tend to have a hard time wrapping their heads around this; that Cherokee is not a matter of blood. However being an American is not a matter of blood either, is it? When you get that analogy it gets easier to understand. However because we have this uniqueness we also tend to have lots of ‘fake’ Cherokee. This is a major problem for a lot of reasons, the reason it afflicts Cherokee much more than any other nation is due to the uniqueness of our culture which takes me back to my point: we all have unique cultures. You cannot glob ‘Indians’ together as a single culture.
As to further legal status, each nations (and sometimes individual) legal status is a result of treaty, legislation and case law. Everyone from a Federally recognized nation has certain parts of this in common; The End of Treaties, The Dawes Act, the Burke Act and the Curtis Act for example. These pieces of legislation applied to all Indians – the only way I can describe them is as crimes against the Constitution that unleashed bureaucratic evil. However there was legislation that was voluntary, such as the Indian Reorganization Act and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. Well, voluntary for most – the Osage were prohibited from reorganizing under either of these acts for reasons I do not know. Nations that chose to reorganize under either of these acts ended up surrendering their sovereignty. The Cherokee Nation did not reorganize under either of these acts. It is very easy to be a Cherokee, you have pretty much complete freedom to do and believe what you wish – but the one thing you cannot do as a Cherokee is sign away our sovereignty. That is the big no-no. Because we did not sign on the dotted line, we were able to win a court case in the 1970’s called Harjo v Kleppe by which we charged the Federal government with ‘bureaucratic imperialism’ (I love that term, we should use it more often). The Federal Courts ruled that the Cherokee Nation was inherently sovereign, had never ceded its sovereignty and that our sovereignty preceded that of the United States. That gives me a different legal status than citizens of other Indian nations to whom that case law did not apply, and yet a different legal status again than someone whose nation had reorganized under the Indian Reorganization Act or the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
It will make your head spin trying to figure out who can do what with who’s permission within what geographical boundaries. Indians cannot even keep track of all this, non-Indians have no reason to even try but it is probably useful to understand that there is no such thing as a generic Indian- not culturally and not in terms of legal status.
The other misconception that people tend to have is over treaties, and treaties not being honored. People tend to think the treaties were exclusively over land and beads. That is not the gripe. For example, in 1835 the Treaty of New Echota the Federal government promised the Cherokee Nation a seat in the House of Representatives and a path to statehood. Quite often people think we ‘traded’ land in the east for our land in the west. We had already acquired that land in the west via treaty in 1827, we were not going to trade something in exchange for something that we already possessed. What we surrendered that land for was a promise that the Cherokee Nation, which was a constitutional republic, would be incorporated into the United States of America on an equal basis with everyone else. What we exchanged that land for was the promise that we could become Americans and become self-determining of our own affairs in the same measure as the other states. This became very important in light of the knowledge that if the United States Supreme Court ruled something unconstitutional that the Federal and state governments were going to ignore the ruling and do as they wished.
Joke was on us.
That leads to other generic myths about Indians; by 1827 the Cherokee were a constitutional republic with a 92% literacy rate. Better than the United States then, better than the United States now.
That takes us back to culture – the Cherokee culture has been one of adopting new ideas regardless of where they originated. We have had the cultural paradigm that if someone else can do it – whether they were Shawnee, British or American – we can do it at least as well if not better. We developed our own education system by the 1820’s and our own newspaper by 1828. We adopted a constitution in 1827. We held our first constitutional for Chief and council in 1828. The first Indian to reach the rank of General in an American army was a Cherokee. We sent people to Ivy League school by the 1820’s. Scientist, doctors, engineers, military men, business people – we were successfully producing these men and women while Europe still had serfs. The first phone system in the United States west of St Louis was on the Cherokee Nation, in the 19th century we had water delivery as well as sewer systems in our cities, on and on it goes. We built our own colleges in 1851, the second oldest college west of the Mississippi and the very first women’s college west of the Mississippi.
If you are getting your perceptions from movies and TV and Facebook then you probably missed all of this.
Last thing here; I see a lot of memes claiming Indians hate this, or are mad about that, so on and so forth. I spend a considerable amount of my life in the company of other Indians – I have yet to hear someone actually bring up in a conversation or a meeting any of those things that we are allegedly so angry about. By and large we are a really happy people who laugh a lot. About the only thing people do genuinely get upset about is out and out racism, being treated as a novelty and cultural misappropriation. That is just rude.
I hope all this helps with context around Indians.