The Cherokee Nation is the only Native American group to recognize heredity/lineage as “proof” one is a Cherokee. It rather shows a bit of truth in the NA joke that all white people claim to be Cherokee because technically you are allowed to claim that you are “part” if your great-great-great-grandmother was mixed.
The US Federal government will only recognize that someone has Native ancestry if they meet requirements for both the blood quorum and blood quantum. The requirements more or less boil down to being no more than 5 generations removed from an attested ancestor or having 1/32 blood from that attested ancestor. An “attested ancestor” is a Native American who was documented on one of two census rolls – the Dawes Rolls (Final Rolls Of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes) taken in 1893 or the Baker Rolls of 1924 (Final Rolls of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians).
The Cherokee Nation will accept blood quantum from unattested ancestors. The majority of the Native American tribes, however, accept neither. This is something that the Nations struggle with as they seek ways to preserve both indigenous culture and to manage land, funding and future developments. It is a point of identity that many non-natives not only do not understand, but also are hardly aware of its existence.
Oddly enough, it is the rise of Facebook that has brought the discussion back to the top of the list – well, one of the things. As more and more kids have become involved with social media, they have become more comfortable with sharing and posting things that are considered sacred or at least private to the Nations, both individually and as a whole. Many tribes have opted to ban Facebook from their land, but it is a hard call to make. On one hand, the opportunity must exist so that their children can gain fair skills, and on the other hand, there is the importance of the preservation of their way of life.
In the Western world, we usually take preservation to mean a very passive and static thing. We preserve “ways of life” in living museums so we can go see actors pretending to live in a certain way. We “preserve” a way of life by setting aside time for it to be visited. We like powwows where we can go experience a weekend of Native culture and perhaps lay claim to the thin traces of blood from them in our own lineage.
For indigenous people, preserving tends to mean living. It means they retain the right to live as they choose, in the modern way or in the traditional way. That said, it is important to understand that the two are kept in very distinct categories with very little overlapping and some things – like Facebook and traditional rituals, are kept so distinct they might as well be on two different planets.
A part of this stems from the Native recognition of there being a duality in all things and that the dualities coincide but do not mix to become one. Creatures, human or animal, may cross between two worlds but at any given time, they are acting one – yet they retain the awareness of the other.
In most Native communities, being recognized as a member is not dependent on ancestry. One cannot, literally, sit by oneself in an apartment in a city and be a “Native American.” More and more they have moved towards a definition of identity that is dependent on how the individual interacts with the community. Being accepted as a member of a tribe requires a commitment to be there in and for the community. One has to make a choice whether one will be an Indian – which encompasses a history and living community or, one will be a modern man and live in a world where community is defined by what it can give you in the immediate sense. Modern community is there available to you, but it is not a part of your history nor is its health important to your legacy. The well-being of the community, for modern man, is not as important a consideration than their own well-being.
Native culture holds a tremendous appeal to Westerners because we see the kind of purpose and placement in life that they have and witness how it gives their lives a kind of meaning. That is so very attractive to us because we exist in a constant search for meaning and place having none in our own lives. We tend to attribute it to the trappings of Native life – ceremonies, myths, practices and rituals – things we can preserve and go visit and hope that by playing at them we can attain the same sense of weight to our lives.
We assume the symbols of native life in hopes that possessing the object will give us both internal and external recognition of place and meaning. However, we miss that the sense of belonging and purpose comes from the fact that the individual life is inseparable from the community life. In simplistic terms – there is a difference between a man standing alone in the woods with an eagle feather in his hair hoping that he will have a special experience, and a man in the woods who shares a vital connection with the spirit of the eagle and wears its feather as a badge of honor and a sign of commitment to its history and future that will govern his actions. Actions that he cannot do alone or determine alone, but must be done in relation to others, much as the solo eagle flies independently but always in awareness of the territory of other eagles. The first man would take a picture of himself or his surroundings and share them as proof of his existence to others, the second would live the existence.
While the two coexist, in the end it is recognized that it is the life of the community, the people that is immortal and most important – the life of the individual is important in regards to the person’s role and ability to help sustain the community. Each member has a specific call to live their life to the best of their ability but not to do so in conflict to the health of the community. It is what has allowed for the duality of genius and self-lessness to exist within native communities.
The Western world, in our searching for place and meaning, returns to the orthogonal premise of either/or. Either we are independent geniuses or we are self-less extensions of a community body.
It is interesting, to be a sort of fly-on-the-wall to the discussion going on about redefining the limits of identity within the Native American community and to also be a part of the Facebook/Google+ move. In a way, it is a kind of metaphor for the struggle. In Facebook, you can dress yourself in signs and symbols of your identity and lay claim to it without having to participate in the community (except at your pleasure). Google+ is crankily developing into a community of individuals who recognize that the life of the community is an extension of their own and requires a daily amount of participation.
Even with my changing involvement with the various poetry communities on and off line, I am beginning to see the distinct states of being. There are the communities who exist solely for the living poet, are used by them at their discretion, and our viewed by their members as being in service to them; and the communities that who exist for poetry and the members serve the community out of recognition that its life is so much greater and so much more eternal than their own.
Perhaps the root of all of our solutions is to recognize that all life goes on much longer than our own.
c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.