Elizabeth Warren and the Ins and Outs of Indian Country

Cedric Sunray

What and who are the "Ins and Outs" of Indian Country?

Okay, so Elizabeth Warren is out as an Indian academic, but the 1/256 by blood folks I have worked with in academia are in. Johnny Depp is in and the nearly full-blooded Indian kid from southwestern Oklahoma whose 1/16 Comanche ancestry coupled with four or five other tribes is out. Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indians who have lived on their reservations for nearly 20 generations are out, while people whose aunties found a link to an Indian ancestor through Ancestry.com and are now enrolled with a federal tribe are in.

I think I am following the logic here. Fluent speaking 87-year-old Chukchansi Indian Ruby Cordero is out (i.e. disenrolled), while the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma enrolls someone who is 1/4,096 and they are in.

Unrecognized tribes who generationally attended Indian boarding schools such as Haskell, Bacone, Carlisle, Hampton, etc. are out, but tribes like the Poarch Creek who never had a community member sent off to such a school are in. DNA as a definer of “Indianess” is in and community cohesion and cultural retention are out.

Non-Indians and non-identifiable Indians running the Office of Federal Acknowledgment are in, while identifiable, cultural Indians petitioning the Office of Federal Acknowledgment are out. Communities who have been generationally discriminated against such as the Lumbee are out, but those who are in striking distance with a casino to protect (i.e. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) are in.

United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) signing resolutions stating that petitioning “groups” need to go through the federal acknowledgment process established by the BIA and should not be allowed access through Congress (even though half the USET tribes were recognized by Congress) in and the pot calling the kettle black, throwing stones in glass houses, and in complete irony out. Federal Indians with italicized Indian names and even US presidents (i.e.“Black Eagle” Obama) are in, but historic “non-federal” tribal members with similar names are out.

IHS funding racially white individuals with CDIB cards is in and brown skinned members of historic “non-fed” tribes attempting to access basic health care are out. Nouveau ideas of “sovereignty” justifying disenrollment is in, while the newly disenrolled are out. White Indians in, Black Indians out. Universities across the country requiring their presidents to hold a Ph.D is out, while Haskell hiring a president without one is in. People with minor Indian ancestry and zero cultural upbringing becoming Indian identity police are in, those perceived as ‘wannabes’ by them are out.

Fake screen names on-line are in, integrity and accountability out. Violence perpetrated by Indian men against Indian women in, as is covering it up by blaming non-Indian men for all the violence Indian women receive; there is no out on this one.

Silly, stereotypical, poorly acted, corporate sponsor plugging, Hollywood movies depicting Indian people such as Crooked Arrows in, while highly creative and original works by Indian independent filmmakers out. Gaming tribes with white lobbyists in, while everyone else out. Cooperation out and increased per caps in. The people whose backs literally helped build the Five Civilized Tribes (i.e. Freedmen) out, while the 50,000 white folks on the enrollment waiting lists, in.

Jim Crow out and Jim Crowfeather in. Coming of Age ceremonies which assist in the wellness of female community members, while educating male community members to the honor they hold in our communities out (i.e. google Winnemem Wintu), while patriarchal reinvented views on Indian culture in. Indian alphabet in….CDIBBIAIHSICWAOFABIEHINUCFRBQJOMVAWAUSETNCAIDOI…, while common sense, equitable ways to deal with the Indian alphabet out. Brown oppression out, while white privilege masked by a CDIB card in.

Sorry, but I gotta run to an Indian education meeting . My daughter, who is a brown-skinned, language-speaking, enrolled member of a federally recognized Canadian First Nation and a historic “non-federal”, reservation based, Indian boarding school attending state recognized tribe in the U.S. is getting kicked out of the public school’s JOM program. After that I have to get over to the federal Indian court where I am being charged as a “federally-recognized” Indian by the same people who were calling me and my tribe wannabes the week before. While there on my other charges I think I am going to be charged with possession of eagle feathers for not being a member of a federal tribe in the US.

Oh, the irony. And then I am heading over to a Haskell reunion with a 70-year-old Haskell Institute graduate from a “non-federal” tribe (which the BIA listed as ½ Indian) who recently applied to go back to Haskell to get her university degree, but was denied as they told her that her tribe is no longer Indian. When that is done I have to drop 30 points in our first game at the nearest Indian basketball tournament if they accept my enrollment. Fingers crossed. It seems that some people can get it both ways in this world. All that is required is a “current” CDIB, some historical revisionism…or a few Hollywood blockbuster movie roles. Fortunately I like grapes. Sour, sour grapes. Legal fiction in and social reality out. I’m out.

Cedric Sunray is one of four generations of enrolled family members of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama.

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talyn's picture
Just for the sake of discussion, perhaps this once it would be as well to take a page from the colonizers? If you are not currently recognized as American and you want to be, you must make an application, learn the language, pass a citizenship exam, and so on. So, if you want to be recognized as (insert the community of your choice, ie-Comanche, Navajo, etc.) then you must make an application to the relevant tribal authorities, learn the language and history of your community, perhaps participate in coming of age ceremonies and so on that you missed by not growing up there. I realize this process could take years, but I don't see that as a problem, membership in any community is a long-term and ongoing process. Once these requirements are met, the applicant passes, let's call it a 'cultural competency' test. There could even be a residency requirement, or whatever each community feels is most important in defining themselves. At the end of this you have someone who has been involved in the process and the community for a significant period of time, who speaks the language, knows the history, understands the issues facing their community, who has shown dedication to and respect for their culture. Why should they not then be Indian? And if you can trace some Indian ancestor through Ancestry.com but are not willing to go through this process, congratulations. You have some Indian ancestry, but you yourself are not Indian.
thechief's picture
I don't think it's fair to pick on Crooked Arrows. They cast real tribal members and were just trying to create a fun movie. One of my friends produced it and I can assure you he is not an Elizabeth Warren. I think it's funny on how the Internet has made being an Indian complicated. In my everyday life I can spot other Indians at walmart pretty easily. I'm sure some intellectual light skinned Indian will say that shopping at walmart is giving into the colonizers capitalism system and walmart is poisoning us with non native foods and encouraging us to be attracted to white women. Lol. Sorry i don't get tax exempt at target.
storiesvt's picture
It is a mess. Somehow the historical conditions that resulted in the present complexification just don't become central to the conversation. I appreciated reading your post, as you manage to allow ample room for complexity and history, both past and contemporary. Thanks!
cojee's picture
Doesn't it all come down to which side we're fighting on? Doesn't Indian Country need all the allies it can get???? Did Tecumseh live and die for nothing, after running his moccasins off begging for unity against the White tsunami? The tribes couldn't unite at last chance, and look at the resulting mess we're living in now. We'll never remain, never prevail, never take the land back this way. I can't prove anything, but I'm at least 9th-gen Alabaman and 5th-gen Oklahoman and sure as hell NOT fighting on the White side. How about that old song: "Come on people now, smile on your brother! Everybody get together, try to love one another right now." As Ernesto "Che" Guevara said to another Guevara, "I don't believe we are closely related, but if your hackles are raised every time an injustice is committed in the world, then we're brothers, which is more important."
quinzy's picture
Cojee, your heart and the way you think make you more Indian than most of the phony "full bloods" around on our reservations and off reservations. The problem is, today, Indian country is happily enrolling in the colonizer's army, happily killing indigenous people around the planet and happily fighting on the white side, which is why we're probably having such silly debates about who is Indian and who isn't. Yes, it should come down to which side we're fighting on, like you said!