The New Indian Culture Wars: Fencing Out the Wanabi Nation

Steve Russell

Bethany Berger is a first rate legal scholar who has done a great deal of useful work for Indians in academia. Before that, she paid her dues in the legal trenches of Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii. Because my respect for her work knows few bounds, I’m bound to pay attention when she engages persons like myself, who advocate cultural standards for tribal citizenship.

She asks, “…do you know who would become American Indians under such a test? Germans! In part because of the craze for the Native American adventure novels of turn-of-the-century German writer Karl May, Germans obsessively study elements of tribal cultures that many Native teenagers no longer practice. An anthropologist friend recalled sitting in a bar in Stuttgart and hearing a group of Germans next to him having a fluent conversation in Lakota. Despite efforts to reinvigorate tribal languages, not every patron of a diner in Lakota country could carry on such a conversation.”

She’s right, and she reminds me of some people in my tribe complaining that the Cherokee Nation was funding a language immersion program in the public schools that had, by their lights, too many non-Indian kids enrolled.

What, exactly, are we trying to protect, people or cultures?

In an ideal world, all Indian people would be bearers of distinctive cultures. We would be just a bit different from our yonega neighbors, such that if we suddenly got beamed up to the mother ship, the world would be poorer for the loss.

If you find that world, send me a postcard with the coordinates.

I maintain that the Indian wars are not over, except for the shooting. In our time, the only shootings are a few by police in border towns. The numbers say we shoot ourselves or each other more often. The main battleground of the Indian wars is the demand that the federal government be relieved of responsibility for our welfare, such that it is.

It flies under the flag of budget cutting or white people's new found love for colorblind policies, found when race-conscious policies began benefitting non-white persons rather than the converse.

The attack memes are that Indian policy is expensive and racist. What’s the reply?

Is it that your ancestors did injustice to my ancestors and therefore you owe me? If that’s the case, our task is to protect people, as few people as possible, so the amount owed will be divided into fewer slices. If that’s the case, then my assertion that the Indian wars continue is incorrect. There comes a time when such debts are either satisfied or repudiated, but they are gone.

Is it that our treaties require the US to support us forever? I’m familiar with a number of treaties that do require perpetual payments, but they hardly amount to “support” in terms of the 21st century. Most of our treaties contain no perpetual payments at all.

Is it the guardian and ward paradigm that Chief Justice John Marshall pulled out of his nether regions? If that’s the case, we wards have a duty to move our education along. Since they quit shooting at us in 1890, haven’t we had over 100 years to learn how to cut the mustard?

When I ask what “we” are trying to protect, I mean the Indian nations. The colonists just want loose from what we say are obligations. Leaving aside the white-power crazies, it’s reasonable for a government bureaucrat to ask exactly what the government’s obligations are and to whom they are owed? Not to mention why and for how long?

My own view is that we are separate peoples with distinct cultures and our own governments. The US has no obligation to Indians beyond equal treatment before the law, but it has obligations to our tribal nations. As long as we are distinct peoples.

Case law and common sense tell us we determine our own standards for citizenship. Yet, it can’t be the law that a tribal government can anoint people at random to exist outside of great chunks of state law. Well, why not? Isn’t the power to define our citizens “plenary”?

Remember the Universal Life Church? The point of the ULC is to take advantage of the First Amendment protection for free exercise of religion. The perquisites of being a minister are extended to a church of one because the government lacks authority to inquire into the sincerity of religious belief.

Tribal citizenship can be like that, but good luck convincing the feds such a “nation” qualifies for government-to-government treatment. To the extent tribal citizenship lacks cultural significance, how is that kind of “Indian” more than a ULC minister?

This should not be about what the feds will tolerate but rather about what we will tolerate. Is the problem that white people learn our languages or that we don’t?

Can we exclude our families for lack of cultural competence? That’s not necessary. The 14th Amendment (equal protection of the law) does not apply to Indian nations. We can have classes of citizens that are not equal in terms of voting, holding office, taxation, or working for tribal government based on residence in the homeland, language fluency, or whatever makes us distinct from other peoples in our own eyes.

 What about that white guy in the bar in Stuttgart? Do you seriously think he wants to come live on Pine Ridge? But if he did, and he was in fact more culturally competent in terms decided by the tribe than people carrying the blood, then what’s the harm? Before we caught the race disease from the colonists, marrying into a tribe was fairly common. Kevin Costner didn’t make that up.

Are we trying to protect distinct cultures or hereditary privileges, real and imagined? Bethany Berger’s critique of cultural standards for citizenship is spot on. Whether her observation matters depends on what we are trying to protect.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Good material to think about Steve. I have written commentaries about just that. When a people who have a CDIB card with or without a high degree of blood quantum, yet know next to nothing about who they or their people are. I call that being high blooded, yet low native spirit. On the other hand, there are those with or without a CDIB card with little blood percentage, yet these folks know about their culture, their people, their clan & some of the language or at least are trying to learn it. These folks sometimes are treated as white folks from within the tribes themselves. I call it being low blood, yet having a high native spirit. The complexity is then who of the two type of folks ARE the most Indian? High blood degree & low native spirit or low blood degree & a high native spirit? We have far too many weekend Indians at pow wow's & functions rather than people who are native 24/7/365. As you say, in the old days there were plenty of inter-marrying among various tribes & whites as well. One wasn't treated differently because of this. What constituted being Indian as it were, was being involved in ones community, family, clan & tribe. If one meet all that burden they WERE Indian. Did one help defend their village against their enemies, help gather food & hunt for survival of all, etc. Somehow folks seem to forget this all & act like whites in their in-fighting & politics. This is wrong my friends. To survive as a people we need to go back to the past for the answers that are there for the seeking. The washichu culture has so seeped into so many of our native folks one way or another that many times you can't even see the difference between people's behaviors of either group. So much to think about my friends as we each seek to live a life of honor, decency, kindness, compassion, living in a good way that pleases the Creator before we cross over & meet the ancestors.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
The thought that Bethany Berger expresses, that Germans would become Lakota members, because they spoke the language is funny, but the point is well taken. I am Native American in many respects, but I like to study the mormons and amish people, maybe even know more than they do of themselves, but I am not of them because of it. So the germans have a hobby, like me, big deal. On the other topic(s), since Steve writes in a shot gun effect style with no real point. Its not our fault the American government did not put an end date on the treaties (contracts) they signed with us. They do not "support" us, as Steve thinks, they are living up to a contractual agreement. Simple. Look at it as a divorce settlement and your wife never dies and neither you.
Anonymous's picture
Good article Steve.
Anonymous's picture
The 14th Amendment does apply to Indian nations because they are "Ward" or Dependent Governments under the terms of War and the Constitution of the United States and Supreme Court Law, which they also are individual indigenous citizens of sovereign independent nationhood's, Distinct as Sovereign Indigenous Governments, Culturally and Nationally, and Distinct and separate, and protect from the mainstream of white dominated society ! Get, real you sound like a BIA New DEAL Supported U.S. Propagandist!
Anonymous's picture
WE don't have a COMMONALITY .... we judge each other on standards set for US..not by US....sux
Anonymous's picture
Maybe We need to do a lot better job of teaching our culture but it is by kinship that one becomes and is Cherokee. The culture or lack of education of it is an issue not a definition of such.
Anonymous's picture
That's all we need is another standard to measure us again, as Native American's, Indians, which we truly are not(Indians are from India). So now what are you saying that we have to abide by a cultural standard for citizenship, along with blood quantum, land, language, a distinct community, historical evidence that we, Indigenous people were always here? I am sure there are some tribal people who were never raised with their tribe, culture, ceremonies for rites of passage, before they progress to the next of phase of adulthood in their tribes, but these same individuals still consider themselves a member of their tribe. Presently some ceremonies cost money. And because they cost money some of our young people miss out on that ceremony.Before money came into play it was basically a given that that child was given "whatever" ceremony necessary to move forward in life. If payment was required it was made with different means not currency. Even Christian churches have requirements to complete before you can become a member. Not to mention the fact that some Indigenous/Native American people have become involved with other religions now. Just because I speak English, doesn't make me White. I could learn Chinese and never be considered a citizen of China. Anyway, with that said some tribes were still being shot at after 1890. What do you mean by ..."learn how to cut the mustard"? Mustard? ... hmmm mustard...