Fake or a Victim of Colonization?

Christie Poitra

Funny story: I applied for the Director of the Native American Program at Dartmouth. I made it to the second round of interviews, but I didn't get it. However, I am very glad to see the position filled. Natives need support to navigate the higher education system.

My disagreement with the Inside HigherEd article Indian Enough for Dartmouth? is not about the discussion of Susan Taffe Reed’s appointment as director of the Native American Program, nor is it about her Native identity. I am concerned about the way Indian Enough for Dartmouth? talks about the legitimacy of Reed’s tribal community’s identity. Namely, she belongs to a community that is not state or federally recognized—which, according to the reasoning behind the HigherEd article, makes the community “fake.”

Those of us familiar with state and federal recognition processes know (1) the history of how the process came to be (i.e., colonization), (2) about the politics surrounding the process (i.e., colonization), and (3) why it is difficult to gain recognition (i.e., colonization). Yes, colonization.

There are two ways for a community to gain federal recognition: an act of the United States Congress, or approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Recognition, tribes petitioning for recognition must prove their status as a tribe through a compelling amount of “anthropological, genealogical and historical” evidence—in other words, the community must pay academic consultants and experts to compile a significant body of evidence to prove their tribal status (this takes time and money). Currently there are a number of communities across the U.S. that have maintained social, cultural and political cohesion (in light of surviving numerous horrendous acts committed against them by the government) that are not recognized. Moreover, there are also a number of communities that have spent decades petitioning for federal recognition—only to be denied.

As a general rule of thumb, it is highly problematic, if not borderline disgusting, to degrade a community’s identity and experiences because they have managed to survive genocide but haven’t been able to successfully navigate the lengthy, costly and complex recognition process (that is specifically designed for tribes to fail). So to say “a community is not legitimate because they have been unsuccessful at gaining state or federal recognition” is victim blaming.

Now, I cannot speak to Reed’s identity or her community’s status, because I am unfamiliar with their historical and political contexts. I am not asserting that her community is even a tribe. But what I am raising is an important issue about the underlying assumption of Indian Enough for Dartmouth? Namely, should state and federal definitions of Nativeness (based upon longstanding colonization ideologies) set the bar for measuring the legitimacy of a community’s identity and experiences?

Christie Poitra holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy from Michigan State University.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




Sammy7's picture
"Should state and federal definitions of Nativeness (based upon longstanding colonization ideologies) set the bar for measuring the legitimacy of a community's identity and experiences?" Christie Poitra puts forward a thoughtful question, and one that will not be resolved in the current climate of judgement. It seems to me that Tribes who gain their legitimacy, whether recognized Tribes or unrecognized not-for-profit communities, are both walking the path of destruction. I would suggest that non-governmentally recognized Indians, living on Turtle Island, who retain their traditional culture, their communities, and their grounds, and who do not accept government sovereignty over them, nor assimilated Tribal sovereignty over them, are living in right relationship and are in need of no outside approvals, nor are they damaged by assertions otherwise. We live free and independent, unconstrained by government or Tribes, are in no need of government or Tribal financial assistance, and live as our Ancestors and Spirit guides us. Nor do we hold ill feelings toward our Tribal brothers and sisters. This might also be a good opportunity to dispel the false belief by Tribal Peoples' that we Indians who live off the reservations and territories have it financially easy, we do not. As traditional's holding the values of cooperation instead of competition, reciprocity instead of selfishness, and non-judgmentalism, we walk a thorny road in an environment of White exceptionalism, competition, selfishness, and judgmental degredation. The road out here is a hard road. Despite that we are managing to live Traditional Indian lives. We have our grounds purchased by us, our working Clan system, our rituals and ceremonies, our language, traditional lifeways in this modern world, and absolutely no desire or need for government recognition, we are self sustaining. We live quietly and do not draw attention to ourselves. We try to live in peace, balance, and harmony, and we do. Neither are we wealthy nor desperately poor, we get by ok. We live according to the old wisdom and continue to recover it as we piece the very old back together again. Nor do we encourage doing foolish things like serving in the american military that opresses us and other brown skinned people across the globe. We do not participate in vice such as Casino's because we recognize the darkness of such profits. We do not compete in the marketplace but instead find ways to earn a living that are beneficial to ourselves and others. Our ability to cooperate for the benefit of the community is a great gift. We parse the White man's education and take from it what is Indian. We are not Christian, we are Indian. We could not be more thankful for being who we are and for the wondrous guidance of The Great Spirit and our Ancestors. Redbird Smith, a Keetoowa Cherokee spoke of once again gathering under one fire and we remain open to that vision.
WyalusingResident's picture
I am a Wyalusing resident, non Indian but I have met Dr Taffe Reed and am grateful for her service to our community. This is an indicator of the kind of community that is here. http://meiszen.net/family/tree/manly/loretta/pool_tribe.htm The expose' on Dr Taffe Reed's grandparents birth certificates is less controversial in context than on face value. It was bad enough being Irish in this area, let alone being Indian. If you could "pass" as white you did if you were born before 1975 or thereabouts.
whitehorse's picture
Ms. Poitra: you failed to mention that sometimes the people and groups that self-identify as Native are Liars and are Exploiting NDN Culture. Several Genealogists have traced Susan Reed's ancestry to Ireland, yes Susan Reed is native but to Ireland. I do NOT understand why people defend these Liars? Just because a person belongs to a community does NOT make them NDN or give them the rights to represent, speak for, and steal jobs of actual NDNs. I would like to Publically say Ms. Susan Reed is NOT Native American and I also invite Ms. Reed to sue me for Libel and lets see who wins!
Martha Ollis's picture
I am glad to hear someone bring this issue forward. I feel it is destructive to "Native Culture" when people seeking legitimacy of their heritage are attacked in this way. You are simply falling victim to the powers that have sought to banish and destroy the indigenous peoples and there culture.
Martha Ollis