American Myths and Indigenous History: A New Book

Peter d'Errico

A study of myths demands a clarification: What do we mean by "myth"? As revealed in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can carry diametrically opposed meanings—on one hand, positive: sacred origin story; on the other hand, negative: widely held misconception.

All the Real Indians Died Off, a new book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, takes aim at what the authors call "myths about Native Americans."

The Authors' Note makes clear they are using the word in its negative sense. They refer to "myths and stereotypes," saying the "narratives behind those myths" are "lies" and "misperceptions." On the other hand, the antidote they offer to the false narratives involves "reclaiming stolen pasts through scholarship, storytelling, relationship building, and acknowledging our ancestry."

All the Real Indians Died Off thus posits countering stories with other stories, with one set of stories said to be "a more accurate history." This leaves us with a second definitional question: What do we mean by "history"?

The publisher says the book will be out in time for "Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples' Day," The publisher's strikethrough font on Columbus Day plays with the relationship between story and history. Critics of the designation "Columbus Day" attack the ahistorical misconception of "discovering" lands where people already live. Defenders claim the designation reflects an American origin story.

Stories have power, and story telling is a power. Law, literature, politics, religion, and—of course—history all entail story telling. Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker take on the critical task of exploring the extent to which American history comes entangled with stories—"sacred" and false.

One origin story in American history comes from the Biblical story of God giving Adam the power to name animals and other parts of Creation. This naming signaled human domination over Creation. To Christian colonizers—like Christopher Columbus, the "Christ-bearer"—Indigenous Peoples were "merely occupants" of the land—part of the natural world, not fully human, rightfully dominated by "Christian civilization."

The Bible provided another, even more penetrating, story to support Christian colonization: the story of the "Promised Land." The story begins with the God of Abraham offering an explicitly colonial promise and mandate: "The Lord had said to Abram, 'Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. … At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land.'" [Genesis 12, 15 (NIV)]

The Bible story says they emigrated to follow God's mandate to "go from your country, your people." The "Promised Land" existed elsewhere, not at home; it belonged to other people. Christians picked up this theme to develop their colonizing mandate to "discover" and subjugate lands of "heathens and pagans."

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker discuss the "Doctrine of Christian Discovery," but they sometimes slip into imprecise phrasing, calling it "European" discovery. They insist, however, on the continuing impact of this story of legalized racist religious domination.

Readers who want to explore further will learn that the story does in fact continue. U.S. federal Indian law—both its supposedly "pro" and clearly anti-Indian elements—rests on the colonizing legal claim of Christian superiority.

In their Introduction, the authors state, "The myths about Indigenous peoples…can be traced to narratives of erasure [that] have had—and continue to have—a profoundly negative impact on the lives of the millions of Native people who still live on the continent of their ancient ancestors."

That statement speaks from the perspective of what Steve Newcomb calls the "original free and independent existence" of Native peoples: "Native people who…live on the continent of their ancestors"—not "Native people in the United States."

Anyone who refers to "Native people in the United States" has already given up the existential and philosophical foundation from which—and only from which—a true critique can be made of "myths about Native Americans." United States federal Indian law and popular culture alike gather their persuasive power from capturing and assimilating Native experience and de-centering it from land.

The authors reinforce their intention of "writing from an Indigenous perspective" in an introductory "Note on Terminology," where they state, "We avoid the terms 'tribe' and 'tribal' whenever possible because of their historical association with an ideology of inferiority, and we privilege instead the term 'nations.'"

Unfortunately, the authors slip into referring to "tribes" and "tribal" where there appears no need to do so.

For example, in the chapter "The Only Real Indians are Full-Bloods, and They are Dying Off," one finds the following problematic sentence: "Unlike other ethnicities in the United States, American Indians are the only citizens who are subject to state-sanctioned legal definitions of identity, obligated to prove who they are as Indigenous peoples."

At least three problems appear here. First, Indians are not "ethnicities." As the authors recognize elsewhere, "ethnicities" may be "people," but they are not "peoples" or "nations" having political sovereignty. The long fight in the United Nations to use the plural "Indigenous peoples" instead of the singular "people" demonstrates the legal and political significance of the terminology. That the plural won out was a major victory for international Indigenous self-determination.

Second, as noted above, Indians are not "in the United States." Indians are on the same continent as, but separate from, the United States. Those who say Indians are "incorporated" into the U.S. are telling a colonial story. They forget that Indians have a deeper and more legitimate claim than the U.S. to legal title to the continent.

Third, Indians are "citizens" of the U.S. only in terms of a unilateral imposition of citizenship in a 1924 Act of the U.S. Congress, part of an ongoing effort at cultural assimilation. The real issue about Indian "citizenship" doesn't focus on "identity," but on land. In fact, the 1924 Act included a clause that "[U.S.] citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property."

The authors faced a difficult challenge writing about another aspect of Indian identity: the "myth" of "blood quantum." As they recognize, that conversation "is always contentious" among American Indians because many have adopted a "blood quantum" definition of themselves.

"Blood quantum" has been a key tactic in America's strategy for racial domination. The definition of Black blood was so powerful that "one drop" was sufficient to maintain slave status; conversely, Indian blood was so weak that the first admixture produced a "half-breed," who was no longer "Indian." These apparently opposite tactics were driven by a single strategy directed at property: maintaining ownership of Black slaves and gaining ownership of Native lands.

As Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker put it, "Blood quantum is the ultimate tool of native elimination…. When tribes themselves employ it, it is self-imposed erasure."

"All the Real Indians Died Off" will hit the market in time for this year's debates about celebrating or mourning the arrival of Columbus and his boat people from their ocean-crossing journey to this continent. As the arguments play out, we will keep in mind that the stories need to be punctured, not the storytellers.

We will also remember that the basic "myths" or stories in American history invoke a single master narrative: Indigenous Peoples displaced from their homelands by a combination of religious doctrine and violence.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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