the impact of Columbus

This essay is not a typical "blame Columbus" piece. It's more of an introspective look at the impact upon Native American identity, as a result of the relationship they have with the mainstream society today.

Talking Indian"What is strange is what has happened to our folks in the last five centuries. We've been through allot. Because of that, on the surface it looks like we must have changed a lot, too. But we're still not what others want us to be. Strange. For some we ain't real enough anymore. For some, we're still too Indian. Some say we're not Indians at all, or First Americans, or Native Americans. Some say we are." -- Anna Lee Waters, Talking Indian, pg.41-42

October 12th is Columbus Day, 510 years after the Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere. The Indians of North America have changed immeasurably since Columbus made first contact. Some accuse Indians of losing their identity, while others want the Indian communities to assimilate more than they have. This duality in public thought is called Bateson's Double-Bind; it represents a double standard under which the Indians cannot win. If an Indian refuses to assimilate, then they are considered an obstacle to progress, and if they attempt to fit in they are considered non-authentic. The passage above is essentially an observation of this.

One issue in which this double-bind is glaringly obvious is language. The Indian language was considered a rebellious icon, and so in the late 1800's government policy sought to eradicate the native tongues. Forcing the natives to speak the language of their conquerors brought enormous social pressure to bear on the Indian population. The advantages of assimilation were made much clearer once the language barrier was down. This was accomplished in part by missionaries who encouraged their converts to speak English only, but the main thrust of the campaign was the boarding school system established in the 1870's (one of the initiatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs)

The boarding school system was simple in concept and brilliant in strategy. The children of each tribe in a certain age group were rounded up and sent to boarding schools where they would be safe from the "corrupting" influence of native life, and were educated according to mainstream ideals. The children were utterly forbidden to speak their native languages, and were forced to speak English all day, ridiculed and punished if they did not obey. A sense of shame was instilled in each youngster about their native culture, so as to make the option of assimilation more attractive. This resulted in 'internalized oppression,' the self-conviction that the old ways were harmful and wrong. The system of boarding schools was extremely effective in this regard.

The level of language retention for various tribes falls along a broad spectrum. Those tribes that were small, decimated by disease, or uprooted tended to be heavily affected, with the original language in extreme disuse or even lost forever. Other tribes with large, stable populations tended to hold on to their primary language, but every tribe was affected in some way.

In essence, the government wanted Indians to abandon their old language and speak English. Those that refused to do so were considered obstacles to progress, troublemakers, and uncivilized. Those who did make the switch to English faced problems as well, however. They were no longer considered 'true' Indians, in some cases by their own people. The loss of language alienated many people from their culture, and today there are many Indians who do not feel comfortable in either society. Indians who seek to return to their roots may find themselves unwelcome due to their lack of common ground; the language of a people is a very strong bond in a community. Those Indians in mainstream society who seek to be recognized for their work in the Indian community (i.e. arts, music, literature) may not be considered authentic and suffer economically for it. The general opinion seems to be the Indian who lost their language somehow compromised their 'Indianness.'

Language, though important to the cultural identity, really is not crucial any longer. The short story Talking Indian illustrates this point vividly. The loss of language makes it more difficult for Indians to find their roots, and experience their culture, but it does not deny them access. Maxine, the main character in the story, found she could understand dogs speaking, in what seemed to be her long-forgotten native language. Her grandfather's explanation is that though she may not even know it herself, her Indian identity is still intact. As he puts it, "The only thing that's different is I'm talking in a foreign language, one forced on us, but nevertheless, I'm still talking Indian. It's ironical" (pg. 41). The author is clearly refuting the double-bind theory, claiming in essence that though you may not speak Indian, you are still Indian in some indefinable way, that will never change despite the loss of the native tongue.

Religion also suffers from an identity crisis. The Catholic church has claimed a significant fraction of Indian peoples as members, and the new Native American Church has rapidly grown in popularity (mainly Peyotism). Islam is also making inroads (with Latins, also). The old religious traditions and ceremonies are still practiced, but even they have changed with the times. Once again we have the double-bind situation, this time pertaining to religious practice instead of language.

Those who remained true to the old religions are still in some cases pressured to change, but in today's society those forces have lost much power. The real injustice is meted out to those who no longer subscribe to the traditional practice. The question is, do those who believe in different religions still have the right to be called Indian?

The Sixth GrandfatherBlack Elk is an example of this. His biography, written by John Neihardt in the 1930's, was one of the most-read books on Indian culture ever. Neihardt recorded the culture of the Lakota, and faithfully wrote of Black Elk's rise as a medicine man and war rior, and told of his Indian heritage; he was a cousin to Crazy Horse, for example. However, all mention of Black Elk's later years, 25 of which spent as a Catholic catechist, were ignored by Neihardt in the final version. Neihardt apparently viewed Black Elk's conversion to the Christian faith as compromising his Indian heritage, and accordingly deleted any reference to it. Neihardt and many of his readers equated religious practice with cultural identity, and in so doing did a great injustice to a man w hose work made hundreds of lives better and happier through his teachings.

Black Elk speaksContrast this treatment with Black Elk's own autobiography, in which he extensively discusses his own conversion. To Black Elk, the new religion really wasn't that new. He actually saw many parallels between his old practices and Christianity. This was primarily due to the amazing similarities between the vision he had at age nine (which inspired him to become a medicine man) and the Two Roads Map. The Two Roads Map was designed to instruct about Catholicism in a pictorial way. As Steltenkamp puts it, "... the Two Roads Map imaginatively captured in picture form the basic world-view of traditional Christian theology". Black Elk's vision and the Map shared many common elements, including thunder-beings, flying men, and tree imagery. Many other details of Black Elk's vision are explicitly or implicitly present on the map as well. Black Elk saw the amazing correspondence between the vision and the map as further proof that his destiny lay in the Christian faith, and emphasized this point in his catechism. In Black Elk's own words, "I had been appointed by my vision to be an intercessor of my people... I'd bring my people out of the black road into the red road". Using the Two Roads Map, he was able to pursue his dream of benefiting his people. He saw the Church as a path to salvation for himself and his family, and he wished to spread the enlightenment he had found to the rest of the Indian population, hence his career as a catechist. This was a sincere effort at saving his people's souls. It is clear that Black Elk saw his conversion not as a radical change, but as a logical continuation to his early career as a medicine man.

Though religion is a central part of the Indian culture, due to circumstances beyond anyone's control most of the Indian population no longer shares the same belief. But even before Columbus, there was vast diversity in belief and religious practice. Using Black Elk as a prime example, it is clear that merely switching religious alliances does not invalidate one's Native identity.

Finally, the issue of tribal affiliation is also affected by the double-bind concept. Tribal affiliation is determined by the "blood quanta" concept, devised by the government as a record-keeping tool for tribal membership. Under agreement with the Indian nations, officially recognized tribes are allowed to choose their membership according quantum of 'Indian' blood. The required fraction of Indian blood to legally be a member varies with the tribe in question.

The problem is that there are many Indians who do not fit neatly into these arbitrary classifications. Many Indians have intermixed ancestors, from different tribes or white marriages. Often, these Indians do not have enough blood quanta of any type to qualify for membership in the tribes they are descended from. The double-bind again raises its head. In this case, those Indians who seek affiliation with a tribe may be rejected, thanks to extremely arbitrary rules. Those who do not attempt to gain tribal affiliation are considered to be non-authentic.

The very essence of Indian identity appears to be at stake here, but once again there really is no conflict. Traditionally, tribal membership has been based on behavior and acceptance, not strictly genealogy. The debate raised on this clouds more pressing issues, such as that of tribes not recognized by the government, and hence with no rights, or con artists faking tribal membership for personal gain, thereby reducing the credibility of true Indians.

The essence of the passage from Talking Indian is that identity is not easily defined. Indians and non-Indians alike have pre-conceived notions of what constitutes this identity, and often in the battle to prove it one way or another the real issue becomes clouded. Indians are not defined by religion, language, or tribe. The irony of the situation is, the double-bind itself is caused by this erroneous belief.

This essay was originally written for a college anthropology class. I've used Blogger Pro to post it to Columbus Day (Oct. 12th), though I made the entry on Oct 22nd.

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