The Racial Paradox of Tribal Citizenship

The Racial Paradox of Tribal Citizenship

American Studies
Volume 46, Numbers 3 & 4 (Fall-Winter 2005)
pages 163-185
Indigenous Studies Today
Volume 1 (Fall 2005/Spring 2006)

Steve Russell, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice
Indiana University

As I begin to write this my tribal election season is at hand. As usual, all the candidates claim to be “traditional.” This is a claim easy to make and hard to disprove. What is traditional? We are now over half Christian, and more of us speak English than speak Cherokee. Many of the accoutrements of contemporary identity have roots in recent times: frybread, ribbon shirts, jingle dresses, powwows. On the other hand, some items of earlier provenance, such as blowguns and turbans, surprise some modern Cherokees. We date our first written laws from 1808. We have lived under a series of written constitutions, the longest lasting those of 1839 and 1975. Is written law traditional? More to the point of this article, is the current Cherokee law of citizenship, a race-based law like that of most American Indian tribes, traditional?

I hope to show that the idea of “race” is, in Partha Chatterjee’s phrase describing nationalism, “a derivative discourse.” It is not only derived from European colonial discourse, but it has done and continues to do harm to Indian nations on a scale similar to that of smallpox and measles. Pathogens are typically ranked by body count, and so my task here will be to demonstrate that race theory is an Old World pathogen that diminishes the numbers of American Indians on a scale that invites comparison to “guns, germs, and steel.” It is perhaps instructive to read Chatterjee’s words and substitute “race” for “nationalism”:

Nationalism as an ideology is irrational, narrow, hateful and destructive. It is not an authentic product of any of the non-European civilizations which, in each particular case, it claims as its classical heritage. It is wholly a European export to the rest of the world. It is also one of Europe’s most pernicious exports, for it is not a child of reason or liberty, but of their opposite: of fervent romanticism, of political messianism whose inevitable consequence is the annihilation of  freedom.

Can “race” properly be considered, like nationalism, an ideology? According to the American Anthropological Association:

. . . physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them. Today scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor. . . . As they were constructing U.S. society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each “race,” linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians…. Ultimately, “race” as an ideology about human differences was subsequently spread to other areas of the world. It became a strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere.

The AAA Statement refers in a part not quoted above to the “Great Chain of Being” theory as the philosophical basis for ranking people by race, a religious theory that looked to early anthropology for scientific support. Cultural anthropology was in turn supported in its endorsement of racial hierarchy by disciplines thought to be more empirical in content: archaeology and physical anthropology. Outside of Indian law, the primary postbellum legal expression of the “Great Chain of Being” was anti-miscegenation law, representing a legal endorsement of racist ideology that was not declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1967

Read the entire article here.

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