Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Blood Will Tell, Roots Will Show

I'm reading a fascinating book by the anthropologist Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century (Santa Fe: School For Advanced Research Press, 2010).  It's about controversies over who is and isn't Cherokee, mainly involving the federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and North Carolina on one hand, and other tribes elsewhere, some of which are state-recognized and some of which are self-recognized.  These latter, who often claim Indian ancestry but can't always document it, are generally considered "wannabes" by federally recognized (or "citizen") Cherokees, and Sturm spends some time explaining the complicated categories involved.  She doesn't pretend to resolve any issues; what she seeks to do, and does very well, is talk to people on all sides, trying (in words she quotes from Clifford Geertz) to "figure out what the devil they think they are up to" (14).  She's not afraid to point out the contradictions and inconsistencies in everybody's positions, and to recognize how inextricable they are - not just due to bad faith, though they are often that as well.  I was deeply gratified, for example, when she criticized one Cherokee informant's gleeful account (pages 113-114) of his viciously misogynist takedown of a white woman who'd claimed to be a descendant of "a Cherokee princess."  To do this takes some guts, and my respect for Sturm went way up when I read that passage.

Becoming Indian is relevant not just to Native American cultural conflicts, but to most confusions and squabbles over "identity," drawing boundaries and gatekeeping.  I was struck by one citizen Cherokee of the Eastern Band's take on the role of "blood" and upbringing in the debate:
Consider, for example, what [Robert] Thompson said about interracial adoption: “Let’s just say I found this little white baby, and I fell in love with this little white baby and raised him as my child, and I spoke to him in Indian, and I told him the stories, and he knew my whole family history.  He played with his so-called pseudo-cousins.  When he’s all grown up, don’t tell me he’s not a Cherokee” (October 22, 2003) [144].
In an endnote, Sturm remarks:
In this hypothetical example of interracial adoption, the baby who becomes Cherokee through a family’s love and devotion begins life as white, not black or some other explicitly marked identity, such as Hispanic or Asian.  Not surprisingly, white seems to operate as the default normative category, second only to Cherokee [228 note 14].
But something occurred to me.  "Interracial" adoption is a vexed issue in many contexts, and much of the controversy involves the notion that a baby has not just an explicitly marked identity but an explicitly marked essence.  A baby is already "Hispanic or Asian" or "white" or Indian by "blood," and it's raised outside of its ancestral culture, it will feel alienated and displaced as it grows up.  This is a recurrent theme in Becoming Indian, after all: many of the wannabes, no matter how little Cherokee ancestry they had, felt lost in white culture; and felt that their "blood" called them "home." The citizen Cherokees, no matter how dismissive they were of wannabes and "Thindians," tended to agree that if these unfortunates did have Cherokee blood, they would certainly have felt that something was wrong.  In another context, Sturm tells how, when confronted by some very white-looking Cherokee claimants at a public event, many in the audience clucked, "Well, if you've got the blood, it'll call you home" (150).

From this standpoint, wouldn't it be wrong for Robert Thompson to raise a little white baby in a Cherokee environment?  Surely when he grew up, his blood would call him back to his real people, no matter how hard Thompson tried to assimilate him.  Wouldn't that be just as wrong as taking an Indian baby and raising it white?  I don't think so, because of my white, European, postmodernist, homosexual values, and Thompson seems to be less obsessed with blood than most of the Cherokee Sturm talked to, but the idea of blood as an almost sentient racial essence runs through most of the debate about Indianness in this book, among both the wannabes and the citizens.  But so does culture: it's not enough to have the blood, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Part of Sturm's achievement is that she bears down very hard on the contradictions.  (Does this remind anyone else of the debates over whether Barack Obama, who had a black father but was mainly raised by his white grandparents, was "really" black or African-American, because he wasn't a descendant of slaves and hadn't grown up in a black community?)

Yet I do have a bone to pick wth Sturm.  Early in Becoming Indian she writes:
Although the term “queer” is often [!] used simply to denote same-sex desire and sexuality whether lesbian, gay, or bisexual, in this instance I borrow Eve Sedgwick’s (1993:8) definition: “The open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” If we apply this definition to the case of racial shifters and examine the way in which they narrate and construct their own Cherokee identities, then we can see how their very refusal of normative definitions of Cherokeeness might be considered queer.
I decided to look at the context of Sedgwick's "definition," which Sturm quotes from Tendencies (Duke, 1993).  First I noticed that what Sturm quotes is "one of the things 'queer' can refer to" (Tendencies, 8); there are a couple more.  Then I noticed that Sedgwick referred to "the constituent elements of anyone's gender," etc.  Which means, for everybody, pretty much all the time: Everybody's queer, including me and thee.  I believe Sedgwick was aware of this. I'm not sure any human category signifies monolithically: the differences within a category are almost always more numerous and more significant than the average differences between categories.  Having invoked queerness, Sturm never mentions it again, and I think that's just as well.  Some of the wannabes / race shifters refuse normative definitions of Cherokeeness; others want their definitions to be normative, even though they may be more inclusive than those of citizen Cherokees.  The final question might be where those normative definitions (of Cherokeeness, or of any human group) come from.  As Sturm shows, the citizen Cherokees know that their definitions don't really have a firm indigenous foundation, especially insofar as they include being recognized by the white Federal government.  The blood quantum was originally imposed by the whites, too.  As for walking the walk and talking the talk, the Ojebwe/Dakota scholar Scott Richard Lyons wrote in his brilliant X-Marks (Minnesota, 2010):
That is precisely the “problematic” part of the peoplehood paradigm.  If you do not conform to the model – land, religion, language,and sacred history , ceremonial cycle, and so on -- if you happen to live away from your homeland, speak English, practice Christianity, or know more songs by the Dave Matthews Band than by the ancestors, you effectively “cease to exist” as one of the People [139].
According to Sturm, some Indian scholars are now trying to resolve this conundrum by describing "Cherokee identity politics as 'a battle over sovereignty'" (181). The Cherokee anthropologist Michael Lambert, whose discussion of sovereignty she quotes, argues that "A sovereign people [does] not have to meet any cultural expectations" (ibid.).  I think that's a good point, but I wonder how many Cherokee will agree with him.