Sunday, August 21, 2005

Next Week: My Personal Relationship to the Subjugation of the Welsh 

The Newest Indians:
This ethnic apprehension can be found even among the older tribes, where outmarriage, or exogamy, has created a contemporary population that doesn't look nearly as ''Indian'' as the characters of our movies and HBO westerns. What results from this can get funky. For example, among coastal Indian tribes, who depend upon tourism, it is not uncommon to see them dressed as Plains Indians with full feathered headdresses and other outfits that were never their custom. It is a practice known as ''chiefing,'' and in some tribes it is as regulated as jewelry sales. This is the market force, ethnic-wise: coastal Indians know that they have to look like an outsider's vision of an Indian in order to be accepted by tourists as Indian.

My maternal grandfather was Indian. I'm using the old American definition of race: how one is recognized and treated by white folks. Grandpa was a middle-class homeowner who moved to the suburbs, fought in all three of the great (then less great, and finally completely ungreat) mid-century wars, and eventually married a (white) midwestern farmgirl, but he was pretty goddam Indian by that old definition, despite never speaking a word, as far as I know, of the Algonquin-related ancestral language of the Lenape (you -- and I, for most of my life -- may know them better as the Delaware).

My grandfather lived in the west, far from the original home of the Lenape, but not too far from their post-forced "exodus" home of Kansas. As a young man he would, on the occasional weekend, dress up like the aforementioned Plains Indians and head out to Seven Falls, where he and his buddies would make up "traditional Indian dances" and perform them for white folks, to make a little beer money. To me it sounds like a brilliantly fun con job and a conveniently literal example of the performative aspect of ethnic identity in America (but then, I don't get out much).

"Do genetics make you Indian or does culture? Or can either one?"

My grandfather had the genetics but not the "culture," except for his forced placement in the role of non-white, which was purely physical. In his youth, he made the most of it, and he eventually lived the mid-century upgrade of the American Dream. I have the genetics too, but diluted enough to cause me to look "white." And I think that still, unfortunately, the most useful definition of race in this country remains the one I used earlier -- how the white folks perceive and treat you. Which this piece barely touches on, except to say that the white foks are getting defensive about their whiteness, and would I mind not calling them "white folks" over and over again.

To my mind, I'm just as Indian, despite immersion and membership in the great club of whiteness, as these well-intentioned ethnic tourists and archivists. And I'm not Indian. I don't think of or describe myself as Indian (excepting in this blog post, of course). But I did personally know my grandfather, I did visit him fairly often in the nursing home where he lived out the end of his life, mentally gone for the most part, but still conscious of his imposed ethnicity, more powerful in this country than any self-proclaimed one. As a brain-damaged, malnourished, smoke-ravaged diabetic, he still delivered a Special Forces-caliber knockout punch to another patient who called him a "nigger" at mealtime one day. And I still have his side of the family, still living in Colorado. And living, by the bizarre quirks of that ever-capricious wacky white society, more or less as "black" (my "white card" genetic make-up, should I ever be asked to break it down, would make me 1/8th Indian and 1/16th "black"). And I think, though it is self-serving, that a personal and physical connection to an "ethnic" past affords one a slightly a better understanding of the implications of racial makeup than a reconstructed (and heavily-researched) but ultimately impersonal one.

But don't listen to me. I'm just another white boy with ethnic anxiety and liberal guilt.

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