On my daily Metro commute to work, I tend to listen to music or read. One recent morning, I sat behind two women chatting about a trip that one was taking to Ecuador to help build a small health clinic. The other woman jokingly remarked to her friend that, while there, she shouldn’t take the cliché “white savior” Instagram picture (surrounded by a bunch of brown kids) that is so common among white folks traveling internationally for charity work. What a conscious pair of friends, I thought to myself. But then in response, she said, “Yeah, that’s true but I’m actually part Native American, I just look like I’m only white. My great grandfather was part Cherokee.”
Now, if you’re anything like me, what you’ve gathered from the aforementioned conversation (other than the fact that I need to stop eavesdropping on other people chatting), is that the identifier “Native American” seems improperly employed here.
Through no fault of their own, because Native American history is disgustingly absent from most public school curriculums, most non-native Americans don’t know much about Indigenous people. Many of us have probably encountered one or two white people who enjoy chronically reminding others that some obscure, very distant ancestor is Native American and as a result that also makes them Native American, as well. Indigenous people have had and do have relationships and create families with people outside of the indigenous community. However, when reviewing native heritage and its existence in people of other races, the history of thousands of native women who were raped and forced into marriages cannot be overlooked. This violence is directly linked to their current disenfranchisement.
It may come as a surprise to people like the two young women on the train, but there is a lot more to being an Indigenous person than having an obscure Indigenous relative. Indigenous people have a unique history that unfortunately involves, in large part, the theft of so many aspects of their identities and their culture. Homes, languages and ways of life were ravaged by colonization and white supremacy to the point that many communities guard their Indigenous identities out of fear that they will ultimately be lost to America’s inherent Eurocentrism.
In order to truly claim an Indigenous heritage, you ought to have some meaningful connection to the tribe to which you lay claim. Being registered to an American Indigenous Tribe as recognized by the U.S. Department of the interior is merely one measure of native identity. What matters most of all is having and maintaining some type of connection to an Indigenous community. Some who claim a Native identity have no cultural ties to the tribe they’re claiming, no knowledge of the history or language or culture, and not even any previous interaction with an active member of that tribe.
Indigenous histories are commonly passed down orally from one generation to the next and it is a regular practice for Native communities to share stories of their ancestors this way, but the alleged existence of a distant Indigenous ancestor does not necessarily permit a person to assume an Indigenous identity, especially if this anecdotal story is their only tie to the tribe they claim membership of.
Indigenous people experience marginalization that is unique to their native identities. While no community is defined by oppression, it is unfair to claim the same identity as another when you have never experienced the same prejudices. Native communities, like any other, are not monolithic. They are diverse and can look, sound, act and think however they so choose. But what characterizes this community is an understanding and emotional connection to an Indigenous identity. The participation in Indigenous culture and the ability to personally identify with Indigenous history are just a few of the many elements that compose a native identity. The mere presence of native ancestry does not qualify a person to brandish it about, as though it’s nothing but the latest trend.
Trying to weaponize an Indigenous status to dispel claims of ignorance or racism or to simply earn the support and trust of other marginalized people is a practice utilized far too often by politicians, activists, and other public figures.
This practice of claiming an Indigenous heritage is so problematic because it infringes upon the racial autonomy of actual Indigenous people. It likens itself to the practice of colonization, in which white colonizers stole resources and humanity from Native Americans. In claiming Indigenous peoples’ heritage when you have no real claim to it, you are essentially stealing their identities again.
It is much better to be an ally to Native People than to falsely claim belonging, and there are many ways in which we can do this. If you belong to an organization or group, you can begin your group meetings with a land acknowledgement statement, a formal statement offered at the beginning of a public event or gathering that recognizes and honors Indigenous peoples as the original stewards of the land your group is occupying. This practice serves not only as a sense of gratitude to Indigenous stewards of the land, but also acknowledges original occupation of the land and the fact that colonization continues to infringe upon the rights of Indigenous peoples. The American Humanist Association 78th Annual Conference last month opened each location with a similar recognition. It is a small gesture, but coupled with meaningful action it can eventually build and repair relationships with sovereign Indigenous nations and inspire ongoing support for Indigenous communities in their pursuit for equality and recognition. You can also try getting in touch with any local tribe you may live near to invite them to your group meetings.
But the most important thing you can do is be a verbal advocate. Speak up about the things you see that you know are wrong. Participate in the fight for equality and recognition that native people have almost always had to fight by themselves. Because many of us don’t recognize Indigenous people in our day to day lives, we can sometimes forget that they’re here. But they are. Indigenous people are Americans, they were the first Americans, and the native dream is also the American dream.