–Temporarily Humbolt County, Firesign Theater
In my recent essay False Positives, I mentioned several racial/ethnic groups for which I have a “slight positive bias,” a tendency to look upon favorably, give benefit of doubt, and so forth. It might be said that this comes at the expense of my own ethnic group, i.e. middle-class white guys, but the fact is that I know my own group well enough so that other factors come into play almost immediately. Notice, for example, that there would be separate entries for “female” and “non-middle class,” if I’d just started with the group, “white folk,” but that barely begins to cover it. We all automatically respond to such things as accents, use of language, height, weight, perceived intelligence, and all the rest, so the “white guy” part gets lost in the mix pretty quickly. Truth to tell, the “slight positive bias” doesn’t go very far either if I’m confronted with someone who is pushing some of my other buttons. And yes, I have plenty of buttons, some of which are still unknown to me, I’m sure.
The racial/ethnics groups I mentioned were African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and Jews. There was another one that I considered, but left off the list: Native Americans. The “racial bias” test is actually one for skin tone, so there’s some probability that my bias would extend to them. For that matter, Hispanics, primarily Mexicans and other Latin Americans, have a high percentage of persons having pre-Colombian ancestry, and the dark-skinned thing may explain some of the good will there.
So why didn’t I include Native Americans in my bias group? Let’s see where this introspection trail leads.
Notice that, in the above paragraph, I used the phrase “pre-Columbian ancestry.” There’s one of the problems. I have, in fact, some problem with the term “Native American,” and it’s related to the same problem that I have with “Indian,” which was the term used when I was young.
I generally use “Native American” because that seems to be the preferred term used by those who “self-identify” as the jargon goes, and I like to use the names that people wish to go by. I will call a guy “her” if she insists on it, (unless he pisses me off in the right sort of way). African-American, black, or “person of color,” yes, I’ll go along, fair enough. I might have a mild objection to the term “Native American” because it’s a bit jargonesque, since, by ordinary usage, anyone born here is a “native American.” Then, if you dig deeper, it gets worse. The word “America” isn’t itself native; it’s a word applied originally by Europeans to a newly discovered (by them) continent.
I’d like to use the word the pre-Columbian natives used for the continent, but they didn’t have such a word. Indeed, they had no idea that they were living on a “continent” because that’s another external invention.
So, as you can see, what I’d like to do is to use the original names of self-identification, but there we run into a wall. There is no group name, because the grouping itself is a racial group, imposed by outsiders. The actual pre-Columbian tribes and nations had separate names for themselves, Cherokee, Inca, Mohawk, Seneca, Shoshone, and yes, I know that these are imperfect transliterations, but it’s a step towards politeness, and back from racialism, so I take it when I can.
And this is just the trouble I have with the names. What the hell do you do about the stereotypes?
There have always been both positive and negative stereotypes about the native American peoples. Noble savage. Blood-thirsty redskin. Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Tonto and Kemo Sabe. Cowboys and Indians. Ah, Jeez, I could keep this up for far too long. Davy Crockett, “Indian Fighter,” but he broke with Jackson over the Trail of Tears.
There are very few ways of repelling the stereotypes. From the very beginning, there were stories of “Good Indians” and “Bad Indians,” with the difference between good and bad always being a matter of how they related to white immigrants. Ultimately, however, both kinds mostly wound up as “dead Indians,” in one of the greatest population declines in human history. There are libraries of scholarly arguments about the size of the native population of North America pre-Columbus, with estimates ranging from less than ten million to over one hundred million. There are debates as to whether the European occupation amounted to “genocide” or “democide.”
What is not really open to debate is that the native cultures were virtually obliterated. Sociology is now history and archeology. Anything other than scholarship becomes stereotype.
Where I grew up, there were more than a few people who claimed at least some Native American ancestry. My mother’s family claims some, and there’s at least some evidence of the truth of it.
But that’s just genetics. It’s essentially racialism to hold that somehow the survival of the genes negates the destruction of cultures and peoples. I can take a little comfort in the belief that, over the centuries, some cultural diffusion occurred, that Philip Rahv’s distinction of writers as “redskins” or “palefaces” might have some deeper taproot into the American psyche. Certainly there were hundreds of years of cultural contact, before the final—and largely successful—attempt to herd all remaining tribes onto reservations, teach them English, and inculcate them with the self-loathing that can only exist in someone who has been told, and shown, from birth that they are second-rate, not even citizens really, but some lower form of life. So God knows I’d like to think that some of the original native cultural influences still survive, if only to hold the hope that it wasn’t all lost or reduced to pop culture crap.
I’ve known several “professional Native Americans” over the years, individuals who found a way to make a living by playing on all that was really left to them, stereotypes of their history and nature. There’s some money to be made from liberal guilt and I won’t scorn anyone who chooses to scoop up some of it.
But I’m stuck with the pity of it, and there’s not a lot of money in pity, not mine anyway, and besides, they don’t want or need that sort of thing from the likes of me. I like the fact that some tribes have figured out how to get some of that paleface gambling cash, and good on them. I hope they manage to keep it more of it than was the case with the Oklahoma oil money. I expect they will, as they aren’t dumb, and not quite as many are out to take it away from them this time around, or so I hope.
I don’t really have a conclusion here. That’s the reason for the omission in the previous essay: confusion and bewilderment. I hope that this is largely a product of my own ignorance; that somewhere there are native tribes that maintain a deep culture, or who have managed to re-invent themselves for the modern world, the way that so many others have done. I imagine that there are some such, and I have absolutely no doubt that there are admirable and amazing individuals who self-identify as Native American. That I have none as personal acquaintances is my failing and my loss, yes, absolutely.
So hey, man. Got any peyote?