ÜberIndians, UltraNatives and Authenticity

One aspect of indigneous internalized oppression is something that I like to call the “ultraIndian effect.” At some point, all Native Americans meet someone who is sure that they are “more Indian or more authentically Native” than anyone else in the room. This elephant in the room is hardly ever spoken about because of individuals being unsure of how to respond to those who charge around like rhinos asserting that to be “a real Indian” one must do things or not do things in certain ways. There seem to be a lot of unwritten rules which are never quite absolute and seem to waver, wax and wane as the situation, environment, and mood change. To be honest, I cannot stand such conversations, games and challenges which  are used to assert one’s own identity in dismissing another person’s identity as less or as inauthentic. It’s a hurtful thing that many Native people do in trying to find and assert their identities–the very identities that were often taken from our ancestors by policies and programs enacted by schools and churches on behalf of the Federal Government.

In various discussions that I have facilitated, I have asked Native Americans around the table a very contentious question: “Who is a real Indian?” Of course, everyone has a different answer based on their own experience of working through the many transparent and conjoined layers of self-identity. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this question: it opens the slues of definitions and sources of Native American Identity. According to the United States Federal Government, an “American Indian or Alaskan Native” may identify themselves as such based on the measurement of “degree of Indian blood” that is listed in their official document “Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.” Yes, that’s right: Native people carry around such documents to prove that they are members of a federally recognized tribe. Is that, however, a true answer to the question of identity?

I have an aunt who grew up among our Lakota relatives. She was brought up in the Episcopal school system that was, in part, supported by the U.S. Federal Government. While she initially grew up using her Dakota language at home and during Episcopal church services, she was not allowed to speak Dakota while at school. She, like thousands of other Native American children, were forced to learn English and, in certain localities, punished for speaking their mother tongue. Like my own mother, she left the reservation to become a productive American worker in a major urban center as encouraged by “urbanization” policies fostered during the Eisenhower administration. Like my mother, my aunt turned to various unhealthy ways in order to cope with a society that focused on individualism and productivity that do not reflect Dakota values. For my mother, it was alcohol which helped her escape the oppression she felt. For many Native people, as well as many others, who have experienced this type of oppression, substance abuse is a way to escape and a way to cope with the daily realization that they “do not fit in” in contemporary American society, especially within urban settings.

When I asked my aunt who she thougth was “a real Indian,” she immediately replied that she knew them to be the individuals and families who had suffered on the reservations: those who lived almost “off the grid” and survived despite their poverty. As I helped her to reflect on her definition, it was a stony silence I received when I pointed our her own inference that she and I are not  “real Indians” since we both live in large metropolitan areas and do not face the severe poverty that “real Indians” would face if her definition is correct.

Finally, there are those who in healing take on a zealotry of projecting their own developing Native American identity towards others in hurtful ways. Suddenly, having faced the hard reality of anger and hurt that our peoples have survived, they become an über-Indian. They know that the only true traditions are those that they have learned or been taught by others. Even within the Episcopal Church, I see individuals who insist that to be a real Indian, services must be done in a specific way or with specific prayers that they remember from their childhood church, even though Christianity was not originally a part of any Native American cultures. They insist that Native American “ways” or “systems” are not only to be preferred to those of white America, they are superior in any way and that anyone who would disagree with them cannot possibly be “a real Indian.” “Oh, you’re from the city” means “you are not an authentic Native American who has held on to original and traditional systems of belief and action. “Oh, you’re a Christian” means you are a sellout to your own people and culture.

What is then left? If I cannot emulate the exact lifestyles and beliefs of my ancestors, even those just three or four generations, according to the ultra-Indians, then I am not authentically to be considered an Indian. Perhaps, at most, I am just a member of the “Wanna-be Tribe.” Their onslaught of backhanded remarks, unqualified assumptions (especially as they relate to authentic traditions and beliefs) and simplistic political attacks against any disagreement leaves them to stand with drum in hand, feather in hair and a disregard for the true challenges of what it means to be a real Indian.


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