Ethnicity Studies · graduate school

I’m reading Scott Richard Lyons’ book X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent this week. That, along with his articles,  “Actually Existing Indians Nations: Modernity, Diversity, and the Future of Native American Studies.”  [American Indian Quarterly 35.3 (2011): 294-312] and “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What do American Indians Want from Writing?” [CCC 51.3 (2000): 447-468] have broadened the way I think about Native American studies, and the way I think about nationalism, issues of sovereignty, and tribalism. He’s not the only one that has done this, of course, but he does such an excellent job of discussing traditionalism and modernism and how these things work with (and against) the interests of nationalism and indigenous sovereignty that I don’t know if anyone has done it better.

While reading X-Marks,  I keep thinking about this question that bothers me, this idea of colonization and the oppression of the colonized. I keep thinking about the phrase “post-colonial” because it doesn’t apply. The U.S. is a settler nation– many nations are. I keep thinking about conversations I’ve had inside and outside of graduate classes, where well-meaning but privileged grad students and American citizens contest the idea of a people being “native” to any place, especially since now that multiple generations of Anglo- and Euro- and African- Americans have been born on American soil—who gets to own and possess and keep the title of “native” or “indigenous” ?  As one rather annoying white male in a grad class I took asked, “How many generations do we have to be here before we can be considered native?”  Which is not altogether a bad question to ask, but he was using it to say, in some way, that Native American nations and tribes should no longer be considered colonized. He didn’t feel that reparation was necessary any longer.

On the phone with my best friend the other day, we were talking about Hitler and Stalin, like you do, and wondering why it is that one gets held up as so much worse than the other, because, let’s face it, they were both bad men. And I asked, “And what about Jackson and all of the U.S. government officials involved in the Indian Removal policies? What about the colonists that contributed to the massive population drop from 10,000,000 to 250,000 in an extremely short span of time? Why don’t we look at that and call it genocide as part of our national myth?”

Now, of course I’m not saying that Hitler wasn’t horrible, because he was. Only idiots deny that. I’m just wondering why we look past the crimes in our own countries, the dehumanizing of an entire population because their presence was not convenient to the needs of a bunch of Dutch, French, and British people? Why do we do that?

And I wonder, too, especially while I read Scott Richard Lyons, about the tragedy that has been colonization all over the world. I read Native American stories and theories, and I read the debates about traditionalism vs. modernism, authentic ethnicity vs. assimilation, acculturation, all of these concepts that are so nuanced and complicated. And then I think about the actual people that all of these terms are applied to, and I think and feel that one of the biggest tragedies is this:  indigenous populations don’t get to find out what they would have been, or how they would have developed. Indigenous populations are forever caught in this framework discourse of colonization and post-colonization. Following traditions isn’t simply following traditions–it is hanging on to what Europeans tried to take away, it is hanging onto life.

The near-genocide of indigenous peoples is tragic enough, but on top of land theft, treaty breaches, enslavement, starvation–the list goes on–indigenous peoples are caught in this frame of being defined against the oppressor, instead of having the chance to see what would have happened to their cultures and peoples had they not been fighting European settlers for their right to live and thrive.

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