The title quote above comes from William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, and was written in regard to the changing Native American (not sure which tribes specifically) relationship with the New England landscape. I found it in a group of articles I was reading about actor Robert Beltran that discussed his switching from identifying as Mexican to Native after portraying Chakotay on the Star Trek: Voyager series, as well as the fictional South American tribe that was created which his character belonged to. The quote has been rolling around in my head and I really believe that it has a lot of validity in terms of how the dominant culture likes to stereotype Native Americans and relegate them to a place in history (versus members of the present day).
Now, you may be wondering what a picture of Rue McClanahan (as Blanch Devereaux on The Golden Girls) dressed up as a cowgirl is doing here. Lately, I’ve been watching DVDs of The Golden Girls, which was a show I used to watch regularly when I was much younger and stayed over with a grandmother figure who passed away recently. As a child I always thought Blanche looked somehow “different” physically, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I knew it had to do with her facial structure, but last week I finally discovered what it was: according to her autobiography, Rue McClanahan’s great-grandfather was Choctaw. (A quote from the book says: “We used to say chi-hullo-li, which means "I love you" in Choctaw.”) It all suddenly clicked! Growing up adopted by white parents, I was aware of my mixed ethnicity but also could “pass” as white enough that I never really thought about it until I got older and people would occasionally comment on my “flat” face. The physical characteristics that sparked my curiosity about McClanahan as a child was actually something that we shared.
How does the quote tie into this? Well, Rue is biologically part Indian, and was raised with at least some awareness of Choctaw language and culture. Even if she ended up moving from Oklahoma to New York and pursuing an acting career, that doesn’t make (at least some of) her any less Indian, does it? Or what about Sherman Alexie? He’s a full-blooded Spokane Indian who grew up on the reservation. Just because he now is a well-known author and lives in an urban city, does it make him “cease to be” Indian? It is common (and easy) for non-natives to describe what it means to be an Indian, but it doesn’t allow the people they are describing to be active participants in the dialogue. There is no one right way to “be” an Indian considering the large number of distinct tribes in the U.S. (530 +), the combination of ethnicities as cultures and genetics mix, and the many ways that native people choose to self-identify. There is no going back to the ways of life before European settlement of this continent, so why are Native Americans so frequently told—by whites and other natives alike—that this is what they must do in order to be “authentic?’