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Author Topic: The Newest Indians  (Read 3883 times)
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« on: August 21, 2005, 02:44:34 PM »

Very interesting... I feel this is another attempt for whites to grasp at some form of an Indigenous past. Seemingly w/ Native American culture...the racial/ethnic lines are increasingly becoming blurred and obscured.....

The Newest Indians

Published: August 21, 2005

On a crisp morning in March at the Jaycee Fairgrounds near Jasper, Ala., the powwow was stirring. Amid pickups with bumper stickers reading ''Native Pride'' and ''The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth,'' small groups gathered to check out the booths selling Indian rugs, dancing sticks, homemade knives and genealogy books. On one side, under her camper's tarp, sat Wynona Morgan, a middle-aged woman wearing a modestly embroidered Indian smock and some jewelry. Morgan had only recently discovered her Indian heritage, but, she said, in some ways she had known who she was for years. ''My grandmother always told me that she came from Indians,'' Morgan told me. She is now a member of one of the groups meeting here in Jasper, the Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama, which itself is new, having organized under that name in 1997. The tribe is committed to telling its story, in part through an R.V. campground named Cedar Winds that will eventually expand to include an ''authentic, working Cherokee Indian Village.''
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Illustration by Jason Holley

''The only real proof we had that we were Indian was this stub,'' Morgan went on to say. She had brought along a copy of a century-old receipt entitling an ancestor to receive some money from the United States government for being an Indian. With the help of an amateur genealogist named Bryan Hickman, Morgan was able to connect her line to its Indian roots, and she began to raise her son, Jo-Jo, as a Native American. She was particularly proud of Jo-Jo; only a teenager, Jo-Jo had been chosen to serve as honorary headman and lead the grand entry just after the grass dancers performed later that afternoon.

''Sometimes Jo-Jo gets teased for being an Indian at school, but he doesn't care,'' Morgan said. What she didn't say was that the teasing is connected to the fact that neither she nor Jo-Jo look as much like Indians as they do regular Alabama white folks. In fact, every Indian at the powwow looked white. More than half my time with this tribe was spent dealing with their anxiety that I might make this observation.

This ethnic apprehension can be found even among the older tribes, where outmarriage, or exogamy, has created a contemporary population that doesn't look nearly as ''Indian'' as the characters of our movies and HBO westerns. What results from this can get funky. For example, among coastal Indian tribes, who depend upon tourism, it is not uncommon to see them dressed as Plains Indians with full feathered headdresses and other outfits that were never their custom. It is a practice known as ''chiefing,'' and in some tribes it is as regulated as jewelry sales. This is the market force, ethnic-wise: coastal Indians know that they have to look like an outsider's vision of an Indian in order to be accepted by tourists as Indian.

Among the newer tribes, this anxiety can get especially intense. All weekend at the Jaycee Fairgrounds, the Cherokees of Northeast Alabama whom I spoke to were quite nervous that I might pronounce them, as some put it, ''ethnic frauds.'' Hickman, the genealogist, insisted upon knowing if I was ''going to make fun of them.'' In the days leading up to the powwow, he called me repeatedly, his voice filled with panic. Hardly an hour went by over the weekend that the event's spokeswoman, Karen Cooper, didn't sidle up to ask me if there was anything she could do.

Morgan, though, was happy to talk about her relatively new status as an American Indian. She had been attending powwows for years as a white woman, but became official two years ago after her genealogical work was done. ''I hate to put it this way, but I'm a completely new Indian,'' she said. ''I have had to learn everything from the ground up, and I'm learning every day.''

Morgan's sincerity and her profound pleasure at all these discoveries in her ancestral line now influences every waking moment of her life, she said. She confided that she knows that there are fake Indians -- so-called wannabes -- and she says she feels sorry for them. ''I hear some people say that they have a 'Cherokee princess' up the line,'' Morgan said with a laugh. ''I just love that one, because of course the Cherokees didn't have a princess.'' This joke -- about the white person claiming a Cherokee princess -- is heard pretty often these days from any Indian, coast to coast. In the same way that blacks poke fun at white men who can't jump or Jews mock goyim mispronunciations of Yiddish words, it is not meant as much to put down others as to enunciate the authenticity and insider status of the person telling the joke. It is a way to assuage a new kind of ethnic unease that can be felt throughout Indian Country.

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