People who identify themselves as Native American abound in Northeastern Oklahoma.
Some may look like they’ve walked off a traditional movie set, while others drive cars with tribal tags but are blonde and have blue eyes. But even some of those who look Indigenous might not have been brought up in an Indigenous culture and live an Indigenous lifestyle.
Mark Bolin, one of Tuesday’s speakers at the 48th annual Symposium on the American Indian at Northeastern State University, differentiated the two during his presentation, “Four Pillars of Identification: Redefining Indigenous People by Traditional Standards.”
This year’s Symposium is online because of continued concerns about COVID-19. While the NSU Center for Tribal Studies has organized and coordinated the conference as usual, participants may attend from their home communities.
Bolin based his talk on material he collected for his master’s thesis at NSU. He currently is pursuing a doctorate at Oklahoma State University. He is a Cherokee citizen.
“Although I identify myself as Cherokee, I identify myself as an Indigenous descendant,” he said.
He explained that truly Indigenous people live in Indigenous communities, speak the language, and live according to the culture.
A clip from the late John Trudell, poet and Native activist, helped define the situation at the beginning of the speech. When Europeans got off the boat, they didn’t know who the people they encountered were, so they incorrectly labeled them “Indian,” according to Trudell.
“I am a human being. That’s the name of my tribe. That’s the name of my people, that I am a human being.”
Calling the tribes other names was a way to erase their identity, he said. It reached the point where they didn’t see themselves as human beings first.
Today, often the identity of Indigenous and Indigenous descendants are blurred, Bolin said. Defining those two identities helps scholars study the question of identity better, and helps people define themselves better as well.
He quoted Lakota journalist Ruth Hopkins, who asked, “Are you part of an Indigenous culture, or is it merely pure ancestry?”
Bolin also brought up critical race theory, that race is a social construct, as promoted by Dr. Cornell West in his book, “Race Matters.”
“No one has applied this to studies of Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada,” he said, adding that scholars in Mexico and other parts of Latin America are ahead of North Americans in this aspect.
“We have the human beings, but we don’t have the Indigenous identities,” he said.
Where did white people come from? Bolin asked. People give answers like “Europe.” But Europeans originally called themselves according to their countries of origin — English, French, German. They didn’t term themselves “white” or “European.” That happened later, as cultures mingled.
Four things create and define all people, Bolin said. This applies to Cherokee culture or any other culture. Community, culture, language and values make up identity. A Frenchman who lives in New York City is still French. He can speak French, identifies as French, enjoys French food. His children are less so. They retain some of what they have learned from their parents but live in this country, go to American schools, assimilate American values.
“Every generation loses a little bit of that identity,” Bolin said.
On the other hand, Indigenous people have had to live by how a federal government has defined them, including blood quantums and generations of forced relocations.
Bolin asked these questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we now? Where are we going? Why does it matter?
He illustrated a Cherokee community with footage of The Girty Family Singers at home. Their duda, or grandfather, was a stomp dance leader who later sang in church. The adult children grew up speaking Cherokee and learning Cherokee culture in their daily lives, as are the children. One of the women said she hopes to see her grandchildren doing the same.
Contrast that with young people who are Cherokee, but who grow up in homes where English is spoken, where they do not speak Cherokee in school, who have moved away from family members and grown up without the cultural heritage their elders could pass on if they were close by. They do not live around other Cherokee families in a Cherokee community.
“You’re not around the people who speak the language; you’re not around the people who have these common values,” Bolin said. “We don’t have many of these tribal communities left.”
The sense of community is strong among most Cherokee people. Some of the people in Cherokee towns before the removal established towns together when they arrived in what became the Cherokee Nation today. People in some of those communities still have distinctive dialects when speaking Cherokee, Bolin said. The same is true in the Creek Nation.
Bolin would like to see more use of Cherokee in daily life, especially when conducting Cherokee Nation business, to keep the culture strong. Culture includes language, spirituality, food, storytelling, art, and other aspects.
“Cherokee culture is a reflection of the community. You can’t find Cherokee culture outside Cherokee communities,” he said.
Above all, the values of Indigenous people are those of tribal culture, and the values of tribal communities are different from those of dominant cultures, Bolin said.