Though the tactics have changed over time, U.S. politics have always sought to make Indians invisible. The first move was to murder them. Then Natives were rounded up on reservations, largely in remote and undesirable locations. Native culture was deleted through compulsory attendance at schools that de-programmed them as Indians and reprogrammed them as “white.” Forced adoptions sent Indian children to live with white families, and that only just ended in 1978 with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Today, those in power continue to seek political gain by depicting Natives as niche, distant, and meaningless — to the point of invisibility.
But an “Indian issue” recently reached the headlines. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, felt compelled to undergo a DNA test to prove her Native American lineage in response to attacks by President Donald Trump. He and others were asserting Warren isn’t a “real” Indian and has used her false status for professional gain, with Trump going so far as to goad her by calling her “Pocahontas.” Warren ultimately created a website featuring the DNA results and other information. The site aims to show that her heritage didn’t help her climb the academic ranks as a Harvard law professor.
Trump is not just attacking Warren’s veracity; this is one more thread in his race-based appeal to a certain segment of white Americans. Indians are a walking, talking reminder of racial genocide and centuries-long oppression, and the realities of our continued existence are a political inconvenience. We don’t square with the myth of virtuous European settlers establishing a democracy that — after claiming it fixed the racial inequities of the past — now wants us to believe it has evolved into a system that distributes wealth and privilege in a merit-based, color-blind fashion.
Native youth commit suicide at a rate nearly four times that of white children. A greater proportion of Native American children live in poverty than any other ethnic group in the U.S., and the rate is triple that of whites. While other communities of color are also denigrated in a variety of reprehensible ways, there is a unique playbook in U.S. politics for dealing with Natives. This country pretends we don’t exist — via history, geography, and population. Our era is supposedly over, which apparently means it’s fine for us to be used for cartoonish portrayals and sports mascots. And when Natives do stand up to prove we’re here, we’re often ignored — or mocked as being inauthentic.
“They don’t look like Indians,” is what Trump said in 1993 when he testified before the House Committee on Indian Affairs. He was referring to the Mashantucket Pequot, who wanted to operate a casino that would be a competitor to Trump’s own. Trump questioned their legitimacy as Indians while also asserting (without evidence) that Natives were categorically involved with organized crime. Trump continued, “You’re saying only Indians can have the reservations, only Indians can have the gaming. So why aren’t you approving it for everybody? Why are you being discriminatory?”
In today’s mythical America, in which people pretend institutional racism does not exist and that the intergenerational effects of trauma and poverty are not real, any benefit bestowed upon people of color is derided as a “special right.” Trump’s question of discrimination could have been answered with a legal explanation about tribal sovereignty, but that’s beside the point. Then and now, Trump is trying to create division between whites and Natives.
Natives with legitimate tribal affiliation, no matter what they look like, have a role to play in ensuring that we are not erased.
Meanwhile, the erasure continues. Thousands of Native voters have been disenfranchised in North Dakota just weeks ahead of the 2018 election. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn that state’s new voter registration law that says a P.O. Box is an unacceptable address — even though a post box is the only option for many Natives in communities with unconventional road systems.
I am not saying that Warren, a public person in a position of power to influence Native issues, should be exempt from criticism by Natives. Cultural appropriation is a serious issue that deserves vigilance, and questions about how she has used her power to help Natives are fair game. What I fear, however, is that this incident will cause some Natives, particularly ones like me, to do less when we need to do more. Natives with legitimate tribal affiliation, no matter what they look like, have a role to play in ensuring that we are not erased.
I say this as somebody who has been guilty of choosing to be an invisible Indian. In truth, I am a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. My grandfather was a so-called “full-blooded” Native. This is based on the “blood quantum” measure that is still used by the federal government, although some tribes use a specific threshold to decide citizenship while others make determinations based on verified ancestry. My father (my full-blooded grandfather’s son) presents as nonwhite and has spent much of his life working in Indian country. I present as white, and I get to reap all the benefits of that status as I walk through the world.
This status does not excuse me from what I now consider to be my responsibility to represent my Native heritage. There was a period in my life, however, when I concealed an important piece of who I am because of resentful mockery akin to the kind invoked by Trump.
Like many stories about race, my own has been complicated. Growing up, I think my peers, especially those familiar with my family, regarded me as basically white but with an asterisk. There was the occasional Indian joke, which didn’t bother me, but it sometimes evolved into a joking-not-really-joking resentment about getting things I didn’t deserve. For example, after being admitted to well-regarded universities, some people alleged it was only because I was an Indian.
Indian invisibility is only as real we make it.
That handful of incidents changed me. Driven by ego and insecurity, I decided I did not want people to question whether I earned my way for reasons beyond my own abilities. I was scared of being regarded as a despicable opportunist. After high school, away from home, I stopped sharing my identity with people beyond my close friends. I largely did not participate in tribal activities or do anything meaningful to advance the well-being of Natives.
When I was accepted to the London School of Economics, where I earned my master’s degree, I (embarrassingly) remember thinking that a benefit of attending school there was that nobody would ever question whether I’d been admitted based only on my Native ancestry because the diversity considerations used in the U.S. are not applied in the United Kingdom. I told myself I was doing the right thing by not claiming an identity I didn’t think I deserved to represent because of my appearance, achievement, and resulting circumstance. The reality is that I did oppression a favor by choosing to become an invisible Indian.
I was pushed out of these shadows by an acquaintance who, surprisingly, recognized me as Native. In an encounter at a professional conference, with my identity outed, this other Indian started asking questions. I eventually confessed that I did not advertise my Native ancestry. My argument in defense was based on a true concept in white privilege, but it collapsed in on itself because I suppressed the full story. After listening to my convoluted rationale, this Native woman paused, looked away, and then, her eyes back on mine, said plainly, “You make us all invisible.” And my heart broke.
Today, in my living room, you can find a Potawatomi dictionary. I teach my daughters phrases in our Native language. I have founded a scholarship for Native youth who want to work for social and environmental change. When I look around — beyond the well-publicized scrutiny of Warren’s DNA test — I see signs of hope. We have witnessed the strength of the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. We can see the disenfranchised North Dakota Native communities fighting back. Moreover, this year, we have notched a record number of Natives running for office.
Indian invisibility is only as real we make it. Political strategies, even those with a gruesome record of success, can be broken. Natives are here, I am one of them, and my pride and hope endure.