“Friends of the Indian”

Chives after rain

Chives after the rain

Permaculture teaches us to observe the patterns in nature, and I thought of patterns when I saw this circle of chives after the last rain storm. Plants are so beautiful, especially when they bloom. Especially when they form a circle after rain.

Everything is green now. I go outside and do what I can in the garden. Inside, I finished watching the Ken Burns series The West. One of its stories has really stayed on my mind–the story of a well-meaning white woman who tried to help, but ended up causing harm to Native peoples. I think about how often that pattern has repeated itself in the last 150 years. And I wonder, how do we keep from repeating it again?

Alice Fletcher was a white upper-class feminist, one of those women that we lesbians of my generation have been so thrilled to discover–because she lived and worked with her romantic companion, Jane Gay.  Born in 1838, she went to “the best schools” and was active in the feminist and suffrage groups of New York city. Eventually she found a mentor, the director of the Peabody Museum, to study anthropology and archeology.  In 1881 she lived with and studied the Omaha Indians of Nebraska. She appreciated the culture and became close to many people there, even adopting a son, Francis La Flesche, who himself became a professional ethnologist.  She and he published a multitude of articles and books about Indigenous culture and music.

But she also came to the conclusion that Indian people needed to be brought into the mainstream life of America culture. According to PBS,

Containment had been the goal of federal Indian policy throughout much of the nineteenth century, but in 1883 a group of white church leaders, social reformers and government officials met at Mohonk Lake, New York, to chart a new, more humane course of action. Calling themselves “Friends of the Indian,” they proposed to remold Native Americans into mainstream citizens and to begin this process by re-educating the youngest generation at special Indian schools.

Alice Fletcher devoted herself to pressuring the government for the allotment policy: the breakup of tribal landholdings into individual holdings. “Friends of the Indians” thought it would be good for Native peoples to become more like their white neighbors, to farm, to own their own land individually, rather than collectively.

In 1882, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired her to make a survey of all Indian lands for their suitability for allotment. The same year she was hired to manage the allotment of the Omahas’ lands. After the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which provided for the eventual breakup of all Indian reservations, she managed the allotment of the Nez Percé’s remaining lands.

But allotment failed drastically in so many ways.  First of all, it failed to honor the choices of Indigenous peoples–most of them did not want allotments but were forced into it. And ultimately, it robbed Native nations of millions of acres of their land, and undermined their cultural sovereignty as nations.

Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and its repeal under the New Deal in 1934, allotment continually deprived Indians of many of their remaining lands. The outright sale of “surplus” lands — parts of reservations left over after allotments had been assigned — and the subsequent sale of allotted lands themselves shrunk the Indian estate from about 150 million acres before the Dawes Act to 104 million acres by 1890, to 77 million by 1900, and to 48 million by 1934. By the time of its repeal, according to one study, two-thirds of the Indian population was “either completely landless or did not own enough land to make a subsistence living.”

Alice Fletcher thought she was a friend, helping, doing something good for Native peoples.  But her help caused harm.  No wonder Indigenous people are cautious about those of us who might show up eager to “help.”  Patterns.  And how do we know that what we think of as help might later be revealed to have caused harm?  Let’s ponder that question for a while.

Sea Kale blooming

The perennial sea kale in bloom smells like honey.

“Part Indian”

Yvonne DSC01872I don’t know the whole story about Elizabeth Warren’s claim to have Native ancestry.  I have heard her mocked by being called “Pocahontas.”  That mockery is wrong on so many counts, not the least of which is the tragic story of the actual Pocahontas that has been obscured and romanticized by American culture and cinema.  But what I want to explore today is the sometimes confusing experience of those of us who are white but have some Native ancestry.

I know enough now to know that having Native ancestry does not make one a Native American.  But I didn’t know that when I was young.  It was through trying to understand what my Native ancestry meant that I grew to understand what it meant to be white.

When my siblings and I were growing up, all we really knew was our family stories.  Our mom told us she was part Indian.  She didn’t know what tribe.  It was through her mother’s family, my grandmother Yvonne who came from Quebec to Detroit.  (That is Yvonne’s picture I have included above–taken on the day she crossed the border from Canada to her new life in America with my grandfather.) My mom was proud of being part Indian.  My dad had worked as a cowboy, so we used to joke about our parents being the cowboy and the Indian.

Our family stories opened in my heart a curiosity toward Indigenous peoples. As a young adult I learned more about American Indian political struggles, and began to take what action I could in solidarity.  But I also learned that white people who claimed to have Native ancestry were often joked about, considered Wannabes, and especially tasteless was to claim a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian princess.

Perhaps that was why I was relieved to discover that we were not part Cherokee.  I was the one who researched our family history and learned that we were related to the Innu people, who are indigenous to the land now called Quebec and Labrador. The French settlers called them Montagnais. I learned that the Innu know their land as Nitasinnan, which means “our land.”  Later, in the midst of my activist work, I had a chance to meet Innu activists, working against the hydrodams that Quebec was trying to build on their rivers.

Gradually, I learned more about the Indigenous experience in America, and was able to better understand my own position as a white woman.  But in between my childhood and my better understanding, it was confusing to me.  There were a few occasions that I said I was Native American, many other occasions I kept silent.  My sister once took an art class that she got into because she was 1/16th Indian (we thought).  For a short while, I said I was Metis–mixed–because that was a word used in a book in French that spoke about some of my ancestors.  Not being in Canada, I didn’t know about the actual meaning of that word in English to describe another distinct group.  It took a long time to sort out that it was more accurate and respectful to say that I was white.

This is why I have some sympathy for Elizabeth Warren right now.  With only family stories to guide us, it is hard to sort out the dynamics of race and privilege from cherished ancestral connections.  And the stories of my grandmothers are also meaningful to me still.  I say grandmothers, because it was my matrilineal descent that originated in Nitasinnan.  My Innu great-great-great-grandmother was Marie-Madeleine, who married a Scottish trapper near Chicoutimi, Quebec.  Her daughter was Angele, whose daughter was Claudia, my great-grandmother, and Yvonne’s mother.  When we were kids, we thought we were 1/16 Indian, but it turned out to be 1/32.  Much later, a DNA test confirmed that matrilineal descent.

These grandmothers were gradually–or perhaps quickly–assimilated into the white community, first in Quebec, and then in the United States.  I learned that assimilation itself was part of the long campaign to divide Indigenous people from their land and their history.  When an Indian woman in Canada married a white man, she lost her legal status as an Indian.  So, on the census records for Angele, for example, she was referred to as Scottish like her father.  The mother disappears, through a combination of sexism and racism.  I don’t think the assimilation was without difficulty.  I don’t know the early stories, but my mom mentioned once that her mom and her aunts didn’t go in the sun, because they didn’t want their skin to darken and people to think that they were Indians.

Their lingering shame says something to me about the difficulties of the assimilation process.  And yet–they told the stories–they didn’t forget their ancestry.  And that means something to me as well.  The Innu word for “my grandmother” is Nukum.  Even though I am now very clear about being white, I pray to Nukum for guidance in my life, and she has helped me on my journey.