Conflicts in Identity


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Sierra Adare-Tasiwoopa ápi

American Studies

The term “identity,” when applied in a context of the Indigenous5 peoples of what is now called North America, sparks highly charged debate. Eurowestern colonizers superimposing their standards, values, morals, ethics, and even names on Indigenous peoples results in Indigenous identity haunting the realm of politics as much, if not more, than it does cultural association (Memmi 1965, Smith 1999, Womack 1999, Yellow Bird 2005). Furthermore, within and across Indigenous communities, politics and culture merge with stereotypical notions of what it means to be Indigenous and who really should be considered Indigenous, opening a proverbial Pandora’s Box. Consequently, clashes arise between colonized, dehumanized views and traditional philosophies towards ethnic, legal, and cultural identity within and beyond “Indian” country (Dupres 2007, Gervais 2007, Grinde 1995, Yellow Bird 2005).

When Shakespeare pondered what is in a name, the Indigenous peoples of North America were far from his thoughts. Nonetheless, the connotations of the Eurowesterners’ collective term “Indian” initiated the identity crisis that ripples throughout Indigenous communities and nations by erasing whole peoples’ cultural distinctiveness. Therefore, this paper first examines the erroneous labeling forced on the Indigenous peoples by the colonizers. In conjunction, it retraces the steps taken by Eurowestern politicians in determining Indigenous identity through legislation and the devastating consequences for Indigenous peoples. After that, the paper explores Indigenous notions about Indigenous identity and some of the traditional ways Indigenous communities have viewed membership, endeavoring to revitalize these practices for the sake of Indigenous people and the survival of their nations. This will be followed by conclusions.

What’s in a Name?
The term “Indian” is in quotation marks as it is a label forced on the Indigenous peoples of North America by Christopher Columbus’s mistake while looking for los Indios (Berkhofer 1988, Coward 1999). Homogenizing all of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas into one term expunges Indigenous peoples’ individual and sovereign nation identities (Newcomb 2008, Smith 1999). Real Indians are indigenous to India not North America. Likewise, to tack “American” in front of “Indians” is equally erroneous and misleading. Americans are the descendents of Europeans and people from other continents who immigrated (willingly or unwillingly) to this land. Historians and other writers do not refer to the India Indians as English Indians or British Indians— not during the timeframe that the English invaded, colonized, and occupied India, or since. Furthermore, speaking from a Maori perspective, Smith (1999: 157) points out, Europeans were fulfilling their own agendas when they arrived in the New World and began naming and claiming everything in sight. Smith argues that part of the decolonization process begins with “renaming the world using the original indigenous names.” Therefore, it is no more appropriate to apply the term “American” to “Indian”— which creates a hegemonic label for hundreds of distinct Indigenous nations that constitute the original inhabitants of this continent— than it is to call Indigenous peoples “Native Americans.”

By the same token, Indigenous scholars call for Indigenous peoples to stop using imperialistic terms that only help to strip away their sovereignty, land base, and identity (Barker 2005, Smith 1999). Grinde (1995), an Indigenous scholar, contends that dehumanizing terms used by Eurowesterners for centuries not only persist in current scholarly discourse but routinely appear in the discourse of Indigenous scholars who continue to use “tribe,” “Indians, ” “American Indians,” “Native American,” and Indigenous with a lowercase “i.” Newcomb (2008: 70), a Shawano and Lenni Lenape (Shawnee and Delaware)6 scholar, argues that the word “tribe” is “a demeaning term used by ‘states’ as a technique of political subjugation” in their discourse. It is a reminder of the Indigenous nations’ status as “conquered and subdued.” Using “nation” instead of “tribe” thus becomes a subtle reminder of Indigenous nations’ right of sovereignty, nationhood status, and Indigenous identity. Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) scholar Womack (1999: 14) notes that Indigenous peoples “exercising the right to present images of themselves and to discuss those images” is a key “part of sovereignty” and Indigenous identity.

Defining Indigenous in Terms of Who is “Indian”
Who is an “Indian”? This is a loaded question and it depends on whom one asks. In discussing ethnic identity Sokolove, Fairfax, and Holland (2002) state:
A common fiction, whether individual or collective, holds that identities are stable over time and express a definitive essence of who people are. Identities are instead constructed and shaped by multiple factors, including the practices of the state. Identities are neither entirely received from an external source nor wholly self-chosen but lie somewhere between positioning and being positioned. The process of constituting identities is multiple, often contradictory, and dependent on narrations of history, memory, and expectation [Sokolove et al. 2002: 24].7
Initially, the U.S. government viewed “Indians” as the people belonging to their various sovereign nations who lived on the soil of North America. Yet, the U.S. government soon began to rewrite history to the benefit of its growing Eurowestern populous, who needed the land and resources belonging to the sovereign Indigenous nations—hence Chief Justice John Marshall’s infamous decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that designated all heretofore sovereign Indigenous nations as “domestic dependent nations” (Newcomb 2008: 127) subject to the political whims of both federal and state governments. This labeling, of course, gives birth to the paternalism and patronizing policies in which the federal government pronounces who is and who is not to be considered an “American Indian.”

According to Castile (1996: 744), the Dawes Act precipitates the need to “sort out accurately who was and who was not an Indian, at least temporarily.” Nonetheless, there is no actual mention of any blood quantum in the Act. Section 6 stipulates only that any allottee who has:

voluntarily taken up, within said limits [of the U.S.], his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians thereIn and has adopted the habits of civilized life, is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States…whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States without in any manner impairing or otherwise affecting the right of any such Indian to tribal or other property [Prucha 2000: 172].
Prucha (1984) explains the “Indian” by “otherwise” is a white person who marries into an Indigenous nation, and, in the case of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” a Freedman (former slave), many of whom also married into the Indigenous nations.

Nevertheless, the Dawes Commission does include the percentage of “Indian” blood on the rolls and this created controversy in its own right. By the time many Indigenous peoples registered on the Dawes Rolls, word had spread that anyone claiming full-blood would continue to be classified by law as a ward of the government, even after the mandatory 25-year “trust period” ended— this period being “for most Indians to serve their apprenticeship in civic responsibilities” and be “placed theoretically on the same footing with their white neighbors” (Prucha 2000: 206- 207) as fully assimilated and therefore civilized individuals who had nothing further to do with “tribal” communities or “tribal” ways.

Prucha (1984: 882) recounts that “Indian” commissioner Cato Sells’s annual report for 1917 “set blood quantum as a norm” when he announced the new rules in “A Declaration of Policy.” Sells considers this policy to be “the beginning of the end of the Indian problem,” otherwise know as wardship or “the protecting arm of the Government” (Prucha 2000: 215). Secretary of the Interior Lane, Sells’s boss, heartily endorses the policy that declares that all able-bodied adult Indigenous people with “less than one-half Indian blood” shall be given “full and complete control of all their property. Patents in fee shall be issued to all adult Indians of one-half or more Indian blood who may, after careful investigation, be found competent, provided, that where deemed advisable patents in fee shall be withheld for not to exceed 40 acres as a home” (Prucha 2000: 214).
Sells justifies this blood quantum distinctions asa preponderance of white blood has not heretofore been a criterion of competency, nor even now is it always a safe standard, it is almost an axiom that an Indian who has a larger proportion of white blood than Indian partakes more of the characteristics of the former than of the latter. In thought and action, so far as the business world is concerned, he approximates more closely to the white blood ancestry [Prucha 2000: 213].
Later federal governmental policies also enlist the use of blood quantum as a determinant of Indigenous identity. Half-blood appears in the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). This Act finally and definitively defines “Indian” in U.S. policy, saying that the term includes “all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized Indian tribe now under Federal jurisdiction, and all persons who are descendants of such members who were, on June 1, 1934, residing within the present boundaries of any Indian reservation and shall further include all other persons of one-half or more Indian blood” (Prucha 2000: 225). Additionally, the IRA “gives” Indigenous nations the opportunity to adopt an American style constitution for the purpose of governing the “tribe,” thereby replacing existing traditional “tribal” governing (Philp 1986). Of course, this American style constitution contains no regard for non-Eurowestern notions of consensus, customs, and ancient convention, especially with regard to traditional methods of determining Indigenous identity and membership.
Traditional Indigenous Cultural Notions of “Indian” Identity
Regardless of whether the Indigenous nation is matrilineal or patrilineal, orphans as conceived of in Eurowestern terms does not translate into Indigenous worldviews (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force 2006, Parker 1968, Womack 1999). As noted by Sally Wagner (2001), all children born into an Indigenous nation were wanted, welcomed, and loved. If a child lost both parents, another relative in the clan to which the child belonged raised the child or the child was adopted and raised by the other parent’s clan (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force 2006, Parker, 1968, Womack 1999). Womack (1999: 42) illustrates the fluidity of membership in the Mvskoke’s matrilineal culture, citing examples where a person whose mother is not Mvskoke “might take the clan name of her father or be assigned to a clan” and in this way “clan identity retains its own flexibility while still maintaining the community’s criteria for membership.”

Historically, in times of conflict or crisis when families or clans have lost husbands, sons, daughters, or other family members, to maintain the strength of the clan and the community Indigenous nations adopt children or adults who were not members of their nations (Grinde and Johansen 1991, Parker 1968, Reid 1970, Seaver 1910). In Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture, there is a set number of names each clan uses (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force 2006). If too many names are not in use, they will adopt, as in the case of Mary Jemison. After being captured during a raid in 1755, she was adopted into the Onondowahgah (Seneca) nation to replace two women’s slain brother (Seaver 1910). Jemison, then renamed Dehhewanis, continued her explanation of the adoption ceremony in which the condoler proclaimed:

His [the brother Dehhewanis replaced] spirit has seen our distress, and sent us a helper whom with pleasure we greet…Oh! she is our sister, and gladly we welcome her here. In the place of our brother she stands in our tribe. With care we will guard her from trouble; and may she be happy till her spirit shall leave us [Seaver 1910: 58, 59].
Dehhewanis stated afterward, “In the course of that ceremony, from mourning they became serene,--joy sparkled in their countenances, and they seemed to rejoice over me as over a long-lost child. I was made welcome among them as a sister to the two” (Seaver 1910: 59). Later she added that her adopted family treated her as if she had been “a real sister, the same as though I had been born of their mother” (Seaver 1910: 60). Many other Indigenous nations maintain traditions for the formal adoption, as well (Grinde and Johansen 1991, Reid 1970, Womack 1999).
Modern Struggles Over “Indian” Identity and Recovering “Indianness”
As previously noted by Sokolove et al. (2002), identity constructs change over time, as does the U.S. government’s criteria and those of Indigenous communities. In a 1977 report for the Department of Education, prepared by the American Indian Institute, Hall and Hackbert (1977) investigated literacy rates among Oklahoma’s Indigenous peoples. In developing the criteria for whom they considered to be classified as an “American Indian” for the study, the researchers first looked at 1970 U.S. Census Bureau records that allowed people to self-identify as Indigenous and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) guideline that, by that time, had lowered the amount to a one-fourth blood quantum in order to qualify for a federal government issued Certificate of Indian Blood (CDIB) card. As Hall and Hackbert (1977) hoped the survey would benefit the various Indigenous nations, the researchers decided to go with the Indigenous nations’ individual membership requirements. These vary drastically as each nation is allowed to:
specify their community population to include residents within what is called the tribal service area. This resulted in two tribes specifying their community members to include only tribal members residing in a six or ten-county area serviced by the tribe. Further, the tribes of the northeastern portion of the state defined their population as being within a thirty-mile radius of the tribal office, which excluded some tribal members living in the state at a distance further than thirty miles but included an approximately equal number of tribal members residing in Kansas or Missouri [Hall and Hackbert 1977: 16].
In other words, proximity matters more than blood quantum in this instance.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government continues to maintain blood quantum requirements for federal benefits. In 1983, in the Federal Acknowledgement of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island, the BIA Acknowledgement Branch’s investigative report states:

While eligibility for benefits under some Federal statues is limited to tribal members with a certain blood degree, and the right of non-tribal Indians to organize is limited to those with 1/2 or more degree Indian blood, Federal law imposes no general blood degree requirement for tribal membership. Moreover, under the Federal regulations for determining eligibility as a tribe, a blood quantum requirement is not included in the criteria. While blood degree may be some evidence of social and cultural cohesion and maintenance of tribal relations, it is most definitely not conclusive as to the existence of tribal relations [Prucha 2000: 305].
This relaxing of blood quantum and allowing more Indigenous nation input into membership criteria, however, leads to conflicts within Indigenous communities (Fitzpatrick 2004, Yellow Bird 2005). When two groups of the Taidnapam nation from what is now Washington State came together as part of a legal suit, they debated who should and who should not receive membership. Some wanted enrollment based on one-sixteenth blood quantum, others on one-fourth; others suggested lineal descent rather than blood quantum, and still others thought it should be the descendents of the Roblins 1919 Rolls (Fitzpatrick 2004). One person believed duel descent and blood quantum was the answer. Another wanted no roll at all. Mixed bloods and those closer to full-bloods squared off. Castile (1996: 747) explains, “Indian identity has become unavoidably commodified, bound up in the politics, as well as the economics, of political economy. I do not doubt for a moment that there are hundreds of perfectly ‘real’ Indian groups unrecognized—but in the end it becomes a matter of convincing the market and its federal regulators that you and your people are genuine.” Castile (1996: 746) notes that Indigenous Elder and scholar Vine Deloria defines an Indigenous nation as “a group of people living pretty much in the same place who know who their relatives are.”

The irony is that even though the Taidnapam (Cowlitz) are part of some Pacific Northwest land claims lawsuits, they remain a federally unrecognized Indigenous nation. Therefore, in the eyes of the U.S. government, and in the eyes of many Indigenous peoples, members of a federally unrecognized “tribe” are not “real” “Indians” (Cook-Lynn 2001, Mihesuah 2003). As things heat up at the Taidnapam’s membership meeting, in response to disagreement over who should and who should not be considered a “real” “Indian,” one Taidnapam announced that he considers himself “all Indian at heart,” while another finally pointed out, “Being a ‘card carrying’ Cowlitz Indian doesn’t make you a Cowlitz” (Fitzpatrick 2004: 60).

Echoing these sentiments, Gervais (2007: 1), an “Anishnabe8-French Canadian,” in her Master’s thesis “Bill C-31: Identity and Gender: Ain’t I an Indian?” sees colonizers’ appropriating the right to decide “Indianness” as dehumanizing. Gervais (2007: 54) interjects what she calls “life experience” into a methodology that is “autobiographical in appearance, as it is self-referential and is only one component within a more intricate entity described as [narration] storytelling” as a means of including not only what she has learned from her personal “process of decolonization,” but how and why she began to deconstruct and reconstruct a sense of Indigenous identity. In many ways her thesis is an act of resistance against the “humiliating invasion of privacy” (Gervais 2007: 11) in seeking recognition for and coming out of the closet, as it were, about being Indigenous.

In discussing the “salience of ethnicity” among the Taidnapam, Fitzpatrick acknowledges that a “person’s ethnic identity surfaces or stands out in their consciousness, in their identity of self as a result of experiences, circumstances or events that call their ethnic background to mind” (qtd. in Dupres 2007: 3). Dupres (2007: 3), also a Taidnapam, adds that “when such identity is called to mind—such as while attending council, or fishing a stream, or reciting a myth9 from text—the attending narrative and activity assert a local meaning that reinforces belonging” for the individual. Identity can also be construed as deriving from history and the string of events one has experienced or the stories of one’s ancestors (Dupres 2007, Zwonitzer 2009).

In the “Trail of Tears” episode in the PBS miniseries We Shall RemaIn Aniyvwiya (Cherokee) Gayle Ross, a descendent of Principal Chief John Ross, asserts, “In listening to the stories of your ancestors you’re taught who you are and what your ancestors sacrificed so that you could be Cherokee” (Zwonitzer 2009). Aniyvwiya Jace Weaver points out in that same episode that Ross, who held the elected position of chief for almost 40 years, was “only an eighth Cherokee” (Zwonitzer 2009), yet no members of the nation then or since then have questioned his authenticity as Aniyvwiya or him being a “real Indian.” Gervais (2007) adds that notions of “authentic” “Indian” are also an artificial construct of the colonizers that is contrary to traditional Indigenous ways of viewing “citizenship.” Chahta (Choctaw) Mihesuah (2003: xv) contends, “Knowing tribal traditions (including women’s places in tribal traditions) can help modern Natives cope with the complex—and impersonal—worlds by offering them foundations to form their identities and to create strategies for dealing with adversity.” Santee (Sioux)10 author Cook-Lynn (2001) suggests that only “tribally” enrolled “Indians” who were raised on a reservation are “real” “Indians.” In describing the internal strife faced by Indigenous peoples of mixed blood, regardless of whether or not they are “card carrying,” Gervais (2007), posits that perhaps those who equate “Indianness” with rez-raised might have a point up to a point.
Maybe I’m not who I say I am because I didn’t grow up on reserve…Maybe I have to accept what other people have written and accept that I am not native, that even though I hold a status card I am only a paper Indian. My experiences are not real Native experiences. But what about the argument that reserves are federally designed? From what I understand of my family history and culture, the southern area of Manitoba has been the stomping ground of my family for more generations than I can probably imagine. So is it not my birthright? My family is Indian. Doesn’t that mean I have the right to learn the language, to ask to be taught how to do stuff, to hear the stories that have been passed on from generation to generation?...Do I deny all my experiences and love of traveling because they are not perceived as Indigenous [Gervais 2007: 20-21]?
Counting “Indianness” based on colonizers’ magic blood degree formula rather than participating in experiential learning of Indigenous Knowledge and Original Instruction passed from one generation to the next concerns Yellow Bird (2005: 180), as well. He agrees with the late Lenape scholar Jack Forbes that tying ones Indigenous nation identity to a blood quantum criteria amounts to “statically genocide.” Yellow Bird (2005: 180) believes that Indigenous nations “should abandon this type of system before we enroll ourselves out of existence.” The approach he calls for contains many elements raised in the questions posed by Gervais (2007). Yellow Bird would discard the federal government’s notions of Indigenous identity in favor of a more traditional attitude about inclusion. Full membership would only be obtained after a number of years of serving the community either on the “reservation or traditional homelands” (Yellow Bird 2005: 180), such as doctors returning to their communities to practice medicine. Fledgling citizens would learn the nation’s language and achieve a “level of knowledge and understanding of their tribal history, culture, and politics” (Yellow Bird 2005: 180); pledge allegiance to protect their lands, resources, and lifeways; and provide evidence of being a good person based on traditional morals and values. When he posed this argument before a group of Elders at a pan-Indigenous conference, his plan is met with polite smiles and expressions that citizenship verses enrollment would result in non-Indigenous people taking of Indigenous nations and governments.
At the 2010 Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference, NAISA president Warrior called for an end to Indigenous in-fighting over the “Indian” identity issue for it is the survival of Indigenous peoples as sovereign Indigenous peoples that is what is being threatened. Unfortunately, as noted by Abraham Lincoln, a house divided against itself will fall. When the colonized accept the colonizers’ morals, standards, ideas, and philosophies, and imitate their actions and attitudes, the colonized “sets his mind on impoverishing himself, tearing himself away from his true self. The crushing of the colonized is included among the colonizer’s values. As soon as the colonized adopts those values, he similarly adopts his own condemnation. In order to free himself, at least so he believes, he agrees to destroy himself” (Memmi 1965: 121-122). Newman (2006), in his book Teaching Defiance: Stories and Strategies for Activist Educators, poses a plan of action.
[I]f we are to engage in learning in order to act on and change our social or political world, then we need to examine who is trying to lay our futures out for us, who is telling us what we should and should not do, who is holding us back, and who is preventing us from acting effectively in our own and in others’ interests. We need to do our learning by identifying and naming the wielders of power, analyzing the kinds of power they hold and, where we deem that power to be malign, examining the ways they use it. Effective learning will be done by defining the enemy [Newman 2006: 58-59].
The enemy, in this case, is the very real occurrence of statically genocide of the Indigenous nations in North America (Yellow Bird 2005). Yellow Bird (2005) and others have raised troubling issues. If identity is only in the blood pedigree, then what happens to traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices, not to mention the worldviews that celebrate the membership of people like Jemison and Ross? Or what about the circumstances of a full-blood “Indian” whose full-blood father is from an Indigenous nation that bases membership on matrilineal descent and whose full-blood mother is from an Indigenous nation that bases membership on patrilineal descent? Then those unfortunate offspring cannot be considered Indigenous either. Or what about the situation Gervais (2007) outlines in Canada where “card-carrying” Indigenous women and/or their children lose Indigenous status under certain conditions of the woman marrying outside of her Indigenous nation? Or what about what Yellow Bird (2005: 184) terms “tribal disenrollment” in which dozens of Indigenous nations are currently stripping or denying people with legitimate blood ties to their nations of “tribal” membership for the profit of those in political power or who want a bigger piece of a shrinking piece of the federal funds or gaming pie?

The Indigenous world within North America suffers from an identity crisis. Many Indigenous scholars call for decolonizing the identity process that continues to devalue and dehumanize all things Indigenous. Others resist. In the end, some Indigenous scholars are stepping forward to insist that Indigenous peoples must (re)indigenize themselves in order to sustain the future of all Indigenous peoples across North America. When I was crafting the introduction to my book “Indian” Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction: First Nations Voices Speak Out, my positioning statement addressed the personal experiences I had with not matching the Hollywood notion of “Indian” identity and how that lead to the idea for the book meeting with some resistance because of all the negativity it appeared to place on non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples who subscribe to colonizers’ ideas and ideals of “Indianness.” I turned to Deloria for advice and counsel. What he told me puts the arguments revolving around Indigenous identity into succinct focus. He said that when governments, non-Indigenous or Indigenous, have the power and use it to erase “Indianness” with the wave of a pen and Hollywood routinely tells the world what “Indians” look like and how they act, which have nothing to do with historic or contemporary Indigenous peoples, then the whole question of who is or who isn’t “Indian” is a creation of policymakers. What it really comes down to is knowing who your people were, where they came from, how they lived, the struggles they faced, and what they overcame so that you know not only who they were, but, through them, who you are.

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