“Us” and “Not Us”

Originally posted at Lingit Latseen

Some important issues around race, nationalism and tribal enrollment have been raised by this article at Indian Country Today:

Steve Russell’s New Book, Sequoyah Rising

A noteworthy passages.

It’s easy to forget, particularly after growing up “Indian,” that Indians had no such concept of themselves before being “discovered.” Most tribes had a word for “us” and a word for “not us.” And before white people, they also had a way for “not us” to become “us.” If that were not so, we would have been more inbred than European royals by the time European royals started quarreling over which of them owned us.

This should be a familiar concept to we Tlingit. Adoption is alive and well in our clans, and our clans may claim someone a part of the tribe who doesn’t qualify as an enrolled Indian with Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. It’s an important and noteworthy distinction. With T&H enrollment comes certain benefits and services. These benefits are largely funded by T&H’s General Fund and through program specific grants from the state and federal government. When thinking about tribal citizenship in this sense, you might ask yourself, what can your tribe do for you? T&H is largely a social services agency.

On the other hand, when you are out and about in Tlingit country, you won’t be asked what your tribal enrollment number is, you’ll be asked, “what clan are you?” “What was your father’s clan?” And if you are an adopted Tlingit, that adoption likely didn’t come without reason. It is highly likely that you earned your adoption, and your clan proudly claims you as one of their own, regardless of your blood quantum. When thinking about tribal citizenship in this sense, you might ask yourself, “what can I do for my tribe?”

Much of what makes up Indian identity can be described in these terms. I am, by lineage, a part of two different tribes, the Tlingit and Taos Pueblo. I’ll never forget when another Indian first asked me, not which tribe I claimed, but which tribe claimed me. Was I initiated? Named? Recognized? As it turns out, I am named and claimed by the Teeyhittaan Clan, and am invited to be initiated into Taos Pueblo.

The survival of many of our tribes has always depended on adoption. We need some degree of diversity of thought, skills, and abilities. A tribe our clan can decide whether or not to open up for adoption, or remain conservative. I, for one, think its a mistake to turn away a person dedicated to our tribe. But the question is, what do our clans and tribes have to offer in return? An adoption doesn’t give the adopted access to tribal government benefits. What benefits does it give? Here are a few:

  1. A sense of identity
  2. Access to cultural rights such as a clan’s at.oow (a clan’s actual and spiritual property, including clan crests, for all you non-Tlingit out there) in all its forms
  3. Love and respect

In addition to the above, what did adoption into a clan or tribe used to mean?

  1. Protection
  2. Legal rights via tribal system of law; in many cases a clan or tribe will represent one of its members in inter and intratribal disputes.
  3. Access to clan or tribe owned or controlled resources
  4. A place to live

Our clans and tribes are still capable of providing some or maybe even all of these. As our tribal sovereignty is eroded, we might ask ourselves which model of “tribe” is more resilient. Which will serve us over the long run? If our tribes are to outlive the United States, we will eventually need to do without many of the social services provided through our tribal governments. Building resilient clans and tribes that can provide basic protection, justice, and resources as outlined above is our route to surviving over the long term.

Plenty more to discuss about the Sequoyah Rising article. More later.

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About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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