Who is Indian
"Our people don't come in parts." Thus a contemporary elder answers all those who attempt to fragment the Indian people or divide an Indian person. He may as well have uttered the logical proposition: No Indian is a part person. His remark echoes the ageold Indian response to the white man, "We are people." When the Micmac encountered a landing party of Frenchmen in the fifteenth century, the Indians did not say, "My name is Hiawatha," or "We are part of the Micmac tribe"; they replied in the plural, and in one voice said, "We are who we are." In Indian sign talk, they used the word "geh-nu."
We can make a long list of what being Indian is not. Manifestly, it is not belonging to a tribe, carrying an Indian card, being a fullblood, or having red skin. Some Indians do not belong to a tribe, carry an Indian card, are not fullblood, do not have red skin, on and on. What necessary quality it is that all persons share who rightfully claim to be true heirs and upholders of the unique culture that developed in North and South America before contact with white Europeans? It is geh-nu.
At first, the question who is Indian had a military significance. It was raised and answered by Spanish, French and English conquerors. Precontact Indians had little occasion to even formulate the question. Even today most definitions of Indian are debated and proposed by non-Indians, not by Indians themselves.
For the Americans, it usually became, "Who is a hostile Indian?" That this was an even more difficult question is shown by all the instances of friendly fire. The so-called "praying Indians" were massacred and sometimes white folks were mistakenly killed by their fellow colonists.
Notice the underlying argument in "The only good Indian is a dead Indian":
All dead Indians are good Indians.
(You are not dead.)
(You are not a good Indian.)
In logical terms, this is an AEE-l argument. Its major premise, "All dead Indians are good Indians," is the only part of the syllogism that is expressed. The minor premise and conclusion are only implied (shown by parentheses). Is it valid? No. It has an illicit major term, "good Indian." In technical language, this term is not distributed. "All dead Indians are good Indians" is not the same as "All good Indians are dead Indians." The former proposition speaks in a universal way only of "dead Indians," and the conclusion attempts to state a universal truth about "good Indians." The syllogism is invalid because "good Indians" is an illicit major term.
Another favorite white syllogism revolves around some common Indian characteristic--high cheekbones, red skin, big noses and the like. This is presented as a universal quality, as in:
All Indians are extinct, or fullblood, or look like Sitting Bull
You are not extinct, fullblood or do not look like Sitting Bull
Therefore, you are not an Indian.
This argument (AOO-2) is valid but not persuasive. Its premise "All Indians are..." is not a probable or likely generalization, for it is contradicted by the statement "Some Indians are not extinct, fullblood, or do not look like Sitting Bull."
According to the U.S. Federal Code, Indians today are persons descended from the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas who are, at the same time, recognized as members of their community. Furthermore, a special category exists for descendants of those groups which signed treaties with the U.S. government ("reservation Indians," "Federally recognized," "card-carrying Indians" with a CDIB--certified degree of Indian blood). According to this definition, a person who is a descendant but not a member of an existing community is not an Indian, at least in the eyes of U.S. law. Likewise, many Indians are not recognized by non-Indians (those who write treaties) as Indian.
Before attempting an Indian-based definition, let us consider whether it is possible to become an Indian. One can become a Christian (by conversion), a U.S. citizen (by naturalization), a BMW owner (by purchase). Can a non-Indian wake up one day to discover he has been turned into an Indian? Is being Indian sometimes a matter of choice? If this were so, we would expect a gradual process--and degrees--of being Indian. Nothing can be created from nothing; all things have their seeds. Conversely, all things change, die and go out of existence. It must also be true that if you can become an Indian you can cease to be an Indian.
In short, can you be Indian and non-Indian at the same time, in one lifetime, or are the two qualities as opposite and contradictory as they would appear to be on the face of it?
Traditional knowledge has it that each newborn Indian receives a spirit shortly after birth--in many traditions, on the fourth day of life. The fact that some tribes like the Yuchi distinguish four ancestral spirits in each person does not change the fundamental principle. Spirit determines your identity and gives you existence. Infants dying before the fourth day were not considered to be completely born, and their deaths were not mourned in the same way. Adoptees had to die, give up their old spirit and be born again.
If you are a male baby you receive a male spirit, often that of a grandfather or uncle. Girl babies get the spirits of deceased female relatives. In extremely rare cases in the memory of the tribe, something "went wrong." A male spirit entered a female body or vice versa. Female warriors, loin cloths and all, were occasionally reported among the fallen in Indian battles, and the womanish man or clown who does everything backward is a familiar, if rare, figure in most tribes. These anomalies were regarded with an awe reserved for the sacred and most mysterious of all beings, like serpents that flew in the air or panthers that lived underwater.
The case of the famous Cherokee half-blood Beloved Woman, Nancy Ward, illustrates that an Indian could receive a non-Indian spirit. She is remembered for all the baffling ways in which she helped the white settlers, as well as for introducing the pig and the cow into native life. Despite the fact that she sat on the war council of the nation, she once warned the soldiers at the white fort before a surprise attack. The American armies repeatedly spared the Cherokee capital Echota because that was where Nancy Ward lived. And yet she continued to hold the highest honor among the Cherokee. Why? Because she was an anomaly. Had she not begun her career by picking up her slain husband’s bloody tomahawk and raising the war cry?
Spirit cannot be and not-be at the same time. Coming from Great Spirit, or All-That-Is, it is deathless and eternal. All-That-Is does not have an opposite. It is everything. In logical terms, its complement is Everything-That-Is-Not. By the same reasoning, you cannot be and not be Indian, nor can you be Indian and non-Indian. If you get an Indian spirit you are Indian, and if you get a non-Indian spirit you are non-Indian. You cannot become an Indian. You are either Indian or non-Indian. Indians are, quite simply, spirit.
Because no true Indian is part Indian, it follows that "weekend Indians" are not true Indians. Anyone who is a part-time Indian is only part Indian. The same could be said of those who claim to be one-fourth Indian, or one-eighth or even three-quarters. No part Indian is an Indian.
The Indian concept of geh-nu may be equated with the English word "sovereignty," a quality that is characteristic, exclusive and distinctive for a people. We can translate it as "Indianness" or "Indian sovereignty." Nobody can serve two masters. Whatever is uppermost is single in nature. Accordingly,
No one can cherish two sovereignties at once.
You must cherish Indian sovereignty or another sovereignty.
No cherisher of Indian sovereignty is a cherisher of another sovereignty.
No cherisher of another sovereignty is a cherisher of Indian sovereignty.
Some people, despite claiming to be Indian, cherish another sovereignty.
Some people do not cherish Indian sovereignty.
All Indians cherish Indian sovereignty (geh-nu).
No cherishers of another sovereignty are Indian.
Or, by extension:
No Indian fails to cherish Indian sovereignty.
No challenger of Indian sovereignty is a cherisher of Indian sovereignty.
No one refusing Indian sovereignty is a cherisher of Indian sovereignty.
No challenger of Indian sovereignty is an Indian.
In the end, the necessary condition for sovereignty resides in another concept which cannot well be understood by the non-Indian: honor, or ja-nah--literally, "desire, celebration of the life-vibration, spirit-wave." Many years ago, when I undertook learning medicine ways from one of the keepers of our traditions, my teacher had me write the following words in my notebook, saying they distilled the lessons of a lifetime. His teacher before him, and his teacher before that, on and on, had insisted on this motto:
Our grandfathers have taught us always to remember that a life without honor is not life.
How simple and profound!