Tuesday, July 3, 2012

White Indians

Recently there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in Massachusetts, where Ted Kennedy’s old senate seat will soon be up for grabs. Having kept it in the family since 1955, it went Republican at the last election, which is akin to the Biblical prophecy of “'The Awful Horror' standing in the place where he should not be" (Mark  13:14) as far as Democrats are concerned. Hoping to win it back this November, the party has put forward a high cheek-boned member of the privileged, white, upper middle class liberal intelligentsia, a Harvard law professor named Elizabeth Warren.

Normally I wouldn’t care, because Massachusetts is far away and they do things differently up there. But this senate race has become highly amusing due to Warren’s claim that she is Native American - Cherokee to be specific, thanks to her great-great grandmother. Now Warren is plainly very white, at least as much of a paleface as me, and I come from one of the palest countries on the planet. And even if the story were true, then she would only be 1/32nd part Cherokee.

What makes the story particularly controversial is that for many decades Warren was happily ticking “Native American” in the diversity box as she advanced through academia, even though - as has now been discovered - there is no proof that she is even 1/32nd part Cherokee. The universities she worked for deny that her spurious ancestry played any role in whether they hired her or not, and you can believe that if you like.

Warren has responded to criticism by pointing to her family’s cheekbones (they’re high, like Indians don’tcha know) and some “Native American” recipes (possibly plagiarized) that she contributed to a book called Powwow Chow decades ago.  Meanwhile there are a great many actual Cherokees, some of them living in poverty on reservations, who have explicitly not enjoyed glittering careers like that of the fortunate Ms. Warren.  Is Warren, therefore, not only not Cherokee but actually a cynical exploiter of Indian suffering for personal gain?

There is a long history of whites wanting to be Indian; usually, as with Warren, the Indian members of their families are located somewhere in the 19th century, conveniently out of reach of living memory. In these instances I assume the lineage to be mythical. Once upon a time however, white children might have been abducted by Indians and forced to become members of the tribe.

Last week, I found myself in a small Texas town named Mason, which was founded by Germans in the mid-19th century. The Germans worked the land, established businesses and for some years fought a low level war with Anglo-American settlers in the area. Periodically the local tribes might raid their properties, and sometimes they were looking for kids, who they would train as child warriors to fight the palefaces.

And so on May 16, 1870, a raiding party of ten Apaches abducted 11-year-old Herman Lehmann and his 8-year-old brother Willie while they were out working in the fields. Willie was soon recovered, but Herman would spend the next six years among the Apache. Mentored by a warrior named Canoviste, he quickly rose among the ranks, taking part in battles against the Texas Rangers, white settlers and Mexicans until he was appointed a petty chief while still a teenager. In 1876, however, he killed an Apache medicine man and fled the tribe, ultimately joining the Comanche. It was not until 1878, while living on a reservation that he was found by his mother. But it was not a happy reunion.

This is what a real Indian looks like
The thing is Herman liked Indian life. He enjoyed the freedom, the fighting, the brotherhood and the thrilling raids. He enjoyed the food. And so when he found himself back among his “own people” he no longer felt he belonged at all, and he had difficulty with his marriages and his cosmic levels of boredom. Eventually he carved out a niche for himself at Wild West shows. In Kansas he once roped a steer, then leaped from his horse, cut out the steer’s hot, wet liver and quickly ate it raw as the Indians did. This was a little too authentic for his audience. The spectators were horrified.

Lehmann did not have a drop of Apache blood in him. But he was much more of an Indian than Elizabeth Warren, or the thousands of other white Americans claiming mythological ancestors. The Apache were not ethnically exclusive or racist; they recognized his talents and made him a leader. He belonged.

I would therefore like to make a modest proposal, a test for those lacking documentation of their tribal lineage but who would nevertheless like to advance their academic or political careers by claiming to be a Native American. Can you rope a steer while on horseback and then cut out and eat its liver, like Herman? 

Elizabeth Warren, are you ready?