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  • Kenneth Cohen

The Tribe I Wouldn't Join

Originally published in News from Indian Country XXIII:10 (May, 2009)

I was recently invited to join a new North American "tribe." No it was not the rainbow tribe, the eagle tribe, the bear tribe, etc. (I mean the humans who call themselves "bear tribe", not the more legitimate tribe of bears.) It was unclear to me if any members had indigenous North American ancestry. The tribe is offering spiritual adoption to as many people as possible, apparently believing that greater numbers may lend more legitimacy. Then, claiming legal protection as a tribe, they may be free to practice their version of Indian religion and healing without U.S. government interference. Two Indian friends go out to eat in a fine restaurant. After they order their appetizers, one asks the other, "Did you hear about the new white wine?" "No," his friend responds, "what is it?" "I want a tribe! I want a tribe!"

The problem is I already have a tribe-the Jewish tribe. And I suspect that most of the members of this group could also trace their ancestry to a tribal group, perhaps in Europe or Africa or the Middle East. Why would I trade my priestly Cohen title to become a "medicine man" in a group that has neither shared ethnicity, clan-system, history, landscape, or language? Please take note of these latter five items, as they are the very definition of a tribe. Additionally, whereas "tribe" is an anthropological designation, the more potent political term is "Nation." A tribe is a sovereign nation that seeks to establish state- to-state treaties with the reigning colonial power. I didn't have a chance to ask the tribal representative if his group was planning to secede from the Union.

But OMG, I found a photo of my Great Great Grandfather, Chief Gefilte Fish, and he was Indian! (Attn Humorless People: that's a joke):

I have nothing against adoption. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) have procedures by which a person or nation may find protection under the Great Tree of Peace. Similarly, the "Making of Relatives" is one of the original ceremonies that the White Buffalo Calf Woman taught the Lakota. I am proud of my own adoption by the Naytowhow family from Sturgeon Lake First Nation (Cree) in Saskatchewan. I will never forget that beautiful Sacred Pipe Ceremony when, more than twenty years ago, my Dad began to call me his son. Not having been born Cree, one can only earn such recognition. This was an adoption by a real family, with a history. And, by the way, it was not an adoption into the Cree nation. I did not feel it fair for me-- non-Cree by birth and living far from tribal lands-- to claim treaty rights, scholarships, royalties, or legal and monetary settlements (from abusive boarding schools and churches, for example). I am indeed a member of a wonderful Cree family. But tribal adoption was neither offered nor sought. (I honor those of other ethnicities who have in fact been adopted into tribes. People like Adolf Hungry Wolf and Reginald and Gladys Laubin or the numerous Cherokee and Seminole of mixed black heritage are a credit to the Nations that adopted them.) There are approximately 550 federally recognized Indian tribes/Nations in the United States, with another 150 in the recognition process (many were on their way to de-recognition during the Bush administration). There is an interesting and, to my mind, disturbing irony when predominantly white, non-Indian people try to create their own new tribes. Let me explain…

Columbus, lost white mam discovered by the Indians

The colonizers of Turtle Island had not merely claimed ethnic superiority-that would come later-but rather, as far as Europeans were concerned, they were the first people in the Americas. The other two-leggeds, though closely resembling humans, were really animals. Hence, the Doctrine of Discovery allowed the good Christian King to claim this uninhabited land. It wasn't until the late 1800s, in the precedent-setting trial of a Ponca Indian named Standing Bear, that United States courts recognized Native people as people. Colonial powers across the ocean were even slower to acknowledge the rights of original peoples. At the time of the Standing Bear trial, South African whites could still get hunting licenses to shoot elephants, rhinos, and Bushmen. Though now defined as people, indigenous Americans still had few rights. The American Indian Freedom of Religion Act was not passed until the 1970s, but it lacked adequate means for enforcement. Even today, Native people are denied access to many of their objects and places of worship, especially if these objects or places have significant monetary value. "My land is where my dead lie buried." This saying, attributed to Crazy Horse, Lakota warrior and holy man, reflects a general philosophy in Indian country. The very existence of a tribe is a testament to courage, dedication, and perseverance. The land is soaked with Indian blood: lives lost on forced marches, the devastation of disease, blood shed in warfare and massacre. Death itself was no proof against desecration. If bodies were not laid on sacred platforms to be consumed by the birds and the winds or protected in the very few Indian cemeteries, they were covered over by asphalt and concrete. The ancestral names might have been forgotten but for oral histories or the inheritance of names by subsequent generations. Real tribes have paid a dear price for their survival. Now in an ironic twist, groups of "New Agers" (sorry I just don't know what to call them) are seeking to disown their people, disclaim any special connection to the land stolen by their predecessors, and adopt spiritual ("medicine man") and political ("chief") titles long prohibited by their own laws. And to add insult to injury, they have the gall to declare themselves a tribe. If the great Lakota warrior Gall were alive, he would show them what their gall had earned them-a quick journey to the happy hunting ground! Lots of excuses for their narcissistic ignorance: "We will restore dignity to the Red Man." (God protect me from the do-gooders whose version of help and praise is the worst of insults!) Probably the most common banter is "We are all one." I've never heard a native person speak that way: mono-culture, mono-agriculture, monopoly, monotony. What a boring world it would be if we were all one. People, like plants, survive best in the most diverse terrains. So, what do I suggest? Disband your Anglo tribes; disclaim rights earned by others' sacrifice. Be generous not with what you think tribes need, but with what they say they need: money for education, legal battles, health care, housing, etc. Do some investigation, and you will find out how to help. Offer Native tribes/Nations the most basic of courtesies: respect and privacy. If aspects of culture are open to the public, such as pow-wows, art shows, and museum exhibits, enjoy and learn. If a door is opened and you are invited in, no need for an apologetic mia culpa. Just enjoy the hospitality, but don't assume that you are now entitled to trespass.

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