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The ‘I’ in BIPOC
Not all Native Americans are leftist political activists.
During my lifetime, there have been three phases when Native Americans and Native American culture suddenly became extraordinarily popular.
The first was in the early 1970s with the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a radical Indian-led political group that fought for Native American civil rights and tribal sovereignty. The second phase of Native American popularity occurred in the early 1990s when the New Age religious movement turned Native spirituality into a capitalist fad. The third phase of Native American cultural popularity is happening right now.
It began in 2016 with the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota. It was an inspiring and unprecedented moment in Native history—truly magnificent.
During this third wave of Native American popularity, we might have reached an all-time high when “indigenous,” the “I’ in BIPOC, became synonymous with left-wing political activism. So, yes, I should clarify that the periodic obsession with indigenous culture and politics largely depends on the capricious attention and affection of white leftists.
As you may or may not know, I’ve committed a political sin by not capitalizing “indigenous.” That’s the preferred, even required, nomenclature currently used by many to describe that group of people more popularly known as Indians, or Native Americans if you’re afraid of offending the handful of Native Americans who are offended by being called Indians. I’m a rather leftist Indian, a so-called progressive with a few socialist impulses (though in this illiberal era, I’ve been daily moving more and more of my furniture into the Milan Kundera-ish House of Classical Liberalism) and I’m here to tell you that Indians don’t typically refer to one another as indigenous.
No, it’s a word that’s now monopolized and canonized by leftist Indian political activists and their leftist non-Indian allies. I understand that the “I” in BIPOC is meant to convey pride and solidarity. And I agree with that mission. That mission is essential. But I think that “indigenous,” as politically employed, has instead become a word that restricts the meaning of what it is to be an Indian. It has created a national and international illusion that the only proper way to be an Indian, or to be an Indian at all, is to be an Indian who is a leftist political activist.
So allow me to make a statement that is simultaneously bold and banal: The Indian world is not filled with leftist political activists.
I’d argue that leftist political activists are only a small percentage of the Native demographic. I would posit that the basic Native political identity is ethnocentric, mainstream Democrat, capitalist, socially moderate, remarkably magnanimous, and only intermittently passionate. In other words, the Native American world is very…American.
This political disconnect between the very public leftist Indians and the more circumspect Native American population is not unusual. Based on various polls, it seems clear that leftist BIPOC activists hold many positions that are not widely shared by their own communities. The epic and aforementioned protest against the North Dakota Access Pipeline might lead you to think that was the result of a universal set of indigenous environmental philosophies. But there are Indian tribes nationwide who have business relationships with oil corporations.
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Indians hold a diverse set of political beliefs. We are, ya know, human. But I still think this information will shock a whole lot of people. I doubt, for instance, that many people know that there are currently four people in the U.S. Congress who are members of Indian tribes.
Democrats Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, a Congresswoman from Kansas, and Mary Peltola, Yup’ik, a Congresswoman from Alaska, have both been celebrated for being Indians in Congress. But, as far as I can tell, the entire media world has zero clue about the two other Indians in Congress. Tom Cole is a U.S. Representative from Oklahoma. Markwayne Mullin, a U.S. Senator, is also from Oklahoma. Mullin is Cherokee and Cole is Chickasaw. And both are very conservative Republicans—Trump Republicans.
Yep, some Indigenous people are right-wingers. I know this is not common knowledge.
I’d bet that many non-Indians readers of this essay are now asking themselves how any Indian could be a right winger. Well, I imagine the Trumpian duo of Mullin and Cole think of themselves as existing fully inside the powerful and ubiquitous tribal trope of Indian warriors battling against oppressive American institutions. After all, who has more reason to be contemptuous of the United States government than an Indian? It makes a certain amount of political sense that an Indian, especially a reservation Indian, might choose to become a small government libertarian or an anti-government right winger.
And here I must stress that Indians, whether conservative, centrist, or liberal, have a unique place in the United States that BIPOC doesn’t even begin to address. BIPOC is an acronym that’s too plain to accurately represent Indian people’s complex relationship with our country. Indian people belong to nations that interact, nation to nation, with the United States. In fact, Indian tribes already enjoy much of the economic, political, and cultural power that other POC are seeking to take, gain, earn, or deserve (the verb depends on your politics). Indian tribes are land-based and have (tenuous) control over vast resources. And they have complex constitutional rights that sometimes go beyond what even privileged Americans possess. I know that very few non-Indians are aware of the complexities of tribal politics. But there are also many Indians, especially those who grew up geographically and culturally disconnected from their tribes, who also aren’t familiar with those same complexities.
Yes, despite the current leftist obsession with the concept of “lived experience,” there are many leftist public figures who self-identify as Indians but have never experienced what it means to be surrounded on a daily basis by multiple generations of Natives. These leftists become representatives of an un-culture, where their “lived experience” is almost entirely imagined. There are people who identify as primarily or only indigenous even though they’ve never lived in a tribal community, don’t have a formal connection with their tribe, and only have one Indian grandparent or even just one Indian great-grandparent. And it’s these disconnected Indians who often form political tribes with white leftists because white leftists are the most pro-Indian demographic in the United States. Ironically, it’s white leftists who offer these disconnected Indians their strongest sense of belonging.
Simply stated, urban elite progressive indigenous people have more political and cultural commonality with urban elite progressive white people than they do with the average reservation Indian—especially those Indians who are of older generations and tend to be more moderate.
Growing up on a reservation and being an Urban Indian adult who remains connected to his tribe and, yes, also consciously distant in certain ways, I’ve experienced the full range of Indian identities. And I’ve experienced so much joy in being an Indian among Indians. I don’t think the outside world knows that Indians are hilarious. Pretty much every tribally-connected Indian would kill at a comedy club open-mic night. Indian humor is so vital in Indian culture that I’m always suspicious of the unfunny Indians (and I’m actively scared of unfunny leftists in general). I’m suspicious of an Indian who doesn’t find it hilarious that some Indians love Trump. I have Indian friends and family who are Trumpites. And I have Indian family and friends who are Marxists. I have Indian friends and family who span the political, economic, and cultural spectrum.
And this spectrum of Indians easily live among one another. They practice their tribal cultures without much, if any, reference to political identity. There are no Indian Republicans or Democrats in the sweat lodge. There are only Indians. Politics have very little meaning in our most sacred places. We connected Indians don’t find the totality of our indigenous-ness in our politics. God, I can’t imagine how awful that would be. I’d be happy to sit beside the most Trumpian of Indians at a powwow and argue about which of the drum groups is the best.
My “lived experience” as a reservation and urban Indian is politically complex. But it’s not nearly as complex and epic as my maternal grandmother’s life. As a baby, she was sometimes cared for by the wife of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. He’s the one who famously proclaimed that he “would fight no more forever” as he surrendered to U.S. cavalry after an epic and failed attempt to escape to Canada. And yet that same grandmother lived long enough, with enough twists and turns in her life, that she wore an “American Indians for Nixon” campaign button in 1972.
Sherman Alexie is the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel, and You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir. He lives with his family in Seattle.
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