Inventing the Indian

Who decides identity?  

One of the most moving messages at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) comes from the exhibit that focuses on identity. Curators assembled a series of large black and white images of contemporary Indians, each set against a bold backdrop of greens, reds, blues and yellows. You’re greeted by a flattened Rubik’s cube of faces and colors.  

What makes the exhibit memorable is how the images confront stereotypes. Eyes, noses, mouths, ears and hair are all different, and each visage invites the viewer to learn more about the individual who is Dine, Lakota, Ojibwa or Navajo. The faces cheerfully celebrate identity that arises from a cultural vantage point, rather than a scientific one.  

When Indian people are invited to talk about their identity, the result is panoply of voices, each sharing notions of what it means to be Indian. The result is a rich array of Indian-ness.  

If you round the corner of the exhibit you invite cognitive dissonance because the adjoining display depicts identity from a quasi-scientific perspective: a trenchant foil to the cheerful faces next door. We learn about bloodlines and how the federal government—not Indian tribes—decreed what constituted Indian-ness. The amount of Indian blood, called “blood quantum,” was used to define identity by outsiders, and Indians were issued ID cards that listed their tribe and blood percentage. The practice continues today: I know because I was issued one of the cards.  

The bloodlines perspective is a remnant of scientific reasoning, wherein identity is a function of biological determinism. Blood was a powerful scientific marker and symbolic indicator of identity, harkening back to the notion of the “purity” of races. The purer the blood, the purer the individual. Folks of mixed-blood status lived in the netherworld of identity: witness the Hollywood trope of the half-breed in John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) or consider Cher’s chart-topping tune “Half Breed” (1973).

Such tropes and stereotypes are inventions, just like the feathered costume created for Cher in the cartoonish character of the half-breed.  

Thus the popular conceptions of Indian identity are largely invention, drummed up by dime novelists fashioning tales of cowboy triumphs over the natives or scientists attempting to quantify “race” by measuring blood or brain size.  

Indian identity, to borrow from Berkhofer, is a counterfeit construction embellished by citizens who reside outside the Native landscape. Indian attempts to define their own authenticity are dismissed by scientists as irrelevant and by jurists as insignificant. For most lay publics, therefore, their exposure to Indian identity takes the form of what Baudrilliard called a simulacrum: a perversion of reality honed by social discourse and symbolism.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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