Does It Matter Who’s Indian?
by David A. Yeagley
Originally published at FrontPageMagazine.com | December 21, 2001
We indians are called a "minority," but lately we seem more like a private club. Land and money are perks of the privileged membership, so being Indian is hot.
As a consequence, many people today call themselves Indian whose appearance and ancestry offer scant support for the claim.
Take Mr. Aurelius H. Piper, Jr. – now known as "Quiet Hawk" the Council Chief of Connecticut’s Paugussett people.
A glance at his photograph shows a man who – like many of his hundred-strong band – appears to be African-American.
However, the Paugussetts are currently petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recognize them as an Indian tribe.
"Quiet Hawk" and his band are but a small part of a larger phenomenon – people with little or no provable Indian background suddenly seeking tribal status.
The advantages are obvious. "Quiet Hawk" wants a casino on his "reservation" in Trumbull, CT. So does his attorney, Dino Benedetto.
And why shouldn’t they have one? The Mashantucket Pequots – many of whom look as black as "Quiet Hawk" (while the rest look white) – were able to get a casino on their 800-acre "reservation" at Foxwoods, CT.
Following a $10-million donation they made to the Smithsonian Institution in 1994, the photos of several tribal members appeared in the papers.
"They don’t look like Indians to me," said Donald Trump.
In Connecticut, there are currently twelve groups seeking federal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Virtually all of their members would be seen as white or black, if judged by appearance alone.
If they succeed, the potential benefits could be staggering.
In the mid-‘90’s, for instance, the Pequots’ 300 members were sharing over a billion dollars a year in profits. (Today there are 502 "registered" members.)
It isn’t that hard to become a tribe.
In New England, the first step is to prove that your "tribe" actually once existed. That part is easy.
Connecticut and Massachusetts tribes were among the first encountered by European colonists, so there are plenty of records of them.
The next step is trickier. You must somehow prove your descent to people who may not have appeared in the historical record for hundreds of years.
In the 19th century, when the modern system of tribal rolls was created, there were no recognized Indian tribes in New England, except in parts of Maine.
What we have today are people who, in many cases, are trying to resurrect extinct tribes by asserting that they appear on the family tree of someone who recorded somewhere, at some time, that he was related to that tribe, however fractionally.
Claims as tenuous as this have been used to recreate entire Indian "nations" out of thin air.
The final step in this "Indianization" process is to hire professional dancers and singers from the Great Plains tribes to teach the new tribe traditional culture. That is why we now have the peculiar spectacle of New England tribes performing Sioux dances and songs.
The authentic traditions of these New England tribes have long since vanished.
In fact, when the Mashantucket Pequots hold pow-wows, they typically spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure well-known Indian dancers from other parts of the country, lending to these affairs a native authenticity they’d otherwise never have.
Here in the west, many Indians view these shenanigans with quiet disdain. Oh, they’ll dance at the pow-wows and take the money. But few Indians on the Great Plains regard the Pequots as real Indians.
Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond New England. The dilution of Indian bloodlines is a nationwide crisis.
There are tribes that register people with blood quantums as low as 1 in 512. Many Indians of the next generation will have less than one-thousandth Indian blood.
The casino bonanza has not yet hit my home state of Oklahoma. Here, the benefits of being Indian amount to little more than low rent housing, food, and health clinic services. But that’s still enough to attract plenty of "wannabes." Many wonder how many of the 262,581 registered "Indians" in Oklahoma are for real.
Laws passed in the 19th century awarded land allotments to "full-blooded" Indians. A non-Indian could gain an ownership share in that land – much like owning stock in a company – by marrying an Indian. And many did so.
Now the casino bonanza has created an overwhelming incentive for people like "Quiet Hawk" to declare themselves "Indians." This too accelerates the dilution of Indian blood.
Unless common sense prevails, the final extermination of the American Indian does not seem far away.