Is American Indian a ‘racial’ or ‘political’ identity?

Is American Indian a ‘racial’ or ‘political’ identity?

It’s complicated.

I’d just posted on FB how the conservative right (the Goldwater Institute) is attempting to upend the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) through its state-by-state litigation.  There are two legal arguments, both funded by right-wing think-tanks, whose money can be traced to the Koch Brothers: the first is that ICWA is unconstitutional because it discriminates against white people adopting American Indian children, and other is being brought to you via foster parents who want to adopt American Indian children and are whining that they aren’t able to because they’re being discriminated against.  The reasons these lawsuits are moving state-by-state is to get enough states to sign on for this reversal that state law reaches a tipping point and becomes, by default, federal law.    

One of the most common questions I get, when I start getting into the weeds about ICWA is, “I thought American Indian was a racial category, but it appears to be political.  What’s going on?”

So first, to make sure we are on the same page, “race” is not a physical category of humans.  There is NO biological difference in the genetic DNA that separates us from one another.  If you were to line people up from the southern tip of Africa, to the northern tip of northern Europe, you would see a spectrum of skin color, from darkest to lightest, and all the tints in between just shades of difference.  It’s only when colonizers began traveling to these far reaches that they met people who looked vastly different than themselves.  When a Swede enters Africa, the differences become visibly marked, and assumptions about what other kinds of differences are made.  The term “race” when applied to humankind is mixed bag of those differences, physical and cultural, which leads to erroneous assumptions of intellectual.  If you want to learn more about how colonizers seemed to be able to overthrow governments and cultures, check out Jared Diamond’s Germs, Guns and Steel.

As American Indians, we were racialized at the very first visit the Old World made to the New World.  We appeared so different from them: we looked different, we talked different, we dressed different, we had different ways of interacting and communicating and we had a different social organization.  Because the Old World felt that it was the center of the universe in the middle of the Reformation and Enlightenment, we became  heathens and mentally deficient.  What happens when bullys want to pick on someone they deem mentally deficient?  They shame, they physically and verbally assault them.  The problem was we weren’t as stupid as they initially thought.

If “race” is culturally constructed, and power is culturally constructed and enhanced through political moves, then American Indians were constructed in an arena where politics is the chessboard upon which the powerful play   Therefore, having a conversation about American Indians as a racial category veils they way we were used as pawns as a political category.  What are left are complicated notions that have been politicized and the wars that left blood on the prairies have moved into courtrooms.  So, conversations and events and activities around us have been political, and it has always been so, through the actions of colonization

Let’s examine the colonization of indigenous peoples from the viewpoint of the colonizers:  How do you wrest resources from someone you know won’t give them up, but fight for them? You try to “protect” them by controlling the spaces you put them in. You try to make them become more like you ( religion, education) so you’ll “be on the same page” and “understand” how “they” will benefit “too” by giving up their resources. You try to slaughter them, starve them, incarcerate them and hang them to instill fear. And when none of that works you try to break up the foundations of their society, by outlawing religious beliefs and ceremonies, language, cultural rites and ways. Then you try to break families by removing their children, so children will “get on the same page” and create infighting among who is “real” and who isn’t. And if you, as colonizers, are successful we, as American Indians, will become so scattered, like dust, and blow away, and then we won’t be standing in the way from land use and resource extraction any longer.

Now, let’s examine the effect of colonization from the viewpoint of American Indians:  We received religious education from our earliest interactions, building friction between followers of the new faith and followers of tradition.  We were forced, militarily, to move from homelands to new lands, losing many members along these dangerous and exhausting removals.  We had over a thousand wars declared on us by the U.S. Army, we were placed on reservations, to keep us “safe”, but really we were controlled.  We were forced to move our languages, our ceremonies, our stories and our knowledge underground in order to evade persecution and prosecution.  We were forced to sign treaties (or die) that allowed the U.S. to build roads, and schools and markets on our lands, and were now given handlers and overseers in the form of Indian Agents.  We signed away lands (or died) and gained money that did us little good because 1) our economy wasn’t based on money, it was based on goods, and 2) the money either  wasn’t paid in full, or the amount decreased through court decisions without ever notifying tribes.  We were told to move to cities where the jobs and opportunities lay, but many times we didn’t find those jobs that would land us in opportunities and we didn’t have money to go home.  Besides, the U.S. government was trying to close our reservations anyway, so for some of us, there was no home to return to.  When our sadness, desolation and desperation got the better of us because we were fragmented again and again and again, we took our anger out on those closest to us, we hurt them as much as we hurt in our very being.  When we tried to pull our lives together, we left our children with family while we worked, but white middle-class America told social workers to take our children because if we weren’t watching our own children, we were bad parents.  As a result, we drank, we took drugs, we took out our anger, we did what we needed to do to escape the hell that we found ourselves in from other people’s interventions.  We were told we were inhuman, stupid, thieves, government-subsidized and bad parents. 

Treaties and interventions were never protections. They were a way for colonizers to legally and systematically erase a culture by racializing and politicizing a system for their own interests.  The colonizers defined us as American Indians all those years ago, they created the laws by which they controlled us, the treaties by which we had no choice but to sign, and the defamation and the slurs that became stereotypes used to further control our lands, our families, our bodies and our minds.

The “problem” is, “We are still here.”  And neo-colonizers, like the Goldwater Institute, need to play by the rules that were initially set out by their “ancestors”, especially now when they no longer work so grandly in the colonizers’ favor.   

You may also like


  1. Thank you for this and all your words. I worry many in the courts in which I work want to apply ICWA as an ethnic/racial statute. I argue ICWA is the sole bulwark in child welfare protecting tribal political integrity, and – as I hope I understand correctly above – tribal political integrity is a foundation on which “Still Here” at least partly rests. Yet, in arguing such, even I hear the echoes in my own words which seem to reduce “Indian-ness.” Still, in guaranteeing a degree of political self-determination (through which I hope cultural continuity can be better ensured), the often not-so-subtly empty promises of Empire can be turned upside down and mobilized to undermine Empire.

    1. Mark, I so appreciate your comment. And I truly feel that in our stereotype culture it will take a lot of repetition of these words to get beyond the static of how American Indian history is taught and talked about, spoken of and portrayed. I appreciate so much that you do what you do. All my best, Susan

Leave a Reply