The Tree: “Cowboys and Indians” — Genealogy and Objectification

Most Native people have from the very beginning, a sense of where their grandparents came from, who they descended from. It’s not only the oral tradition – it’s the United States government. We have to have a very detailed description of our background in order to be enrolled in our own tribe. It’s very different for minority peoples. We have to know where we come from down to the last degree. …. A very strong component of Native Life is to know who you are. My mother made us very proud of who we are.

— Louise Erdrich, Faces of America interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Cross Addressing”, David Garneau.

“Cross Addressing”, David Garneau.

I was brought up in a big family in Northern Lower Michigan, the youngest of eight. That alone set us apart at a time when big families tended to max out at four children. By the 1970s, the day of broods numbering into the double digits was largely over for the French Canadian Catholic. Mine was, perhaps, one of the last of its kind, stretching toward ten.

Early on, I took a strong interest in our family history, asking many questions, lucky to be surrounded by multiple generations. One of the questions I innocently asked my Dad was: Are we Indian? I don’t remember why. I don’t remember what brought that particular question to the surface so early in my research. I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 years old. Perhaps because I was a boy and that’s what boys were interested in.

His answer was unequivocal: “Yeah, part. Part Indian.” There wasn’t much detail other than that this ancestry came through his Mim – his French-speaking grandmother from Pointe-aux-Roches, Ontario. I had no idea at that moment how or if it affected my identity. Most kids at that age aren’t thinking much about ‘identity.’ But I knew by his manner that I didn’t want to boast about it. I shouldn’t be that kid who claimed vague Cherokee or Chippewa ancestors while playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I knew, even then, even without documents, that my father’s story was true and should be respected.

If we look at the state of genealogy today, not much has changed from childhood games. Arising from the pursuit of genealogy, there are those who, upon confirming a native ancestor, suddenly shift their identities to reflect it. There are those who finding proof of American Indian heritage in records deny the same to others who ‘only’ have family stories. There are those who, despite not having experienced any sort of French Canadian or Indian or Metis culture at all, deny that it exists for others. And there are those who, long-sensing something different about their families, seek to uncover and live their own truths.

Today the study of Native American, Metis, and yes, French Canadian genealogy is tainted by the legacy of racism that all of these groups encountered through the history of Anglo-American and British domination after 1760. This is perpetuated by genealogists and historians who are quick to whitewash history, negating the metis character of founding communities throughout the Great Lakes.

The objectification of Native Americans among genealogists is probably more pronounced than in reference to any other group I know of. DNA testing has only exacerbated this – an evolving technology being analyzed by people with rudimentary understanding of the science behind it. The industry is also to blame for this, promoting their products with obvious emphasis on finding Native American or Jewish ancestry.

I cannot argue with the desire some have to simply acknowledge a particular ancestor and move on. I acknowledge many ancestors whose cultures I don’t identify with today. The problem in genealogy today is the phenomenon of discussing someone else’s culture from a place of ignorance; of using stereotypes to prove your own kinship; of claiming or speaking for something that doesn’t rightfully belong to you.

Genealogical societies, rightly or wrongly, are seen as cultural institutions. What happens when a genealogical society is made up of people who do not come from the culture they are analyzing and interpreting? Who has the right to speak for Native Americans, for Metis, for French Canadians? Do Catholics run Jewish genealogical societies? Do African-Americans leave their genealogical studies to others?

Genealogical organizations whose memberships do not include significant numbers from the ethnic groups or cultures they study are not bridging a gap. They are appropriating culture that is not rightfully theirs. It reflects a trend in society in which fashion houses, sports teams in both the United States and Canada, musical groups, (and rampant cynicism) undermine and thoughtlessly exploit cultures they don’t understand and don’t respect.

Genealogists who speak for cultures and communities they are not a member of, or that they regard as extinct, reveal a fundamental flaw in the modern approach to genealogy – one that must be addressed. Failure to do so perpetuates the idea that there are those of us who cannot speak for ourselves and whose history is meant to be written by others.

2 thoughts on “The Tree: “Cowboys and Indians” — Genealogy and Objectification

  1. Reblogged this on spiritfirst21 and commented:
    Excellent post David. When I first read it, it blew me away, and I had to come back after digesting it awhile. This is one of those macro topics that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Thank you so much for your clarity. I myself am biologically F/C, métis, native–but have no experience of those cultures. French is just a concept, a stereotype in my head. Reading is a great education, but culture is a communal experience. Would I feel authentic in telling someone from Quebec that I am F/C? Once I visited a small Native Am Indian museum and told them I was Huron–and I felt like such a fraud. I am part of these cultures, and yet I am not. I certainly have no authority to speak for them. Similarly, can a man speak for a woman? Yes and no. He may understand a few things, but he has not lived the experience of being a woman. We are fortunate that these historic cultures are still alive within the Great Lakes region. We can visit and immerse ourselves in them, and we can befriend individuals who can represent themselves. Bon voyage!

    • Thanks Dar – In a culture like ours, the big Western civilization, so few of us have an experience of culture at all outside the homogeneous “American” experience. To some extent, we are all trainees. It can be difficult to navigate. I’ve had the experience of being part of a community which I had no background in and spent 20 years learning about. I never felt fully ‘at home’ – never fully competent.That’s not really fair to a person, I think. It was a learning experience though. I think now I have found a balance between owning my own culture and trying to find ways to make it available to others without determining their experience of it. That’s kind of the goal in a way. I’d hate to think anyone might read this and think, well, I didn’t grow up as X, therefore I can never be. I don’t think that at all. It’s a matter of focus, lifestyle, orientation – as well as background. And sometimes we do have to talk about “talking about culture” as well. Glad you’re on the journey with me!

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