“Us” and “Not Us”

Some important issues around race, nationalism and tribal enrollment have been raised by this article at Indian Country Today:

Steve Russell’s New Book, Sequoyah Rising

A noteworthy passages.

It’s easy to forget, particularly after growing up “Indian,” that Indians had no such concept of themselves before being “discovered.” Most tribes had a word for “us” and a word for “not us.” And before white people, they also had a way for “not us” to become “us.” If that were not so, we would have been more inbred than European royals by the time European royals started quarreling over which of them owned us.

This should be a familiar concept to we Tlingit. Adoption is alive and well in our clans, and our clans may claim someone a part of the tribe who doesn’t qualify as an enrolled Indian with Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. It’s an important and noteworthy distinction. With T&H enrollment comes certain benefits and services. These benefits are largely funded by T&H’s General Fund and through program specific grants from the state and federal government. When thinking about tribal citizenship in this sense, you might ask yourself, what can your tribe do for you? T&H is largely a social services agency.

On the other hand, when you are out and about in Tlingit country, you won’t be asked what your tribal enrollment number is, you’ll be asked, “what clan are you?” “What was your father’s clan?” And if you are an adopted Tlingit, that adoption likely didn’t come without reason. It is highly likely that you earned your adoption, and your clan proudly claims you as one of their own, regardless of your blood quantum. When thinking about tribal citizenship in this sense, you might ask yourself, “what can I do for my tribe?”

Much of what makes up Indian identity can be described in these terms. I am, by lineage, a part of two different tribes, the Tlingit and Taos Pueblo. I’ll never forget when another Indian first asked me, not which tribe I claimed, but which tribe claimed me. Was I initiated? Named? Recognized? As it turns out, I am named and claimed by the Teeyhittaan Clan, and am invited to be initiated into Taos Pueblo.

The survival of many of our tribes has always depended on adoption. We need some degree of diversity of thought, skills, and abilities. A tribe our clan can decide whether or not to open up for adoption, or remain conservative. I, for one, think its a mistake to turn away a person dedicated to our tribe. But the question is, what do our clans and tribes have to offer in return? An adoption doesn’t give the adopted access to tribal government benefits. What benefits does it give? Here are a few:

  1. A sense of identity
  2. Access to cultural rights such as a clan’s at.oow (a clan’s actual and spiritual property, including clan crests, for all you non-Tlingit out there) in all its forms
  3. Love and respect

In addition to the above, what did adoption into a clan or tribe used to mean?

  1. Protection
  2. Legal rights via tribal system of law; in many cases a clan or tribe will represent one of its members in inter and intratribal disputes.
  3. Access to clan or tribe owned or controlled resources
  4. A place to live

Our clans and tribes are still capable of providing some or maybe even all of these. As our tribal sovereignty is eroded, we might ask ourselves which model of “tribe” is more resilient. Which will serve us over the long run? If our tribes are to outlive the United States, we will eventually need to do without many of the social services provided through our tribal governments. Building resilient clans and tribes that can provide basic protection, justice, and resources as outlined above is our route to surviving over the long term.

Plenty more to discuss about the Sequoyah Rising article. More later.

About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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3 Responses to “Us” and “Not Us”

  1. I was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. However, I am not Tlingit, and I do not have any Alaska Native blood. (Rather, I have Native American blood.) I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to be physically white, but spiritually Alaskan, especially in the face of a culture I love and respect deeply and accept whole-heartedly, but the culture does not accept me.

    I never wanted any clan or tribal rights. I never wanted any legal benefits. I have, however, always wanted the personal things you mentioned: “1. A sense of identity, 2. Access to cultural rights such as a clan’s at.oow (a clan’s actual and spiritual property, including clan crests, for all you non-Tlingit out there) in all its forms, 3. Love and respect.”

    Will I ever be able to fill that hole in my identity? What would it take for someone like me to become accepted by a clan for who I am, and not the color of my skin or my birth, both things I could not control?

    • Vince says:

      Hi Charlotte, thanks for dropping by and commenting. Sorry I didn’t approve your comment earlier, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from blogging the past few days.

      A couple questions, are you looking to get adopted into a Tlingit clan? Or are you looking for a tribal identity in your white culture? Both are difficult paths to take, in my opinion. I know a few whites who have been adopted into Tlingit clans, but usually only after a decade or two of seriously doing good for the tribe. In one case it was a woman who was working on Tlingit language, I believe. In another, it was a woman who grew up among the Tlingit and was thought of as a daughter by the clan leader. Even if you show dedication to the clan, the clan may not make an adoption, depending on how the clan operates. You basically have to be like family, and know the proper protocols.

      As far as finding a sense of identity in your white culture, its there, but you have to hunt for it and possible build it from scratch yourself. The foundation is there; a common heritage and ethnicity. Established fishing families in SE AK communities have an excellent foundation. Whites tend to refer to “families” instead of clans, with last names replacing clan names, in my opinion. You might call them patrilineal instead of matrilineal, as the Tlingit are. There is a strong movement among a group of people who call themselves National Anarchists, many of whom are white, who are building white tribes across the country. Not in the image of Native American tribes, but in an American White cultural context. Among them you’ll find a pretty wide spectrum of beliefs, from racial separatism to tribes built on socialist, egalitarian ideals.

      In all honesty, many Tlingit clans are clans only in name, not in practice. We are remembering how to be clans again, too. We just have a more recent example of how its done within the context of our culture.

      • Hi Vince,

        This is incredibly strange, looking into this topic again and finding I’d already been here 5 years ago… ! This is so late in coming, but thank you for taking the time to respond.

        This is, admittedly, a very complicated but heartfelt issue that has stuck with me all this time. I wouldn’t be opposed to symbolic adoption, and I want nothing to do with “white” cultures beyond whatever one fits white people who migrated to Alaska, and adopted the state as their home heart and soul. I happened to be born there, but wouldn’t have had it any other way.

        I think my need is fairly simple, at its core. I want to help carry forward the culture, history, artwork of these groups. These things NEED to persist through the generations, and the world would be so much poorer with its loss. The modern world is imposing on, supplanting, and eroding these things–Native youths move away, maybe even abandon their heritage for the modern world. Elders who are the few remaining fluent speakers of the languages are passing away. I’ve seen drives to teach formline to Native youths in schools, and there are published teaching materials to that effect–such excellent initiatives! Personally, I’ve taken instruction in Tlingit basket weaving. I can’t see the recovery of that technique should it be lost–so much more involved than I could have guessed.

        I actually had the chance to speak with a Tlingit friend a year or two ago, and her experience (in Juneau) was that many of the Tlingit wanted as many people to learn and understand formline as possible, to help ensure that it persists. But perhaps that’s a clan or group-specific sentiment?

        Here, on the East Coast of the US, the ignorance of Northwest Coast culture is nearly complete. I feel like an ambassador of Alaska sometimes, but one with a great many gaps in knowledge. This I desperately need rectified, not just for myself, but for the people I might be inadvertently representing. If I was asked “What would I do for the clan?” I suppose I would help others remember, understand, and appreciate.

        If there is some small part I can play, I want to play it, even if it takes decades. We will see. Given how many years I’ve had this on my mind, I don’t see the issue dying for me any time soon.

        All the best,


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