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Stranger in a Strange Land
The ACLU handbook, The Rights of Indians and Tribes, by Steven L. Pevar, is laid out like a catechism, with the questions in bold print—for instance, Who is an "Indian"? The answer doesn't mince words. "There is no universally accepted definition of the term 'Indian,' " Pevar writes. "Therefore, determining who is an Indian is difficult." Indeed. Quite apart from legal contexts, Larry McMurtry makes the same point in "Chopping Down the Sacred Tree," included in Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West, a first-rate collection of a dozen pieces originally published in The New York Review of Books. After 500 years "in which both blood and cultures have been mixing," McMurtry writes, "it is now less easy, in speaking of Native Americans, to know to what extent they are we and we they." (And Sacagawea's nickname was Janey, but you have to read the essay—a jewel—to know why that matters.)
Of course, this sort of question is not peculiar to Native Americans. (In a future issue of Books & Culture, Timothy Sato of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture will be taking on the subject of mixed race more generally.) But that's where our concern lies in this issue, which introduces a series on "The Persistence of Indians: In Search of Native America" (pp. 16-21). The seemingly straightforward question—Who is an "Indian"?—turns out to be fiendishly tricky, and the way we answer it—including the always popular "Who cares?"—is tangled up with other questions, not least our understanding of what it means to be an American.
No one has thought longer, harder, and more trickily about this trick question than the prodigiously inventive Anishinaabe (Chippewa) mixedblood writer, Gerald Vizenor, author of Griever: An American Monkey King in China and a whole shelf of other books. For one series of passes at the question, see his Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence, published by University of Nebraska Press in 1998, wherein among other matters Vizenor ...