Mark Anthony Rolo plays American football
with Annette Phoenix’s kids on Thanksgiving.
Are Indians Just Another Ethnic Group?
In A Seat at the Drum, there is a fascinating sequence when Mark Anthony Rolo visits Annette Phoenix's house for Thanksgiving. Annette's four boys are watching the traditional NFL game between the Cowboys and the Redskins. Adrian admits he hadn't realized that the name "Redskins" refers to Native Americans.
In that moment, Adrian was quintessentially American. He just likes football. But when he is around the drum at the Southern California Indian Center, he is quintessentially Native American, and quintessentially a member of his Tohono O'Odham tribe.
All of us in the U.S. probably have a divided sense of identity. We are Americans, citizens of the United States. But most of us are also members of our immigrant ancestor group. We are Mexican-American, Swedish-American, Iranian-American or others.
The United States has welcomed more immigrants than any other country, more than 50 million in all. We still admit up to a million persons a year, and there are five to 10 million living here illegally. In 2006, immigration became a key issue in hotly contested Congressional races. It's not unusual to walk down the streets of a U.S. city today and hear Spanish spoken. Today there are more than 30 million Hispanics in the U.S. Legal immigrants come most often from Mexico, Vietnam the Philippines and Russia, but it can take years to get a visa.
The children of immigrants — particularly in the third generation and beyond — often choose to celebrate both their American identity and their ethnic identity. On any given weekend, there are probably scores of ethnic festivals and Indian pow wows across the country.
So, are there factors that make Native Americans different from all the other ethnic identity groups?
For one thing, Native Americans have been here longer — either since around 20,000 years ago (if you believe the archeologists) or since the world was formed (if you believe traditional Indian creation stories and religion).
For another thing, tribes are semi-sovereign, self-governing nations within the larger U.S. As Indian Country Diaries points out, the details of sovereign power are still being negotiated and litigated over a wide variety of issues.
Sovereignty is also a question of political power and Indian tribes are hampered by the fact that there are over 560 of them — just counting the federally recognized tribes — and Native Americans make up only 1.5 percent of the total population. Banding together into a large, cohesive voting block has been difficult.
America is not a melting pot and assimilation is a two-way street. Most Native Americans and members of immigrant cultures identify themselves as Americans, yet hold on to the most important parts of their Native or ancestral cultures. We all do. We don't melt away and become generic Americans. Instead, as groups are assimilated, the ethnic group is changed, but so is all of American society.
We learn to live together and celebrate the expressions of both our American culture and our ancestral ethnic cultures.
|© 2006 Native American Public Telecommunications. All Rights Reserved.||Published September 2006