A recent article in the Indian Country Today discusses the fact that Walmart will sell Native Threads clothing. One quote from this article sticks out like a sore thumb. It comes from the CEO, Randy Bardwell:
Native Threads is different because we aren’t a tribally operated business and we don’t have financial backing from tribes…We are a true entrepreneurship and went out to find money from the private sector as most entrepreneurs would.
As a Lumbee Indian, I always second guess my use of the word “tribe” in describing my membership to a Native American community. Back home (in the Lumbee community), when people say “tribe”, they reference some political/governmental entity that does not encompass the experiences of everyday life. I’ll be writing more on that in my upcoming book on Lumbee healing. However, for now, let’s start with the principle that the notion of tribe is very unsustainable as scholars of Native American envision it.
Why am I talking about this now? Well, along with the recent article on Native Threads, I found out that Mike Green, a highly regarded White historian of Native America, died recently. During graduate school at UNC, I encountered Professor Green many times. I remember one of my most troublesome encounters was after a presentation before a colloquium of Native American Studies scholars at UNC. I don’t remember what I was presenting (this was in the middle of my graduate career, which is always a place where you are constantly developing your argument), but I had made a statement to the effect that we must stop regarding Native Americans as simply tribes. Green, who walked in late, heard this statement. He raised his hand immediately after I was finished and said “If Natives don’t exist in tribes, how do they exist?” I smiled – I could feel my teeth gleaming – and I answered in a way that historians probably hate: “Historians started this tribal paradigm, now someone else must clean it up.” Yes, I know anthropologists love tribes – we study them all over the world – but ask a historian to explain Native America and they are always searching for a tribe. It’s almost as if, within history, all of these tribes are the actors.
You miss the individuals. You miss agency.
Whether in academia or outside academia, everyone identifies Native America through a tribal context. And I can understand how this is empowering. To keep the wannabes out, you have to set up particular barricades. I do it myself. I get people all the time who email me with inquiries about my take on Lumbee history and genealogy, and I am aware that I cannot fully open up to them. Why? Because there are things that only we know, and there are things that I share. I have to be careful about how I share.
But it should be no secret that for years Native American people have been traveling in and out of Native American communities, and the impetus within academia and U.S. society has been placed on preserving the tribe from which they come or within which they find a community. But what happens when Native Americans leave? Seriously, does the tribe somehow still own them? Or, maybe more accurately, does the tribe sit as the indefinite originator of authenticity?
For many, many Native Americans, the “tribe” isn’t the world. It’s an important component of the Native American world, but it isn’t the Native American world.
One of the most troublesome parts of the U.S. past is the fact that the Trail of Tears left many Native Americans while it took away so many other Native Americans. The Cherokee Tribe, as a massive economical force, carried a federal target on their backs because they stood in the way of American expansion and utilization of land in the U.S. South. On the other hand, from Georgia to Virginia, Native Americans thrived until the Civil War. Out West, tribes became codified by the Federal Government. Choctaw, Cherokee, Osage – - they all became these cartoonish elements through which the U.S. Federal Government and everyday citizens could put Indian people in their place. Back East, Lumbee people continued to regard Cherokees and other removed tribes as pitiful and in need of help. There is a long history of Lumbee aid to Native Americans out West (which I am writing about in my upcoming book).
But as we witness the political debacle that is tribal politics in the Lumbee community and beyond, we must remember and appreciate how Native American people have been the ultimate hustlers (to use a term commonly used in the United States today). Name an industry – from early colonial carpentry, to alcohol distribution, to healthcare in the 21st century – Lumbee people and members of other Native American communities have been highly agentive in these industries. They have been major players in these economies in these particular historical periods. They were and are entrepreneurs. They haven’t had tribal backing. Why would they want it today?
Now, this isn’t to say that they don’t want the Native community to support them. No, much of their success has been within Native communities. However, the “tribe” hasn’t been a central component in their success. Native Threads has amassed a great clientele at Native American conventions like the Gathering of Nations. Spaces and places like this are where Native American entrepreneurs bloom and showcase the power of Native American community that isn’t tribally centered.
However, I think that this approach to appreciating Native American agency doesn’t only provide a nice sound bite, it bucks against the “nation building” and anti-colonial rhetoric that defines the center of Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous studies today. It allows the Native American physician to see themselves as credible and abled caretakers of communities beyond their own. It sets up a scenario for a TV show in the future about Native American housewives (I’m just saying!!).
This is the beginning of an important conversation that breaks us from impoverished pictures of Native people. It demystifies Native American conditions, especially within the tribe. It makes Walmart a much more interesting space of inquiry.