Now Available at Walmart

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.

You’re a Medicine…

In the midst of all the hype over “The Butler”, we must be reminded of how history is created for and managed within particular visions of our contemporary world. This hit movie, which opens today, is something that I want to see this weekend. It is the story of Cecil Gaines, a Black man who served as butler to several US presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to the Ronald Reagan. I love these stories…emotionally laden tales of Black men who are propped as center pieces in the emergence of American society into the great racial cornucopia that we live in today. Another popular movie that came out recently is “42”, the story of baseball player Jackie Robinson. What I find extremely interesting is how the breaking of “color barriers” by Black men has often overshadowed the ways that Native Americans infiltrated White social spaces since the 19th century. Major League Baseball published an article in 2011 describing how important Native Americans have been in Major League Baseball. Of central importance in this article is an inability for the author (or anyone) to contextualize these Native Americans next to the image of the Black citizen within Jim Crow America.

How do we explain Jackie Robinson transcending Jim Crow baseball when Native Americans were struggling just as much to be able to show their high level of skill 50 years before Robinson?

Today’s story of the Black butler and the Black baseball player provides a bit of joy based in the American metanarrative that at these particular moments all of the U.S. overcame the great racist divide. But this joy makes no sense, in the wider scheme of things, when we consider the images that define our everyday lives. For example, I’ve often considered how Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben differ from the Land-o-lakes Indian maiden. There are numerous food items that use Native American fictive images as their mascots…but not in the same way Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are used. The Native American images are void of agency…docile…without matching humans in “real life.” On the other hand, human equivalents of aunt jemima and uncle ben existed and to a large degree still exist in American society. “The Butler” is testament to this. No one can name a Native American equivalent to the Land-o-Lakes maiden. She epitomizes Indian non existence within American society (not simply segregation).

While “The Butler” gives a brief glimpse into a very troublesome American history defined by Black oppression, it also confirms how important Black folks have been in the politics of American society where others (importantly Native Americans) have been unimportant. My family and various older folks in the Lumbee Indian community told me numerous stories about life in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. Chief among their complaints was the ability for Black women to obtain roles serving as aids or housekeepers in hospitals when Native American women could not.

At some point, post Civil War, post Obama presidency, we must change this perpetual struggle to rectify Black and White relationships – to educate our children through the prism of Black and White segregation – in an effort to illustrate how struggles for civil and human rights begin by addressing the death, disfigurement, and absence of Native Americans in history and in contemporary society. This means removing ourselves from the Black-White racial paradigm that defines the hoopla over “The Butler.”

How about we think up a new story of American progress. How about, for example, we make movies examining how Iroquois men were called upon to finish the top of the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis because Black and White men couldn’t finish it? (There is a small line in this article about the Gateway Arch that says Mohawks were among those who finished the Arch. They were THE ONES who finished it.) How about we have a steadfast conversation about how we have yet to acknowledge how Native Americans preside as the original entrepreneurs in the United States (I mean, President Jackson did not remove Native Americans from the South because they were merely squatting. They were making money! And lots of it!)

The heralding of Black Americans in the shadow of White oppression is great. Nevertheless, it must be matched by the dedication of our story telling ability to the other parts of the American landscape that remains so ripe. There is a scene in “42” where Branch Rickey looks at Jackie Robinson and says “You’re a medicine Jack.” This statement is meant to make us all feel better about the progress our nation has made. But I ask, what would it mean for Native Americans to have a medicine? That is, what would it mean for Native American images to be central components of stories that are stuck in the mire of American life….not in feathers and on horses, but in metalworking outfits and holding baseball bats?

If you ask folks back in North Carolina, out in Oklahoma, and up in New York, there were quite a number of Native American baseball players whose ability to be a medicine to Native American youth was razed…not by a segregated baseball environment but by complete invisibility. Begin discussing Native American people as the truth…as the temples of success and achievement. Show Native American children how our heritage of extraordinary ability has been oppressed and muddled to degrees that are unimaginable.

Then place the real stories in feature films. Use my idea about the Mohawks. It would make for an awesome film.

But back to the Rickey statement to Jackie…

What does disease do after a long time without medicine to combat it?