Just over 500 years ago, there were these white European explorers who, in the name of god, gold, and glory, sailed west in search of delicious and shiny new things.
After several months at sea, they “discovered” the Americas and claimed them in the names of their Western kings. The problem with their “new world”, besides the fact that it wasn’t all that new to begin with, having been discovered at least forty thousand years prior, is that it was already inhabited—by millions of Indigenous peoples whose love of bathing, science, mathematics, and non-Judeo-Christian spirituality deeply offended the newcomers’ “civilized” sensibilities.
This of course was intolerable to the European emigres; these champions of Manifest Destiny spread a blanket of disease and “democracy” across the continent, transforming the lives and genealogy of Indigenous people forever.
Despite everything, we are still here. Since 1492 we have endured systemic oppression, cultural alienation, genocide, displacement, environmental destruction, banning of our spiritual/traditional practices, hate crimes, rape, and barriers to equal opportunities–atop this, the appropriation of the very identities denied to us.
Identity appropriation, at its best, is a nuisance, whereby people make frivolous claims like “my great grandmother was Pocahontas.” At its worst, it results in non-natives’ unsubstantiated claims to Indigenous heritage in an ad hominem effort to justify anti-indigenous actions and rhetoric.
I’m talking about white people who justify running around in “Native American” headdresses, that they bought at Party City, because they’re allegedly 1/16th “Native American.”
Indigenous appropriation not only belittles our experiences as Indigenous people, it drowns out our voices amidst a sea of non-natives who undermine those concerns with the justification that they have Indigenous heritage and are therefore authorized to to speak on indigenous issues. Indigenous appropriation victimizes and invalidates Indigenous peoples’ voices, which carry the weight of real concerns for our communities.
It’s important that I be clear. I am–not–stating that people with mixed or non-indigenous ancestry cannot claim Indigenous identities. Furthermore, I’m not saying that all people who claim possible Indigenous descent are not entitled to do so. As an indigenous person of mixed ancestry myself, I understand full well how the issue of identity appropriation is frequently conflated with that of blood quantum: both sensitive topics amongst many Indigenous people.
To understand why these issues are so important and controversial to many of us–let’s talk culture and historical context.