Thursday, December 19, 2013


Starwalker, Buffy Sainte-Marie
I've loved Buffy Sainte-Marie, and all that she stands for, since I was a child.  I especially love her sustained vibrato and the drums in this song.  In addition to being a gifted singer, Buffy also has advocated continuously since the early 1960s to raise awareness of Native American identity and is the author of the Cradleboard Teaching Project, a project to help teach young people about Native Americans.  Over the years, I've followed with interest various initiatives to teach the history of Native Americans in schools.  While my own school education on the topic [in Canada] wasn't stellar, we did study books such as I Heard the Owl Call my Name and Paddle to the Sea.  I had assumed, given all of the anthropological and archaeological work that has recently focused on indigenous Americans, that the curriculum would have improved on this topic.
It then comes as a surprise to me as I observe what is being taught in elementary school, that today in California, there still seems to be very little taught about Native Americans.  I was listening to a San Francisco (California) school board meeting a few weeks ago.  A group of Native American parents came to present to the Board the fact that their children and others are still taught that Columbus was the first discoverer of the Americas.  They are concerned that other children cannot identify what a Native American person might look like and that their children are often treated as being not native to the Americas.   Treaty rights are often not honored because teachers are not aware of the legal obligation to honor them.  The parents' group said they have been promised a library and meeting place in a San Francisco Unified School District Facility, but a workable space had not been provided.
If that weren't dismaying enough, I checked the elementary school California curriculum to find out when Native American history is supposed to be introduced.  Apparently, this should be in fourth grade, but it is bundled in with a requirement to teach the California Gold Rush and the building of the Union Pacific Railway.  Perhaps in this small slot, one might hope that they would teach the story of Ishi and the Yahi or the history of the Chumash.  More often than not, however, the text that is chosen is the Island of the Blue Dolphins or a rather warmed over history of the California Mission system and their relationship with Native Californians.  The Island of the Blue Dolphins has been discredited by native groups as having little to teach about Native American history.  It is not written by a native person, historian or anthropologist.  It also conveniently has as the perpetrator of a massacre, Aleuts.
Which brings me back to genetics.  I've been shuffling through some of the recently published papers which in various ways use Amerindian genetic samples.  I'm not, per se, opposed to using genetics to understand the prehistory of Native Americans.  Some of the findings are enthralling.  As I read yesterday that Native Americans have a slightly higher percentage of "Neanderthal" than Europeans, I have to admit that I found that interesting.  Given all the positive press regarding Neanderthals recently, I was even a little proud for them.
Even so, something seems off.  Everywhere I look, the research programs in which the prehistory of Native Americans are being studied do not include Native Americans.  Why would that be? 
A good friend of mine, who lives here in the Bay Area, is a Wampanoag, from Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Like most other Wampanoags, her family are not affluent.  Her reserve in Plymouth is rather isolated, economically speaking.  While she did well academically in high school, it was not an option for her to attend university.  I have also looked at student aid packages available for native persons.  Either I am not looking in the right place, or they do not exist.  My friend is in fact quite interested in the idea of using paleogenetics to study Native Americans, but it is difficult to see how she would ever finance her way to the required PhD.
I read these papers, many of them discussing Amerindian genetics.  There might be a potential upside to some of this research.  Perhaps there will be medical findings that are helpful.  But we already now know that Amerindians are a lot like Eurasians, so I doubt that there are any significant medical differences.  Possibly, some of these genetic studies might help native groups assert a land claim.  In Canada, there are still many unsettled land claims.  The recent cases in British Columbia where genetic data shows continuity of occupation might help to settle some land claims.
However, so many other potential pitfalls pop out at me.  How will this data be received by the general public?  Will this data be used to claim that Amerindians are simply primitive Eurasians?  Or might the recent genetic findings be interpreted more positively?
Some Native Americans still are not that interested in hearing about the fact that they came from Eurasia.  I stumbled on an Anishinaabe creation story website that specifically rejected this notion.  Other groups are clearly more open to the idea and have been actively pursuing relationships with indigenous people worldwide.  The recent collaboration among Pacific Rim native people comes to mind.  However, these collaborations are happening in and of themselves, simply by way of cultural commonalities such as canoing.  They probably don't need a genetic story of relationship to make them happen.
I don't see these genetics studies doing anything to resolve the fundamental challenges of economic isolation, lack of access to capital and education and substance addiction issues that are the core challenges for Native Americans.
Meanwhile, it looks like I will have to be the one, not the genetics community, nor the school system, to teach my daughter about Ishi.

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