I read voraciously. While for a time my love of reading was suppressed somewhat, by the demands of keeping up with my legal studies, I’m happy to report that it’s come back with a vengeance! (There is light at the end of the tunnel, law students! Your literary libido is not lost!)
I particularly enjoy Science Fiction, and I’m always on the lookout for new authors. “New” to me, I mean. I decided to delve into the world of eReaders and purchased a Kindle, though on some undefined level I was philosophically opposed to deviating from the printed form. Any vague objections I had were quickly overcome by the fact I no longer had to lug around huge Neal Stephenson novels in my shoulder bag, which is nothing to scoff at when your commute on public transit takes 2 hours one way. Even better than this however, is that oft-maligned experience of ‘instant gratification’ an eReader can provide. When I’ve exhausted my current store of novels, I run a quick search online for top Sci-Fi novels in any given year, and then I flip over to my Kindle and download them. Some have been flops, but many have been a window into a body of work I’d never have known about otherwise.
And so it is that I’ve come across the author Nancy Kress. I’ve been burning through her short stories and novels, completely taken with that old-school ‘aliens are neat, let’s imagine just how neat’ approach to even the current post-apocalyptic fad. I haven’t even reached her most celebrated novel to date, Beggars in Spain (Sleepless) and I’m hooked.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this just to mention I’ve found some excellent reading material. In a previous article I discussed Robert J. Sawyer’s portrayal of indigenous peoples in his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. In some ways, he did an excellent job of questioning certain assumptions, while in another area his writing fit in with mainstream views. Overall, I thought he did a good job of not relying on stereotypes and delving a bit deeper than is often done when we are brought in as characters in novels, film, or video games.
I’ve found a much more problematic approach in the Nancy Kress novel I’m currently reading, Crossfire, which was published in 2003.
The starting premise of this novel is that a bunch of extremely wealthy groups are travelling together off-Earth to colonise a distant planet. You’ve got a large extended family of scientists, a Chinese contingent, deposed Arab royalty, Quakers, assorted others and…about a 1000 Cheyenne.
(As a quick aside, another bonus of the Kindle, is that when I want to pull up quotes for you, all I have to do is search the term “Cheyenne” and boom. One drawback is that the location in the book is not expressed by page number, so if you have a copy of this book sitting on your shelf, it might be harder for you to find the same quote.)
The Cheyenne are a Plains culture. Like so much of the information about indigenous peoples available online, I proffer the linked Wikipedia article with extreme skepticism as to its accuracy. However, it will give you a sense of who they are and where they come from if you are wholly unfamiliar with the Cheyenne.
First, some background from the book. The story takes place in the far future, so the year is undefined. I’ll just quote from the book for this:
“Once they [Native American reservations] were terrible places, the dregs of arable land, full of poverty and alcoholism. Since the natives figured out that as a separate nation they could legally offer services that places part of the Unites States could not, they flourished. First gambling, then genemod and pet-cloning clinics, and –”
“I’m aware that reservations are great scientific centers,” Gail said dryly, “And greenly rich.” – Location 591, Kindle version
Alright! Kress has the reserves crawling out of poverty and into scientific innovation and wealth, an approach somewhat similar to that taken by Charles de Lint in his futuristic yet fetishistic novel, Svaha. (Lot of the noble savage going on in Svaha.) Of course, unlike de Lint’s novel, they do so in morally questionable ways by providing seedy, ‘legal limbo’ services not available elsewhere, which certainly fits into contemporary notions about Indian gambling/cigarettes and so on. I sort of prefer de Lint’s approach of riches being accumulated by the explosive popularity of a mixture of traditional indigenous music with pop tunes for the masses. (Of course I am casting A Tribe Called Red in the updated version.) However, it’s a somewhat positive future prediction I guess.
The “no true technology” fallacy
But wait, that quote isn’t over! Here’s some more necessary background:
“That’s why I don’t understand why this lot wants to dump it all and go back to living as if the last two or three centuries hadn’t ever happened. But with genetic labs in tow, of course.”
One of the themes related to the Cheyenne in this novel is their occasional use and reliance on ‘technology’. Of course, ‘technology’ as it’s generally used, and specifically in this novel, is not any human-made tool, it is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.”
By definition, this means that no indigenous people can ever invent technology, because doing so would require the use of scientific principles, which were not known among native peoples before Contact because settlers invented science. At least, science as it is defined in relation to technology.
However, this is not a universally applied principle. After all in Science Fiction, aliens can have technology, even if they have nothing comprehensible as equivalent to the scientific method. Maybe we can even retrofit the concept of science to include peoples like the Maya with their complex and precise astrological observations, but probably not. Clearly I do not agree that this is the correct definition of technology, but when the word comes up, I’m fairly certain this is the way people are thinking of it.
Throughout this novel, the ‘desire to leave all technology behind’ which has been attributed to this fictional group, is described in derogatory terms. “Quixotic, ridiculous mission” (Location 3953, Kindle version) and other similar sentiments. These Cheyenne have been set up as foolish Luddities, and are mocked throughout.
I previously addressed the ‘frozen in time‘ approach to Indigenous peoples, and why I believe it is a ridiculous and arbitrary standard. Nonetheless, it is an enduring belief and that approach comes out loud and clear in this novel. In this story, the Cheyenne are trying to rid themselves of all ‘Volcano Man’ (settler) technology, because they are suspicious of it, but the big irony in the book is that they can’t seem to live without it. Once again, the desire to return to traditional indigenous principles somehow gets conflated with the notion that doing so requires native peoples to eschew all forms of technology and revert to exactly how they lived pre-Contact.
I would really appreciate it if authors and individuals stopped pushing pre-Contact conditions as a goal or a desire on our part. Having to constantly explain that no, there isn’t a large movement to get rid of indoor plumbing (assuming we have it in the first place, which given contemporary living conditions in native communities, should not be taken for granted), vaccinations and so forth, is frustrating and draining. Integrating settler technology into traditional indigenous practices does not require us to accept settler philosophies, and it certainly does not erase our indigeneity. Unless you’re talking about settler notions of what it means to be indigenous. And do I need to point out how flawed those Hollywood stereotypes are to begin with? (If so, click on the movie and video-game links in the fourth paragraph.)
Maybe this ‘splinter group’ is deliberately set up as a minority indigenous view against a backdrop of native peoples who have embraced and benefited from technology, but this is a tired meme, and no new ground is being broken by rehashing it.
“Fake” Indians, the blood quantum mess
The technology issue is not even the reason I’m writing this article. It’s a pretty standard issue I can ignore for the sake of my sanity and an otherwise good read. So let me get to the real point. Here are some quotes describing the space-faring Cheyenne:
Larry Smith’s dubious tribe of “Cheyenne”. – Location 52, Kindle version
…saying good-bye to nine hundred sixty-seven Cheyenne Native Americans, almost none of whom possessed actual Native American ancestors. -Loc 558
On Earth, he [Larry Smith] had been a cattle breeder. Now he was a Cheyenne chief. – Loc 562
Oh for God’s sake, Gail didn’t say aloud. She’d read the personnel records. Larry Smith was one thirty-second Cheyenne. The “tribe” included Irish, German, Spanish, Swedish, and French blood, and it was in the majority. One brave was three-quarters Chinese, with features no seventeenth-century Native American had so much as ever set eyes on. – Loc 1518
Almost every time the name Cheyenne is written in this novel, it is done in scare quotes. They are the “Cheyenne”. As is made clear in that last quote, these are not full-bloods. They are fakes. Not really Indians, just people playing Indian.
Oh blood quantum. What a strange concept.
In a previous article, I explain the system used in Canada to determine who is a legally recognised (Status) Indian and who is not. Essentially, you are no longer “an Indian” once a native parent and a native grand-parent has married out. That’s extermination of your identity in two generations.
The situation in the US is somewhat more complicated. You can click on this BIA blood quantum chart to get a closer peek at how convoluted the issue can get. Different Tribes in the US have different rules about blood quantum, unlike the universally applicable laws in Canada.
The widespread acceptance and imposition of blood quantum definitions by settlers and their governments means that culture and community acceptance doesn’t matter. You are only a ‘real’ Indian if you haven’t intermarried with non-natives. Nancy Kress buys into this notion completely in her portrayal of the ‘dubious Cheyenne’.
Leaving aside the fact that not all ‘out-breeding’ was done voluntarily, the concept of blood quantum puts enormous pressure on native peoples not to marry non-natives. Imagine someone telling you that you can’t be Canadian because your father and your grandmother came from a different country. Oh, I’m sorry, am I conflating citizenship with ethnicity? Well we never agreed to be defined by blood in the first place, so I’m going to give myself permission to discuss identity in the various forms it is defined.
Blood quantum (BQ) rules have been called a ‘slow genocide’, and I think this is an apt description. Not mass murder, but extinction via definition. Every time a non-native enters the “Indian gene pool”, fewer people in the next generation are counted as Indians. I’m sorry, but what are we? A breed? Or peoples with distinct languages, customs and beliefs?
I can understand the reluctance on the part of settlers and settler governments to consider indigenous culture as a defining aspect of native identity, given how intensely our cultures were repressed and deliberately interfered with. A lot of effort was put in to erase our languages, kinship ties, territorial relationships and so forth. How can any of that possibly matter now, if it’s basically all gone?
Well the answer is, of course, that it isn’t all gone. Indigenous peoples have tenaciously resisted colonisation and the destruction of our cultures. Not without cost, and setbacks, and battles which continue to be fought, but our demise is greatly exaggerated.
The blood quantum approach freezes us in time as well. No genetic mixing allowed after Contact. It was fine before, and did nothing to dilute identity as an indigenous person, but for some reason, non-native blood erases indigeneity?
The idea that Indian blood has some sort of magic quality that imbues one with legitimate indigenous culture, is as stupid a notion as I can think of. This is 19th century pseudo-science, and I don’t want it in my 20th and 21st century-produced Science Fiction, thanks.
I don’t care if Larry Smith’s Cheyenne are all 100% ethnically Chinese (which is somehow even less legitimate than being a mixture of European stock?). This novel takes place centuries in the future, in a time when it is not inconceivable that given current policies, there will be no more “pure-breed” Indians in existence. If Nancy Kress can imagine such a future, yet still make space for there to be a continuation of an indigenous land base (unfortunately still restricted) where indigenous culture is still legitimately practiced, then surely she can reboot the entire notion of blood quantum.
What this novel did for me, was to highlight some of the more problematic stereotypes out there about indigenous people. I cannot avoid confronting these portrayals when they are presented to me, and I’m hoping that the next time you come across a native character in a book you’re reading, you give more than a cursory thought to the image the author creates. If you know of any good Sci-Fi out there that has managed to portray indigenous peoples in less problematic ways, I would love to hear it!