American Indian Geographies of Identity and Power

Sandy Marie Anglas Grande’s article looks at a myriad of issues around American Indian identity, education and intellectualism. Like other articles we have read about for class, Grande questions the power roles that schools (and popular culture/literature) reinforce. Just as schools adhere to middle-class ideals, Grande argues that schools also disenfranchise indigenous groups and minorities. She believes that American Indians have disparate struggles from other minority groups because they want sovereignty rather than full-on inclusion in democracy.

 Much of the article deals with cultural identity and Grande’s beliefs that critical cultural identity is not static – socio-cultural identities are rooted in history and socially constructed. I would agree with this, and I think we could offer examples of groups that were marginalized to different degrees in different points of history. Grande points to the term mestizaje – meaning cultural ambiguity. However, while Grande does not want American Indian identity to be boiled to essentialness, she also recognizes that any efforts must have a clear understanding of American Indians. She says we must be comfortable operating with fluidity to achieve true reform.

 One of the most interesting parts of the article was the section about “Identity Appropriation” where she looked at the struggles around who can identify as American Indian and why they might want to.  By reducing identity to fixed parameters (such as land ownership) American Indians are quantifying themselves, which “becomes deeply complicated….having to respond to growing pluralism in their own communities and thus the need to define more fluid constructions of Indianness, while also recognizing the pressures of identity appropiation, cultural encroachment, and corporate commodification require more restrictive constructions of Indianness.” (pg 190)

 There is a really interesting “This American Life” episode that looks at one tribe in California that for years wanted to attract and welcome “new” identifiers to their tribe, but after their casino money was running low (among other issues), kicked out a numbers of members. You can read a New York Times article here. It begs the question of how do we label anyone’s cultural identity? Can cultural identity ever be defined by fixed terms, or does it depend on too many socio-historic factors? However, can we function as a society without labels?

 Grande argues that American Indian intellectuals need to expand their discourse and take into account issues of oppression, racism, sexism and homophobia and to “develop a language that operates at the crossroads of unity and difference.” (pg. 196) An interesting note about Grande as an intellectual is that left a tenure track position at Colby College because she felt the school had institutional racism. I don’t know what else there is to the story, but that’s a fairly bold statement given the economy for academics.

 Questions to Ponder (easy stuff, I swear ;)):

  • Is “globalization the new metaphor for imperialism”? (pg 185)
  • Does mestizaje embody the struggles that many of our students face in their cultures?
  • Does American Indian intellectualism threaten the myth that genocide is in white America’s past?
  • How do we balance essentialness and fluidity in identity construction?

– Sue


About msferranti

I teach 6th grade English Language Arts at TechBoston Academy.

9 thoughts on “American Indian Geographies of Identity and Power

  1. The points brought up in this text about Native American identity in contemporary society were very interesting, particularly the ide of “mestizaje” as explained earlier. The text also mentions a phenomenon called “ethnic switching” and “ethnic frauds,” who may not be perceived as or previously identified with being Indian, now claiming to have a Native American identity as a result of the “discovery of residuals of Indian blood in their distant ancestries” (191). Who can not help but think of Elizabeth Warren?! (

    I thought it particularly noteworthy when the article poses a shift from asking, “What is the role of culture in knowledge acquisition?” to “What is the role of the school as a site of cultural production?” This question leads me to think about the role my school “produces culture,” as well as an overall awareness of other cultures, “authentically”.

    I agree with the point that “Whitestream America has never really understood what it means to be Indian and even less about what it means to be tribal” (188). Conversations revolving about the perception many Americans have of Native Americans are very current in today’s critical media. I can think of two examples I’ve heard in the past few months.

    One NPR report that questions, “Has Pop Culture Moved Beyond Cowboys And Indians?” ( where Dr. Anton Treuer (Executive Director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University) discusses films like “Dances With Wolves” and how they do, in some ways, attempt to move beyond preconceived notions of what it means to be Native American, but simply continue to progress “romanticized or denigrative stereotypes.”

    Additionally, an article title, “A Mohawk Hero In The Not-So-Diverse Gaming World” ( mentions how Indians do not hold leading roles in video games. The creators of the new gaming series “Assassins Creed” see their game as “progressive,” yet seem to follow the same flaws mentioned earlier.

    Looking at the curriculum at TBA, we do include a unit on Native Americans, which I believe Paula can provide more information as she has taught a unit on the subject. Ironically, I have assisted in some work on Native Americans at TBA and I recall using materials on figures such as Black Elk, a “spokesman of American Indians” later identified as a member of “the fraudulent Indians” representing the “intense desire of Whites to create in their own minds an Indian they want to believe in” (193).

  2. I am surprised that Grande’s article did not touch upon the use of American Indian tribe names and even racist epithets as sports team mascots. One of my most memorable lessons from A.P. U.S. History back in high school involved the teacher showing us images of the American Indian caricatures that represent the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Braves, among other professional sports teams. He then showed us fictionalized sports teams such as the Brooklyn Jews and the Harlem Blacks (I don’t remember the actual names of the fictional teams) with equally racist mascot renderings, asking us why society accepts the former and would never accept the latter.

    That said, in response to Sue’s question, I do believe that our students struggle with mestizaje, and I appreciate that Matt reiterated the point in the article able the school’s role in shaping this. My eighth graders did portfolio presentations last week, and one of my advisees is a level four English language learner who came to the United States from Puerto Rico in second grade. In his presentation to a panel of teachers, this student explained that the staff member at our school who made the largest impact on him was his third grade teacher because she was able to teach him to read and write in English. During the panel comments portion of the presentation, one teacher reiterated to the student how important it is that he continue to hone his Spanish skills and not lose his cultural identity just because his schooling is taking place in America. The student seemed totally shocked to hear this, but he nodded in agreement with a somewhat confused look on his face.

    I believe that it is conversations like this that will help us balance essentialness and fluidity in identity construction in the students we see our schools. Identity, whether cultural, linguistic, or otherwise, is not “this or that;” it can be a blend of “this and that.” Of course, Grande’s article points out how this is complicated for American Indians since their culture is being appropriated by Hollywood, tourists, and others, and there is a distinct struggle between “border patrolling” and “border crossing.”

    • Leah,
      I think you raise a great point about the value of merely having these sorts of conversations. All too often, we rely on some sort of prefabricated stance/position for the sake of convenience, when the more rewarding and enlightening act may be to delve into these issues. I’m especially interested in the notion of having conversations regarding the perception of American Indians; long story short, I’m currently the only vocal opponent of the school’s mascot/team name, which just so happens to be a racially-charged caricature of a Native American.

      Whenever I voice my dissenting opinion, I’m met with a couple of different counter-arguments. The most common response I’m given is that the school is honoring Native American culture. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that Grande would see this as a bit of Whitestream “‘vogueing'” (191). The other, even more palm-on-forehead, explanation I’m given is that it’s okay to use the mascot/logo as long as discussions about Native American (mis)treatment occur. And to that, I present an excerpt of Grande’s:

      “…the often oversimplified accounts of Indian history, framed in good-v.-bad-guy terms, allow the consumer to fault rogue groups of dogmatic missionairies and wayward military officers for the slow but steady erosion of Indigenous life, thereby distancing themselves and mainstream government from the ongoing project of cultural genocide” (194).

      I may, in a moment of fervid ranting, provide that quotation for co-workers.

      Not sure if this has been too tangential, but I’m interested in hearing whether any of you have had similar experiences.

  3. I wondered if this article might throw some of you for a loop since it does not seem to address “urban teaching” specifically, but I am delighted to see, Sue, that you related its core issues to our concerns, notably the concept of mestizaje and globalism operating as imperialism.

    To respond quickly to the globalism/imperialism metaphor, I agree that our push for international politics and discourse often functions as a palatable veneer for westernized imperialism. As simply one example, I’ll cite the current trend in my field to identify “international scholarship” as scholarship written in English. In other words, English has become the language of the global marketplace – there is a lot of good in this, but we have to beware of its implications for oppression and the death of other languages, notably those of American Indians, such as Ojibwe.

    But I think the concept of “mestizaje” is of utmost importance for our thinking about the role of “culture” in the public schools. As you point out, Sue, Matt, and Leah, our students struggle with “cultural identity” because they often either claim to have one or they don’t. All of us have heard (or maybe even said) white people have no culture. And those who have more of a hybridized heritage have difficulty identifying with one culture or the other. I think Grande aptly points out the difficulty of valuing a particular heritage while recognizing the differing degrees of the identity spectrum that most of us inhabit. On the one hand, I agree completely with Grande’s claim that American Indian’s are in a different situation from those of other ethnic minority groups by virtue of western colonialism. On the other, I think we run into trouble when we gesture towards some “essential” characteristics of culture, which I think she does (even though she recognizes the danger of doing so). Her most valuable point, I think, is the “fluidity” of identity construction – fluidity does not mean that anyone can claim to be American Indian. But it does mean that while various tribes may identify themselves as American Indians, some tribes may also claim identities quite distinct from other American Indians.

    I like the metaphor of the “border” because it both signifies a distinction (you’re on one side, I’m on the other) and a connection (we are on two sides of the line, but we are connected by that line).

  4. I thought that Grande’s mention of “strategic essentialism” was very similar to themes we have discussed about students being members of several discourse communities: home, school, work, friends, etc. It especially reminded me of the experience expressed by bell hooks about class in the post-secondary environment; that students often find themselves out of their comfort zones because of the different social and/or discourse communities within the college classroom versus their home. A student may want to speak comfortably, like with family or friends, however if the student would like to receive an education and possibly advance in class, it is essential that the student does not do so. Therefore, it is strategic that the student does not mix discourse communities. However, with strategic essentialism, Native American scholars try to balance their academic identity with one that has already been created or imposed by those in power (198). Rather than having an inner conversation about Native American identity, these intellectuals are expected to have these essential and outward conversations about identity in order to be a part of Native American intellectualism. By doing so, Native American scholars are creating a fluid concept of their own struggles with their identities and relations to power. However, they are not changing the power balance since much of their funding may come from agencies that legitimize their work and/or tribe(s). In this sense it is difficult to determine if intellectual Native Americans can balance essentialism with fluidity when it is hard to escape a system that sustains their livelihood. Can we think of our own students as being a part of strategic essentialism in our classrooms?

    In terms of mestizaje embodying struggles similar to those of my students, I would say that most of my students deal with similar struggles with their culture, and therefore their identities. There are so many students with varying races, backgrounds, experiences, and cultures that it is easy to see this term applied to the students I see everyday. This is why it is important to show students that cultures and their own identities can be fluid. The “static culture” is a concept that should not be used (201). Especially in 8th grade, my students are beginning to really see themselves in relation to others and see how they fit into the bigger picture of our world. It is important for them to see that their is a constant fluidity to the terms culture, identity, etc.

  5. Thanks, Sue! I have never knowingly had any students of Native American descent in my classes, nor is there (that I know of) a large population of Native American people in the area that I teach. However, Grande’s article nonetheless makes clear that this is a part of the population that seems to be overlooked in critical pedagogy, something akin to the general treatment of Native Americans by White populations over the course of history. I am certainly not too knowledgeable about either Native American history overall, nor about that of any particular tribe. I recall a few concepts concerning oral histories and the natural and “supernatural” from a Natiev American literature course as an undergraduate, and I remember some basic events from novels read for that course, but in general it is yet another segment of the population that I am less than educated about. I, too, then, if I were to be some kind of critical pedagogue, I might find myself in the same boat as those that Grande mentions, unintentionally marginalizing “the distinctive concerns of American Indian intellectualism and education” (183). Being that we continue to discuss the degree to which our own biases, experiences, and beliefs interfere with and/or create the relationships we have with our students, this concerns me. My most basic reaction to actually having a student of American Indian descent would be to ask questions and listen. The possibility of re-enacting the persimmon as “Chinese apple” (as was described in last class’ poem), horrifies me.

    Grande states that “one’s ‘identity’ is historically situated and socially constructed, rather than predetermined by biological or other prima facie indicators” (186). What better reason could a teacher have to be both attentive to and doubtful about his or her own background as an influence in a student’s life and world? Later on, while citing Mary Hermes’ work, Grande cites Hermes’ own words, stating that she shifts the issue at hand from “What is the role of culture in knowledge acquisition?” to “What is the role of the school as a site of cultural production?” This echoes several of the other readings we’ve had—schools are both a product of and a perpetuating agent for the patterns of the societies in which they appear.

    What seems to be the most challenging part of this “problem,” however—of appreciating American Indian cultures in education and the critical pedagogy that may or may not influence that education—comes as a result of the relationship (and all of its tension and conflict) between populations of American Indians (such as on reservations) and the world of white, European thinking. Grande cites Robert Allen Warrior as stating that American Indian intellectuals are stuck in a “death dance of dependence between…abandoning ourselves to the intellectual strategies and categories of white, European thought and…declaring we need nothing outside of ourselves and out cultures in order to understand the world and our place in it” (203). Allen states that it is moving beyond this dichotomy (which actually wouldn’t exist without the imposition of White, European thought) that “much becomes possible” (203). In a sense, without meaning at all to belittle the nature of the problem or to suggest that assimilation into White, European thought is the answer, one sees a parallel to the reluctant student, insofar as the internal conflicts and resultant anxieties prevent change or learning from occurring.

    Perhaps in the end, it isn’t about independence versus assimilation; it is about how schools enable one to learn and determine his or her own ideas about culture, and how this can be done in a way that shows appreciation and respect for all of the cultural background a student brings to the classroom (knowingly and otherwise).

  6. Although this article, as Alex points out, doesn’t seem at first to relate directly to urban teaching, it’s implications are clearly quite pertinent. I agree with Matt that the idea of schools as a place of “cultural production” is an important one, especially when we consider our previous discussions around English Language Learner’s and the assimilation process that results through language acquisition and socialization in schools. This concept of “mestizaje,” which I have never heard before, is a term that seems to speak directly to the struggles of so many of my students as they try to define themselves within the boundaries of the classroom.

    I’m also interested in thinking about the article’s implication for curriculum planning, and as educators, and how we treat the stories around the history of Native Americans, westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. I did teach a unit on westward expansion, as Matt mentioned, though it was in a Humanities class, not an English one. I was thinking about the unit as I read the article, especially when Grande wrote about the scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s experience with the publishing industry, and how the market leans towards narratives that describe the marginalization of Native American tribes and their forced removal from indigenous lands. She explains that such stories are “told and retold as part of America’s dark and distant past, a bygone era of misguided faith where cultural genocide is depicted as an egregious but perhaps unavoidable consequence of the country’s manifest destiny toward democracy.” She goes on to question what is “gained by focusing on these particular aspects of White domination and Indian subjugation?” This really made me question how I would teach the same unit if I had the chance again. I recall that although I did try to focus on dispelling myths and biases towards Native Americans and reading about the specific, very personal experiences of Native Americans within the context of the horrific injustice, as a way of humanizing such a sensitive topic, the unit still emphasized the tragedy and oppression of Native Americans.

    Grande’s point seems to have implications for teaching any material that revolves groups of people that have been historically discriminated against and marginalized. It begs the question: How can we expose the uncomfortable, often times horrific truths about our nation’s past while ensuring that in doing so, we don’t propagate the creation of a homogeneous identity of those groups? I wish I had the answer…

  7. I think Matt makes a very good point in his comment about sports teams and how we accept teams like the Redskin and the Braves, but would not even consider a team that had a derogatory mascot or name for a different racial group. I feel like, perhaps as a result of where we live geographically, we do not encounter many Native Americans in our schools. I feel as though, since there is no large Native American population (to the best of my knowledge) in the immediate Boston area, we begin to forget or discount the racism and oppression that Native Americans encounter and have encountered in the past.
    Alex makes a good point about globalization being the new imperialism. A lot of globalization seems to focus on westernization being the standard. Things are Anglicized, but Americans as a whole are not putting a priority on acquiring world languages, though some schools are taking a step in the right direction by teaching Chinese or Spanish as early as elementary school. We still view societies with different forms of government or standards of living as being “Third World” countries. Our globalization mindset prevents us from realizing that not everyone needs democracy; the Native American system of tribal sovereignty is part of their tradition and they should be allowed to practice their own form of government. Having a community that is less dependent on the US government for support might also lessen feelings of mestizaje in the Native American community.
    Regarding current events, there is a recent court case ( about a part Native American girl who was being adopted by Non-Native American parents. The case was a complicated one because of the Indian Child Welfare Act from 1978 (ICWA) that prevents a Native American child from being adopted by Non-Native Americans. As I was reading about ethnic fraud, I thought about the ICWA. If there are problems with ethnic fraud and people claiming Native American heritage, is this act a good idea? Will it prevent the feelings of mestizaje? How will it affect the childrens’ perception of their identity and culture, particularly in cases like the one mentioned above in which the child is of mixed parentage?

  8. Jen:

    What I found most interesting about this article was the idea of thinking about people’s rights in a different way that doesn’t use the term “democracy.” The word democracy is often used in a positive way in the United States as a term that promotes individual human rights. However, often with U.S. foreign and domestic policy, many Native Americans view the word democracy as a cover for assimilation. Grande states, “In fact, it could be argued that the forces of “democracy” have done more to imperil American Indian nations then they have to sustain them” (p.183). She explains that many times the U.S. acted in the name of “democracy” or “individual civil rights” to take away the collective tribal land ownership of the Native Americans. Because of this, many Native American scholars argue against critical theorists who only explore how individual class, gender, and race affects people and they want to look more at Native Americans as a whole. However, Grande argues that it is important for Native American scholars to also include others and have a critical theoretical outlook.

    What I liked about this article was the way it critically looks at the terms democracy and civil rights and explains different viewpoints of these words. It is interesting to see very different opinions on the same word.

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