Unwarranted critique


I am very much enjoying your focus on Native American issues, and I thought the “Nizhóní Girls” comic was marvelous (HCN, 2/4/19). But I was disappointed with Kim TallBear’s critique of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “Playing Indian.”

As a former elected official for the Green Party, I’m proud that San Miguel County, Colorado, adopted Indigenous Peoples Day in 1998, one of the first government jurisdictions in the country to do so. In 2015, our county made a formal government-to-government apology to the Ute Indian Tribe of Utah for the forced removal of Uncompahgre Ute from our county boundaries in 1881. That apology was accepted. We have followed up with cultural exchanges with the three Ute nations in our region, and offer free Ute youth ski days in Telluride.

I’m aware of the continuing appropriation of Indigenous identity by American culture. But isn’t having a family tradition of ancestry a different thing than claiming membership in a tribe, or any minority group? I have a tradition of Hispanic ancestry in my family tree that I’ve long maintained, but I don’t have “proof,” other than oral history and some corroborating historical research. But I always check the “Hispanic” box these days, and often “other,” because I’m European-American, not “white,” anyway.

Warren may have used poor judgment in self-identifying as Native American in college directories, but an exhaustive investigation by the Boston Globe last year found she hadn’t used her ancestry to obtain preferential treatment or benefits. (Though it may have helped some of the colleges she worked at to tout a diversity that didn’t really exist.) Honoring a family tradition of Indigenous association by listing it in faculty directories is not “playing Indian” to my mind, but rather choosing to own up to the multicultural roots that make up Warren’s own personal “herstory.” 

Having an NFL sports team named with a derogatory slur, or a national baseball sports team whose fans use a “tomahawk chop” chant — those are instances of playing Indian we ought to be working to change.

Art Goodtimes
Program Director, Telluride Institute’s
Ute Reconciliation Program
Norwood, Colorado

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