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A critical look at anthropology and 50 years in the fight for Indigenous sovereignty (1969–2019).

Indians must be redefined in terms that white men will accept, even if that means re-Indianizing them according to a white man’s idea of what they were like in the past and should logically become in the future.
Vine Deloria Jr.

In the autumn of 1969, Indigenous activists captured global attention when they occupied the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island. Their hope was to transform the site into a center for Indigenous cultural life, and for nearly two years they held the island in defiance of the federal government, bringing increased attention to the oppression of Indigenous peoples in the United States. This moment of Indigenous resistance helped to establish a precedent for a new era of Indigenous activism and political visibility, highlighting core issues in the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty that remain salient to political and scholarly work today. Who holds the power to define who is Indigenous? How have anthropologists historically worked against Indigenous sovereignty and furthered the project of Indigenous erasure? And, how might we both track and work against these persistent erasures as they take new forms?

Through the emergence of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing, genomic technologies have enabled a tidal wave of misappropriations of Indigenous heritage and tribal belonging.

In the two decades prior to Alcatraz Island, the United States government had begun systematically terminating its legal relationships with many tribes—ending its recognition of Indigenous sovereignties and dissolving many treaty relationships. A key goal of these policies was to force the social, cultural, and political assimilation of Indigenous peoples, and to bring an end to the so-called Indian Problem by integrating tribal peoples as citizens of the settler nation. However, federal termination was uneven and incomplete, and while the consequences of these polices continue to be felt across much of Indian country, termination was also met with powerful resistance as federal Indian policies collided with Indigenous movements for self-determination in the 1960s.

In 1969, as the American Indian and Red Power movements were gaining momentum, Vine Deloria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux published his landmark book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. In his book, Deloria linked policies such as Indian termination directly with the work of anthropologists. Indigenous peoples had long been studied as biological and cultural relicts of a romantic past and had often been cast as primitive peoples who were unable to acclimate to contemporary American life. Anthropologists failed again and again to acknowledge the world-ripping effects of settler colonialism, turning instead to racist and essentialist views of Indigenous peoples to account for the rise of social and economic inequalities. Without a shred of credibility, anthropological research nonetheless wielded an authority that helped fuel the creation of disastrous federal assimilation policies such as termination.

Deloria pointed to the wide gulf that separated anthropological knowledge about Indigenous people with the actual lives, practices, knowledges, and concerns of tribes. He criticized the ways that anthropological knowledge was of no practical use to Indigenous peoples and how anthropologists had done little to nothing to ameliorate the oppression of tribes in the era of federal termination. Deloria was critical of the authority that anthropological knowledge carried for shaping policy and condemned the ways in which Indigenous peoples were forced to speak in the specialist languages of anthropology in order to be heard. By providing rationales for assimilation, and by preventing Indigenous peoples from speaking on their own terms, anthropology has had a long history of contributing to the erasure of Indigenous people.

Custer Died for Your Sins, and the Red Power movement more broadly, had substantial impacts on multiple areas of anthropology. Following its publication in 1969, symposia were convened at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association in order to consider and respond to Deloria’s critiques. His account of how anthropologists had brought further violence to Indigenous peoples helped shape the emergence of new anthropological sub-disciplines. For example, Deloria’s critiques were instrumental in the development of Indigenous archaeology, which aims to work against the historical damage and exploitations of Eurocentric archaeological research in the Americas and center Indigenous peoples in struggles over their heritage and cultural patrimony. While Indigenous peoples are still underrepresented among practicing anthropologists across the four major subfields, there are an increasing number of Indigenous scholars carrying out anthropological research. Their work has shown that an anthropology aligned to Indigenous sovereignty is not anthropology as usual. Rather, Indigenous anthropology increasingly represents an epistemological reworking of the field to serve new purposes. As practitioners change, so too must anthropological knowledge production. Diversifying our field means more than the superficial rhetoric of neoliberal multiculturalism. It should also mean more than providing chances to critically re-examine our past. It must also make openings for radical reinvention and the possibilities of creating less violent futures in relation to Indigenous peoples.

While Indigenous activism and scholarship has significantly altered parts of the discipline, Deloria’s writing remains salient for critiquing emerging forms of scholarship that is variously conducted on, with, for, and/or by Indigenous peoples. Perhaps nowhere has this become clearer than in my own subfield of anthropological genomics, where age-old threats to Indigenous sovereignty have commonly resurfaced on new technoscientific terms (TallBear 2013). For example, through the emergence of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing, genomic technologies have enabled a tidal wave of misappropriations of Indigenous heritage and tribal belonging (Kolopenuk 2014). Using these technologies, white settlers increasingly use shared genetic patterns to stake claims to Indigenous groups about which they have little knowledge or connection. These appropriations range in scale from everyday individual claims of Indigenous identities, to larger-scale, communal and institutionalized claims to Indigenous belonging and treaty rights. For instance, direct-to-consumer genomics have played a role in the recent formation of self-proclaimed Indigenous groups such as the Mikinak community of Québec. The Mikinak are a group of non-Indigenous people who have laid claim to their own version of Indigenous belonging, despite a lack of connection with other Aboriginal, First Nation, or Métis communities in Canada. The group has required DNA evidence of Indigenous ancestry as a criterion for enrollment. Upon enrollment, the Mikinak have distributed their own version of an Indian status card, and group members have been accused of using these cards to avoid paying taxes. The Mohawk have criticized the formation of the Mikinak and the appropriations of Indigenous belonging, including the legal rights and benefits afforded to Indigenous people in Canada. In other instances, a group of French Canadian settlers tried to use evidence of Indigenous genetic ancestry (also see Leroux 2018) to settle disputes over land tenure as well as hunting and fishing rights, arguing that they are the descendants of people who have occupied the land for millennia.

In addition, genomic data have recently been used to inform decisions about the repatriation of human remains. With the collaboration of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville, ancient DNA evidence played a key role in the 2017 decision to repatriate the remains of the Ancient One (also known as Kennewick Man). Despite the fact that these ancestral remains were more than 9,000 years old, and could therefore not have belonged to anyone who was non-Indigenous, genetic evidence was regarded as a decisive factor following many decades of dispute over the remains. Subsequently, ancient DNA evidence was pivotal in the decision to repatriate the oldest known human mummy in the Americas, which was excavated from Spirit Cave in Nevada in the 1940s. Based on this evidence, these ancestral remains were returned to the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and buried in 2018. Given these recent precedents, it is likely that ancient DNA will be used to shape repatriation policies in the future, raising questions about the relative importance of direct biological kinship as a key criterion for the repatriation of ancestral remains as opposed to other kinds of claims.

Genomics has also entered national political debates over Indigenous belonging in the United States, including the ongoing public feud between President Donald Trump and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren regarding her claims to the Cherokee. While Warren has distanced herself from those claims in recent years, her decision to take Trump up on his challenge to prove she is an Indian by taking a DNA test has fueled questions about the ramifications of genetic ancestry research for Indigenous sovereignty. Cherokee Nation has denied the legitimacy of Warren’s claim to their people (Hoskin 2018). Cherokee genealogists point to the fact that she does not have an ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls, which Cherokee Nation uses to define tribal citizenship. Rather than simply acknowledge tribal sovereignty in this matter from the beginning, Warren turned to a genetic test to back up her story. This decision, and its very public promotion by Warren’s political team, has led to greater confusion about tribal citizenship laws among the general public.

In her decision to take a DNA test, then, Warren met Trump’s racism and epithets with further Indigenous erasure, attempting to get around Indigenous peoples’ authority to deny her claims.

As sovereign entities, it is up to tribes alone to define who their people are, and not non-Indigenous geneticists or consumers of genome technologies. As myself and other critical geneticists have argued, Indigenous communities are not genetic categories and there are no genetic markers that are specific to any tribal group. Therefore, there is no such thing as a genetic test for tribal belonging (Geddes 2014), and there is no way genetic evidence alone can be used to corroborate family lore about Cherokee ancestors. Warren has turned to DNA to answer a question that can only be answered by the Cherokee, violating their sovereignty (Nagle 2018). The political debate between Trump and Warren ultimately boils down to two white politicians arguing over whether or not one of them is Indigenous, when Indigenous peoples themselves have answered that she is not (Nagle 2017). In her decision to take a DNA test, then, Warren met Trump’s racism and epithets with further Indigenous erasure, attempting to get around Indigenous peoples’ authority to deny her claims.

In 1969, Vine Deloria Jr. told us that academic knowledges about what counts as Indigenous contributed to the erasure of Indigenous peoples. In 2019, while methods and technologies have shifted, some of the same threats to Indigenous sovereignty remain. With the repatriation of ancestral remains, we see the ways that DNA has played a role in addressing historical injustices. However, as Kim TallBear (2015) has argued, the use of DNA in shaping repatriation policy simultaneously demands that Indigenous peoples articulate their claims through scientific infrastructures and biological kinship, at the expense of Indigenous peoples’ own ways of relating. In the case of individual and collective claims to Indigenous belonging through genetic ancestry testing, we see that settlers are still intent on defining Indigeneity on their own terms—as a biological category. This definition holds no understanding for the social, historical, legal, and political factors that shape tribal belonging. Further, genetic claims to Indigeneity are fundamentally at odds with the power of tribes to define themselves outside the confines of settler kinship and racist ideologies.

Genetic ancestry testing therefore often expands the project of imagining the disappearance of Indigenous peoples, while simultaneously creating an heir—the white settler with Indigenous DNA. In the body of this heir, settler governance finds hope of justifying its occupation of Indigenous lands and its redefinition of Indigenous cultural patrimony. As Deloria noted, reworking Indigenous belonging has therefore meant not only colonizing the past, but also colonizing the future.

Fifty years later and we find ourselves in a condition of increasing anxiety about the relevance of anthropology in the twenty-first century, with Annual Meetings increasingly dedicated to the question of whether anthropology matters. I do not write to insist on the intrinsic relevance of anthropology. Rather than looking inward to think about anthropology’s worth, I think it is critical to ask “with whom” and “for what” do we stand? What do our relations and our work make possible? Deloria once noted that not one anthropologist voiced dissent during the era of federal Indian termination. As new forms of termination take shape through genomic and many other anthropological technologies, we should not fall silent again.

Rick W. A. Smith is a postdoctoral fellow with the William H. Neukom Institute for Computational Science and the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. Merging approaches from genomics, epigenomics, bioarchaeology, and feminist, queer, and Indigenous science studies, Rick’s research traces the ways that power and inequality shape human and nonhuman biology, past and present. Rick’s work also questions normative scientific knowledge production, centering the situated knowledges of queer and marginalized scholars to enable less violent forms of scientific inquiry.

Featured image by Emily Thiessen, an illustrator and community organizer with a fire for creative troublemaking. She recently graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of Victoria. You can see more of her work at or @archipelagic on Instagram.

Cite as: Smith, Rick W. A. 2019. “Resisting Indigenous Erasure from Alcatraz Island to Elizabeth Warren.” Anthropology News website, April 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1136

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