20 August 2007

Twelve percent American Indian?

It is more than a little disturbing to see the relative ease which writers in major mainstream news media exhibit when reporting that a person is "12 percent American Indian." This weighing of indigenous cultural identity on a scale, as if it were a sack of grain, not to mention the imposition of questions of "authenticity" (as if these persons were objects), is one of the perverse outcomes of the rise of DNA testing technology coupled with debates over membership in indigenous communities, and ownership of indigenous cultural artifacts. The most recent example, among a series, was authored by Ellen Rosen, in The New York Times (Sunday, Aug. 18, 2007) in an article titled, "Latest Genealogy Tools Create a Need to Know." The caption to the opening photograph states: "Through a DNA test, Dr. Holden found out that she is 12 percent American Indian." Not only that, she is yet another descendant of a "princess," which is an amazing accomplishment for someone whose indigenous ancestors knew no royal or noble titles. Apparently pricesses made for incredibly prolific breeders, as it is virtually impossible to find anyone who claims to be the descendant of a "commoner."

An American comedian--Stephen Colbert--recently claimed to have undergone some testing that revealed he was 75% Jewish, which gave him ample material for jokes about getting a "three quarters circumcision" or telling three fourths of a Jewish joke. When it comes to American Indian or indigenous identity, the subject no longer becomes the stuff of jokes, which it really deserves to be. I would hate to be a 12 percent American Indian in a debate about indigenous issues with a 13 percent American Indian.

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