Contesting Identities: Historical Trauma, Loss, and Cultural Authenticity

“Where do the Coeur d’Alene people come from?” asked Richard. Richard, the Coeur d’Alene Nation’s cultural resource manager, was interviewing me about my research proposal. It was 2001, and I was beginning an ethnographic project with a Coeur d’Alene family on intergenerational relations and identity. I was new to anthropology. Intimidated. I wondered why he focused on the big issues and not my project.

“The Coeur d’Alene people know they are the original inhabitants of this land,” I replied. “They have always been here. But anthropologists say you descended from people who crossed the Bering Strait.”

“What do you think about the Bering Land Bridge theory?” he asked. “Are the Coeur d’Alene people their own race?”

Richard’s questions kept coming. I balanced disparate origin histories and the incommensurable accounts of science with what I learned about the Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) lifeworld.[1] I straddled perspectives, avoiding the words fact, false, belief, and story, while focusing on people’s experiences. I mentioned I grew up on the Lake and rivers, roamed the nearby mountains, and knew the reservation towns of Plummer and Worley. I too had a family history here; an intergenerational connection to the land and the community. It was a link, I admitted, on the settler side, and one only a few generations deep.

Richard approved my project.  

Why these questions? The fight over Kennewick Man, known as The Ancient One, was growing, as were questions about the origins of the Indigenous peoples of the Columbia Plateau. The Ancient One’s 9,000-year-old remains, found along the Columbia River, started a widespread dispute over who “owned” the bones. Under federal law, Indigenous remains and artifacts must be returned to tribes. However, scientists stated that The Ancient One was too old to be an ancestor and might not be related at all (how old is too old to be an ancestor?). Some claimed he had anatomical features showing Polynesian descent. Other daft theories abounded.

I now see the significance of Richard’s inquiry. His questions were central to Coeur d’Alene identity. Who are the Coeur d’Alene people? What constitutes their culture? Who gets to decide? There are complex systems of knowledge and power inside and outside tribes, government agencies, and universities that shape these answers. Richard’s questions prepared me and framed my work. I was somewhat familiar with the politics around the Tribe, but I was unaware of the contested internal landscape around, for example, claims of authenticity and who represents or speaks for a culture.

Questions around ethnic group membership, boundaries, and authenticity are contentious issues for Indigenous people globally. Too much hangs on the answers—access to resources, land, and power, and the right to preserve and reify culture and history. For the Coeur d’Alene people, as with others, notions of identity and legitimacy incorporate an array of details beyond blood quantum or one’s family of birth.

Cliff, my mentor[2] and a Coeur d’Alene family patriarch, spoke at length over the importance of one’s connection to the past and having a family circle. And through this circle, an embodied connection to not only Coeur d’Alene culture, but also to the past traumas and histories of oppression. These links, narratives of trauma, and how kin responded to past and contemporary insults and injustices stood out for him as a marker of cultural authenticity.

“There are people here,” said Cliff, “people on the reservation and Tribal Counsel who say: ‘we are in charge of the culture, we represent the culture.’ My brother and I look at them and we feel sorry for them. Because they don’t know. They can go to a language class and learn a few words, but they don’t have the room of old people sitting around every evening. That circle, that connection, they don’t have that. So, they run to the nearest bookstore and try to soak up everything they can, but it’s all written by white people. It’s the white people’s view of what they saw and studied. You need to be involved in it. See it. Feel it. It was a connection to our culture that enabled us to learn the language, the songs, how we learned their meaning, how we learned to dance, and so on.”

Cliff described growing up within a circle his family called their Rock Culture. Their Rock Culture is the dense, steady, and cohesive nature of their family culture and history. Its teachings and oral traditions extend back to family members living before the first contact with Europeans. Cliff emphasized the hollowness of learning history, language, songs, and dances from other sources (often anthropologists). Authentic learning, or enculturation, he said, requires a visceral element, an embodiment that only something like their Rock Culture can give. It engages the senses. One must smell, touch, and live the elders’ stories and teachings.

Arguments over authenticity can become heated when public figures represent and claim membership to one’s group. During my research, there were Coeur d’Alene people who felt Sherman Alexie was the epitome of inauthenticity. Alexie is a well-known Spokane and Coeur d’Alene author who depicts the difficulties of Indian people, reservation life, and fraught family relationships in his poetry, fiction, memoirs, and film. People question Alexie’s authority to depict their struggles because a white family adopted him, and he attended a white-dominant high school for a time. Some say he represents and capitalizes on a life he never lived. “He isn’t really an Indian,” I heard a woman say. “He turned his back on our people.” These perceptions of Alexie persist, no matter how he and others substantiate his connections or “prove” his hardships. In this discourse, suffering and trauma emerge as an index of belonging and legitimacy.

“There are so many of our people that never experience the circle,” Cliff explained. “There are so many that want to be tribal leaders that never experienced this. They have become Wal-Mart and K-Mart Indians. It’s not their fault. There are some that have the strength to try to find those circles, those connections. And they suddenly want to become drummers or dancers. All the sudden somebody wants to become a Coeur d’Alene that hasn’t been a Coeur d’Alene all their life. So, he starts coming to pow-wows, going to the vendors and buying feathers and things, and begin to call themselves Coeur d’Alene. All the sudden he is a cool dude. But they’ve never been in that circle. Never been to the sweathouse. Never been to the mountains. Never laid on his grandmother’s lap. Never had someone fix him a bed by the drum and listen to the old people sing all night. They wander around trying to be something that is lost.”

I hung on that last word. The encroaching whites forced acculturation and participated in the system that pressured countless families to leave their heritage behind. A loss resulting from disjuncture and discontinuity is difficult to repair generations later.

The Catholic church, schools, settlers, and the U.S. government attempted to annihilate Native People’s identity throughout the Columbia Plateau. They pushed assimilation, engaged in systematic racism, outlawed rituals, sent children to boarding schools, and banned languages. They disrupted seasonal subsistence rounds by restricting land use, establishing private property, developing settlements and reservations, ending the salmon runs by building dams, and pressuring people convert to Catholicism and to farm (a “civilized” occupation in the eyes of the colonizer). These are a fraction of the atrocities. Some families held on by disguising and hiding their practices, teachings, and traditions. Others had to abandon cultural practices to survive. How families resisted the invasion, racism, culturcide, and pressures to capitulate shaped how Cliff perceived their authority to speak for Coeur d’Alene culture.

“At this point, most of the Coeur d’Alenes wanted to be farmers,” Cliff said. “They wanted to wear suits and take a hoe and break ground. There was a time when the Jesuits told all these Indians to bring their medicine bags, their buckskins, their warbonnets, their eagle feathers, all that Indian stuff, and bring it to the front of the church. They dug a hole, threw it all in there, and they burned it. They surrendered their culture. Their outfits made by their grandmother’s grandmother were thrown in the hole. But my grandmother refused. She would not give up any of it. None of it. And they excommunicated her from the Catholic church for failing to be a good Indian.”

At an inter-tribal gathering, Cliff announced that he and his family planned to bring back a controversial scalp dance—a war dance that the Jesuits rubbed out. “We will be criticized,” he said, “and we’ll be made fun of by all the ones that are laying at the feet of the Black Robes skirts who gave away all their stuff, their culture. We have the guts to do it. You guys can go whisper over here, you hang around the fort type Indians, you know, as soon as the fort doors open, they run alongside the wagon with hands out, give me something, give me something. Our family is not running alongside, we’re not tipi dogs.

Cliff continued. “That’s another term, a tipi dog. You come in the morning and he’s right here by your tipi begging for food, he comes in and you have to kick him out of there. Then he’ll run around the tipi and sit there the next morning on the other side of the door. He does nothing. He doesn’t help put the tipi up, he doesn’t do anything inside, he doesn’t get the wood, he doesn’t help take care of the children inside the circle where they learn. But when you leave that room, or as soon as you leave that tipi he’s sitting there wanting to eat your scraps, so he can say that I’m involved in the culture of the tribe. He just waits for somebody’s scraps, so he can say he’s an Indian.

Cliff’s perspective on cultural authenticity draws on trauma histories, resistance, and embodied learning and connections to ancestors. It raises questions around the contested spaces of cultural representation and determining who and what is “authentic.” This discourse also positions people from families who abandoned cultural practices to survive the atrocities of colonization in a difficult position. Are they unable to speak for their culture because of losing their own family’s circle of learning and teaching? Are there ways to reconnect? These are tough questions and power dynamics that many communities face as they recover.

“Our family is much more than this [tipi dog],” Cliff continued. “That’s why our family is criticized and sometimes hated. But there are people that say when they need something, when they need some real cultural things to happen, some real prayers, some real songs from the real center of our Indian people, who do they come to? They come to us.”

Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here. To learn more about Cliff ideas to help people find and build their own family circle, see my article on rethinking historical trauma.

[1] I use Coeur d’Alene throughout because that is what my interlocutors used.
[2] Cliff knew how to work with Anthropologists. He was an ideal person to introduce me to Coeur d’Alene culture, tutor me in the practicalities of ethnography from an Indigenous perspective, and, above all, direct me to slow down and pay attention. “I’ll talk. You keep your mouth shut and listen,” Cliff said during our first interview. “Later, when I am finished speaking, you can ask questions.” Later ended up being months away.

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