By Joe Stahlman | August 31, 2020 | Reprint from Special to Olean Times Herald
Editor’s Note: This commentary, the result of a collaboration between the Olean Times Herald and interviewer Marcia Kelly, gives voice to area people with the hope of creating better understanding.
I’m the director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum and the Onöhsagwë:de’ Culture Center on the Seneca Nation in Salamanca. In 2018 I moved to Cattaraugus County from Bloomington, Indiana. I consider it my forever home.
I have had countless pleasant encounters since we arrived. It is a great place to live. I am mixed race, meaning I am half Tuscarora Indian and Pennsylvanian Dutch, i.e. long-established, German-descendant Americans. My German ancestors arrived here in 1764. Though, “mixed-race,” I identify with being a Native person but I do not ignore the influence of my Euro-American family. I was born in Niagara Falls but I grew up in Texas and out West. I have lived around the country and in various places around the world. At the suggestion of friends, I attended university, and now I hold four degrees in anthropology — my fourth being a PhD.
My specialty areas in anthropology are Native Americans, theory, concepts of race, human-nature interactions and the histories of anthropology and archaeology in their connection with Native American communities.
A first thing taught in anthropology is that race is a social construction, an idea created by someone or a group and made real by behavioral expression of its definitions and application in society. Because of that, everything I observe I see as a socially-engineered moment by the dominant culture. Ideas of how everyone is different based on certain surface characteristics, such as hair type, eye color, lip size, skin color and so on. We attach some cultural aspects to those traits and come up with races.
Because races are socially constructed, there are no hard rules pertaining to race. The most general rule that we rely on for race is skin color. When one encounters someone with darker skin the first thing that people generally do is think that person is “not white,” or whatever judging criteria they use, and then based on the other characteristics that one can glean from that person they would use that information to lump the individual into a category created in their minds, based on their life experience, family connections, community and mainstream culture.
Music, TV, movies, social media or books also add to individual constructions of race. So when we meet new people — based on those criteria — we lump them into a category that fits our mental model.
One of the things that I find funny as an anthropologist is that we define races individually in our minds and we all think that we have a shared model of what the races are — when there are as many definitions of race as there are people thinking about race.
Races are social constructions and so I see a lot of hypocrisy in those definitions, even in the unofficial ones. For example, in the United States we have two opposing rules for the criteria of the racial or ethnic makeup of certain peoples who live here. The first group are what we call “Native Americans.” The U.S. had an ongoing policy in which they were trying to eliminate all Native Americans through a selective breeding out program based on a pedigree of racial purity called blood quantum. The U.S. had this process of eliminating the Native American through paperwork by minimizing the amount of Indian blood that each person possessed.
Blood quantums were constructed very early because the U.S. had a concept of Manifest Destiny and the tribes and Nations across the continent stood in their way. As the U.S. accumulated territory, sometimes illegitimately, they needed to make sure that Native people could never claim these acquired lands. So I have some relatives who are a deep, dark brown and their ID cards will tell them that they have less Indian blood than myself, who is fairly light-skinned.
I see blood quantums as a breeding out program and a final step in a long line of acts against the aboriginal people of North America. This was policy up until the 1970s, after which tribes and nations were able to define their own terms and conditions for membership. And now, amongst the 574 federally-recognized communities in the U.S., each one has their own policy of membership criteria. For example, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) community will try to base membership on descendancy from the mother, whereas the Cherokee of Oklahoma base their membership on a current Cherokee’s primary ancestor who was listed on an allowed land roll in the 19th century.
My second example we will call “African Americans.” For a long time the U.S. had a policy of legal slavery. In slaveholding states everyone had a criteria based on what made up an African descendent so they could be counted as a slave. This definition was set up in a way to keep people in servitude. There was a policy of a “one drop rule,” so if you had one provable drop of black blood in your body, you could lose your rights as a citizen and become a slave.
Nowadays, because we hold onto those ideas — and we might not even know where those ideas originated — people are defined in ways that they might not identify themselves. For example, in our region we might see a person with a medium-dark complexion and curly hair, and we might define the person as “Black” or “African American,” based on our criteria, while that person might identify more closely with family and friends and not some ambiguous category that encapsulates individuals based on certain physical traits rather than cultural or ideological affinity.
The most pressing issue in the country right now is that people see race as being a gap that prevents us from seeing the similarities between; we instead focus on base surface differences. We need to address inequities, why they exist, in ways that heal those ongoing problems. Outside of our constructions I don’t see race with much of a purpose, especially in 2020. As a Native person, I don’t see much of a difference between an “African American” and a “Euro-American.” I see Americans.
Actually, I don’t like concepts like “Native American,” “Mexican American,” “Asian American” because aren’t we all Americans? Why then do you keep relegating us as not full Americans like “white” Americans?
Most people do not go around saying “Euro-American,” “white American” or even “European American” when they see a light-skinned American; however, we do with every other shade of American. We are less than, because of those definitions. Focusing on the ideas of race keeps imaginary divides between us and creates very real problems that we can’t easily solve, maintaining rifts in our lives. Vicious circles. We need to join together as a community more than ever.
There are 574 federally recognized Tribes and Nations in the U.S. There are about 270 unrecognized communities in the U.S. In pure numbers there are about 3.5 million Americans who identify or are identified as First Peoples. We are less than 1% of the total population and about 3% of the Cattaraugus County population. Yet, we are number one in most things detrimental to human health and wellness, but no one knows because our numbers aren’t typically included in the pie charts and graphs showing off the disparities. The U.S. sees everything in Black & White and forgets that there are others who reside here as well.
Yes, Native people have lots of social, cultural and health concerns, but most of these “problems” have been coupled with the dispossession of what is now the U.S. And, it has been one issue after another — war, disease, dispossession, removal, squatting, alcohol, economic development and so on — nonstop for 400 years. Yet, we are still here. Drive 20 minutes west of Olean and you have the Seneca Nation, a sovereign Nation of 8,000 citizens within the U.S. Despite the shortlist of Native concerns, a community like the Seneca Nation is a great example of a community holding onto timeless ideas of identity and culture, enveloped by a modern-day concept like Nationhood. They have persisted when many Native communities didn’t.
Seneca Nation has emerged as leaders in the Southern Tier. They are the fifth-largest employer and they are continuously expanding without losing their ancient culture.
This is why I enjoy working for Seneca Nation. Aside from being my dream job where I get to work with great people, use my education of history and anthropology, be a steward of beautiful material objects and honor the people who made them, I’ve learned that a museum can be a form of social justice. Our museum has an opportunity everyday to change people’s minds on how they think about the past and present Native people. We do it simply by honoring Seneca and Haudenosaunee peoples, history and cultural expressions. Everyday we come together and work diligently to showcase beautiful and timeless expressions of Turtle Island’s First Peoples (Turtle Island is our view of the area of North America; Haudenosaunee stories link contemporary peoples to the First Peoples of Turtle Island) and our contributions to the one race, the human race.
I believe everyone in the Southern Tier should visit the museum. The Seneca Nation are our neighbors whose current and former lands we currently live on. Their continuous and ever-changing course through life has left an indelible mark on the region. People don’t realize the influence the Seneca and the Haudenosaunee have had on American history, the U.S. and Canadian governments, anthropology, archaeology, women’s suffrage, current regional and global events — or even the amount of time they have occupied the region.