It's Cool To Be an Indian

April 09, 1991|By JOANNE JACOBS

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — San Jose, California. Kevin Costner isn't the only one who likes being an Indian. The American Indian population is soaring -- up 38 percent in the last 10 years, according to the Census Bureau.

It's too large to be accounted for by the birth rate. So where are all these Indians coming from?

To start with, the Indian population boom doesn't mean there are more Indians than there used to be, just that there are more people who want to be identified as Indians, based on a fraction of Indian ancestry, or the myth of Indian ancestry, or conceivably, nothing at all.

The census lets Americans be whatever they want to be, so these new-found Indians don't have to be registered tribe members. All they have to do is check a different box on the form.

Some of these new Indians may be old Indians who were passing for white in the last census, but most of them are one-eighth to 1-128 Indians -- that is, seven-eighths to 127-128ths palefaces -- who've decided to identify with that particular twig of the family tree.

This is a new phenomenon. It's rarely been considered advantageous to be non-white. But Indians have become a cool minority to be -- especially for those who can choose when not to be.

In the old Hollywood days, Indians were brutal savages, who spent their time whooping around wagon trains eyeing pioneers' hairdos and trying to hold back progress. They failed because they were remarkably poor shots, able to kill only supporting characters.

At their best, they were noble savages: brave, but not the wave of the future.

In non-cinematic terms, Indians have been seen as pathetic has-beens, dependent on an indifferent government, isolated, exploited, victimized.

In places where there are a lot of Indians, such as Oklahoma or South Dakota, the image is still very negative. But in urban, yuppified, angst-happy America, Indians are perceived as spiritually correct people, living in harmony with nature, conserving rather than destroying, being rather than consuming.

Progress has lost a lot of its luster, particularly for those who take all its benefits for granted. The Indian way of life, as understood by the average American, seems simpler, deeper, wiser. Adios, noble savage. Hello, noble sage.

In addition, for the guilty paleface, being an Indian means never having to say you're sorry for Wounded Knee. It offers the chance to shed winner's guilt by identifying as victim rather than blood-stained aggressor.

Finally, affirmative action rewards minority status, assuming it's an indicator of poverty and discrimination. Some of the census Indians may be angling for a competitive advantage based on the presumption of disadvantage.

They're unlikely to succeed without tribal affiliation, but this is a vague standard. Some tribes say you have to be half Indian or more to qualify as a member; others say one-two thousandths will do.

Lots of Americans, including many blacks, are part Indian -- or part maybe-Indian. I recently learned that my pale-faced daughter is part maybe-Indian, through her paternal grandfather; my first cousins are part for-sure Indian, probably one-sixteenth, and two of my daughter's friends are part-Indian, part-Swedish and, in one case, part-Jewish.

None of these ''Indians'' is disadvantaged by that status in any way. They don't suffer discrimination. If you're one-sixteenth Cherokee, who knows to hold it against you? Identifying with Indian culture, religion and heritage might enrich their lives; it certainly wouldn't make them need special help.

This is a unique minority status. You get to choose when you'll be a minority-group member, and when you'll be an individual. Of course, nobody knows what motivates the new census Indians to be Indians. I suspect that most are in it for the romance, not for any prospective affirmative-action benefits.

But behind the willingness to check the box marked American Indian is a sense that being white isn't all that great. It isn't what it used to be.

The Indian population boom reflects a historic change in American society: People are choosing to identify themselves, against the percentages, as members of a once-despised minority group.

For those who can choose how to define themselves, Indian ancestry can be an advantage. You can get all the historical cachet, without the pain.

It's cool to be an Indian.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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