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Native Ways // The revolution in Indian country



Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century

By Fergus M. Bordewich

Doubleday, $27.95

Reviewed by Susan Fernandez

Define "American Indian." Is it how you list yourself on the U.S. Census form? (The number of people doing that has tripled since 1960.) Is it your one-eighth Cherokee blood on your mother's side of the family? Or is it merely enough to think of yourself as an Indian? If being Indian is a state of mind, as noted American Indian scholar Vine Deloria Jr. has suggested, does that entitle you to any of the $3-billion in federal aid allocated each year to Indian services?

Any intelligent discussion of the American Indian's place in this country's history and its future has to begin with these kinds of tricky questions. Most tribes _ and there are more than 500 if you count Alaska's 200 _ require proof of descent from a tribal member to be considered an Indian. But even that "blood quantum" test can be difficult to implement in a culture, or blend of cultures, that usually has no written records.

Fergus Bordewich came by his American Indian ethnicity through his mother, who was executive director of the Association of American Indian Affairs in the 1950s. He traveled with her to numerous reservations while he was growing up. Later, as a journalist of some renown and a correspondent for Reader's Digest, he spent three years revisiting the Indian world of his youth to research this book. The result is a stunning and well-documented insight into the rich mosaic that he calls "the revolution under way in Indian Country" in the 1990s.

In the best American Indian tradition, he tells his stories well. The uprooting of the Cherokee Nation in 1838, for example, with its tremendous loss of life (2,000 died before the march West even began) has been studied before, but Bordewich analyzes the tribal self-government that allowed the Cherokees to endure. Not only did the Cherokees not disappear, they are today the largest tribe in the United States, numbering some 162,000 in 1995.

The issues around the dispersal and regrouping of native peoples are complex, and government policy shifts have always had a hard time keeping up. For example, the Lakota Sioux, who have claimed much of the territory of the Dakotas, originally displaced other tribes living in the Black Hills.

Probably 90 percent of native populations were wiped out by European diseases, and alcoholism rates today exceed 50 percent in some tribes. But on the other side of the picture are the 24 successful Indian colleges like Little Big Horn in Montana, which teaches its Crow students everything they need to compete in 20th-century corporate America, while at the same time reinforcing the values of their Indian heritage.

Bordewich clearly supports tribal sovereignty if it does not turn reservations into economically dependent statelets. Take the Mississippi Band of Choctaws. Through astute leadership and aggressive entrepreneurship, they have had an impact far beyond their reservation. Their story, says Bordewich, suggests that "tribal sovereignty, far from being a universal threat to neighboring non-Indian communities, has the capacity to become an engine for rural revitalization."

This is a hopeful book. Bordewich believes that when we strip away the historical myths, we can see the future of the native American as "irrevocably intertwined with that of other Americans."

Susan Fernandez is a writer who lives in Bradenton.