This is a story about Marcellus Shale, and what happened to a tribe when drilling companies and recession-scarred Pennsylvanians mined the earth for the natural gas locked inside. It is also a story about what it means to belong to an ethnic and cultural group that, from the seventeenth century, white settlers aimed to displace or assimilate. What does it mean today to count oneself as a member of an ethnic group that pop culture generalizes and enshrines as the last weeping protectors of the environment or obliging passers of the peace pipe, forever consenting to some white man’s scheme? At the same time, Native Americans as an undifferentiated group draw ire for profiting from casinos and sending their children to public schools. Today, it would seem, if American Indians are not petrified, they are crooks. For Native Americans in Pennsylvania, the paradox is more acute, since the United States government was supposed to have legally removed Native Americans from the East Coast to land west of the Mississippi River 280 years ago, by the Indian Removal Act. Today, the question of American Indian identity is battled out not only between Native Americans and non-Native Americans, but between, and also within, groups of Native Americans themselves.

View from Wyalusing Rocks, March 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modeled on the Delaware Confederacy, which dates back to the eighteenth century, when white settlement pushed various native people from the coastal lands of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia north and west into Pennsylvania, EDN was incorporated in Delaware in 1984 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and was domesticated in Pennsylvania in 1996. Today, around 400 members, mostly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, receive newsletters and hold membership cards, though the number of members who participate regularly in the organization’s council meetings and events is much smaller. Aside from its 501(c)3 status, EDN is unrecognized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the U.S. government. There are no Indian reservations within Pennsylvania’s boundaries, and neither Pennsylvania nor the federal government recognizes any Native American groups in the state.

One elder member of EDN who requested anonymity said that Pennsylvania does acknowledge EDN because of its 501(c)3 status, and Jeanne Stark also said there used to be a “reservation” in Pennsylvania near the Allegheny State Forest on the New York border. In 1966, the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River flooded the Cornplanter Tract, a land grant given to Seneca Chief Cornplanter and his descendants in 1796 in return for his efforts to keep peace between white colonists in Pennsylvania and New York and Shawnees in Ohio. Though not technically a reservation because the land was granted only to Chief Cornplanter’s family, it was viewed as such by Native Americans since other Haudenosaunee outside of Cornplanter’s immediate family settled there. When the dam was built to create a reservoir for boating and recreational use, the resulting flood destroyed the homes of the tract’s 200 residents, as well as the community’s cemetery. When I asked Stark what she thought about the absence of Indian reservations in Pennsylvania, she told me that the Kinzua Dam site was a reservation that had been taken away.

“They had no choice. They had to move,” she said. “They were going to get flooded. The government said, ‘You either move, or you die.’ They moved. Some of them didn’t. Some of them are still, I’m sure, under there, but most of them moved. That was a shame. That was our only reservation in the state of Pennsylvania.”

State Representative Louise Bishop, who works for the 192nd District in West Philadelphia, has introduced legislation for the formal recognition of Native American groups in Pennsylvania every year since 1999, but the bill has failed to garner enough support to be voted on in any of those years. If it had been passed, the most recent incarnation of the bill would have defined “Native American” in Pennsylvania as “any individual or group that is, or has its members descended from, a group which inhabited North America before European contact in 1492.” The bill also would have allowed groups of Native Americans to petition a commission for the Governor’s recognition, which they would earn provided they could prove, with documentation, that the members of the group belong to a tribe that existed before 1790, is indigenous to Pennsylvania, inhabited a specific area in Pennsylvania before 1790, and is composed of individuals who do not belong to another recognized Native American group. Given the lack of surviving documentation of indigenous Pennsylvania groups, these would be difficult criteria to meet. Native Americans’ distrust of those who request proof of Native American heritage–from state or federal governments to non-Natives who ask “How much Native American are you?”–also calls the relevance of such a bill into question.

When I asked Lynn Little Wolf Hoffman whether he thought state recognition would help Native Americans in Pennsylvania, he said he didn’t care about recognition anymore. He said, “I’m not a poodle. I’m not a German shepherd. I don’t need to carry a card to be a pedigree.” Hoffman has not attended an EDN meeting in 6 years, though he gets EDN newsletters in the mail and is on friendly terms with active members.

Kenneth Hayden, a participating EDN member who does pipe ceremonies for the organization, also expressed misgivings about recognition that comes with an identification tag, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to prove that they are entitled to that tag. A blood quantum test, which indicates to individuals what proportion of their DNA is traceable to a Native American tribe or to several tribes, is required for membership in some federally recognized tribes. Some tribes grant membership only to those who can produce genetic proof of a certain fraction of tribal blood. The 1978 Supreme Court case Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez set the precedent for self-determination as the standard of membership in Native American tribes. Julia Martinez, a full-blooded member of the Santa Clara Pueblo who married a Navajo man, sued the Santa Clara Pueblo, a patrilineal society, after her daughter was denied membership since her father did not belong to the Pueblo. Martinez charged that the Pueblo’s policy of granting membership to children born to male, but not female, tribal members violated Title I of the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, which provides that “no Indian tribe in exercising powers of self-government shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.” The Supreme Court ruled, however, that it was not within the jurisdiction of a federal court to overturn the Pueblo’s decision, and Martinez’s daughter was not granted membership in the Pueblo. Of the blood quantum test, Hayden said, “I don’t recommend that to people. I think that’s just another way for the government to say, we’re going to start categorizing everybody by blood type. First thing you know, we’re going to require all of us to get DNA tests done.”

Leanne Bechdel, a Native American who does not belong to the EDN but was raised with Native American traditions and beliefs and is friends with current and former members of the organization, echoed Hoffman and Hayden in her perception of the standard of proof required of Native Americans for membership in recognized Native American groups as discriminatory and an infringement on Native Americans’ rights. “Most people only need a Social Security card to prove who they are,” she said. “Well, with the BIA, it’s considered to be a tracking device, so to speak.”

But, in addition to the legal standards of the federal government for a Native American group to be eligible for recognition and a reservation, among other benefits, communities of Native Americans hold their own opinions about how the way that other Native Americans comport themselves can prove them to be genuinely native or just Indian hobbyists or “wannabes.” These opinions are especially influential for unrecognized Native American groups such as EDN, whose members for the most part have non-Native as well as Native American ancestry. For Bechdel, part of what makes a Native American is a particular attitude of stewardship toward the natural world. Among Native Americans, she said, “There’s a common belief that we have to live in harmony and gently on our Earth Mother, and we’re not doing that, and it’s just totally incongruent with what most Native Americans believe, the history of native people going to all kinds of odds to protect their property from being damaged. Drilling at Prayer Rocks is just contrary. It’s just absolutely contrary.”

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