Genocide on Red Lake reservation is inseparable from issues of identity. Briefly and generally: if one accepts Wub-e-ke-niew’s and other Ahnishinahbæótjibway’s definitions of group identity, and acknowledges that there is more than one distinct group of people on and associated with the Red Lake Indian Reservation, then there is clear genocide perpetrated against the Ahnishinahbæótjibway.
However, if one uses the U.S. government’s definitions of group identity, which were established by the U.S. and are currently administered by the Tribal Council, then the deaths and other violence can be construed as regrettable mayhem in a community that has “problems.” Further, since the Ahnishinahbæótjibway were numerically a small proportion of the total population at Red Lake by the middle of the twentieth century, death rates and other indices of social injustice which are substantially higher for the Ahnishinahbæótjibway than for the total Red Lake ‘Indian’ population, are obscured by statistics which do not make the kind of analytical distinctions that Wub-e-ke-niew and others were making.
The United States’ classifications of who is an “Indian”—their catchall category for people at Red Lake and other Indian reservations—are several, based on various criteria, and sometimes ad hoc. Two of the federal agencies compiling official enumerations of “Indians” [or “American Indians” or “Native Americans”] are the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Census Bureau’s enumeration of Indians in the U.S. is more than double the B.I.A.’s, both figures indicate an “Indian” population of over a million, and these figures have been cited in the media as reliable evidence that even if there may have been some genocide in the nineteenth century, it couldn’t have been all that bad, since there are presently “over a million” (or “millions”) of “Indians” in the United States today. This genre of discursive reconstruction of the past merits consideration beyond what I can give it here; “Indians” are a vital aspect of Euroamerican mythology and identity, and Euroamerican processes of defining (many) “Indians” are crucial to it.
Euroamerican criteria determining “Indian” identity are external to the indigenous communities at Red Lake (and elsewhere). The designations of “Indian” are socially constructed on the basis of values, agendas, perceptions and categories that are Euroamerican and/or derived from earlier European “explorers” and colonists; and only a minority of those at Red Lake who are labeled “Indian” are Ahnishinahbæótjibway.
The category “Indian” is an emic Euroamerican term within which are embedded the less-than-objective perspectives and agendas of a colonizing nation, and from those vantages that category seems reasonable, internally logical and seems to ‘make sense.’ But, although this Euroamerican identity of “Indian” has been internalized by a majority of those people who presently define themselves as “Indians,” it is not a transparent, value-free and universal term.
Wub-e-ke-niew and other Ahnishinahbæótjibway’s emphatic statements that “we are not ‘Indians’,” reflect criteria crucial to Ahnishinahbæótjibway – and closely correlated with both the genealogies independently validated by B.I.A. and other records, and with distinct differences (at least among the older people) in language and culture.
The UN Convention begins its definition of genocide as: “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group...” A detailed exegesis of international discourse about genocide and the Convention is beyond the scope of the present work, and my analysis here is limited to a few general comments. At least in the language of the United Nations, one can interpret the UN definition as meaning that unequivocal identification of the Ahnishinahbæótjibway as distinct from ‘Indians’ is irrelevant, and that the question of whether or not the deaths and other damages to these people can be construed as genocide under international law hinges on intent. Reading from that perspective, it doesn’t really matter how many people, or what percentage of any particularly defined group, are killed. The crucial factor is intent, and the genocidal intent of the United States is plain from historical policy and administrative documents – and the present-day continuation of those policies under purportedly “tribal” administration.
However, there is another possible reading of that U.N. definition, which delimits the people against whom genocide is recognized as having occurred under international law to those of a [distinguishable] “national,” “ethnical,” “racial” or “religious” group. Each of these group-designating criteria could be interpreted so that, especially when conflated with the “other Indians” at Red Lake, the Ahnishinahbæótjibway are not ‘officially’ defined as “group.” No group? Presto, whatever destroyed “those people,” it wasn’t genocide as defined and sanctionable under international law. Such semantic maneuvering can have grave consequences, as the current usage of the term “ethnic cleansing” also indicates.
Discongruities between indigenous peoples’ self-identification and the group identity ascribed to them by others generally has its roots in colonial and post-colonial processes. The concentration of people onto U.S. Indian reservations during the nineteenth century, and the formal bureaucratic designation of the people who ended up on a particular reservation as comprising particular “Indian Tribe” or “Indian Band” is illustrative of some of these processes. Such colonially defined and constructed “Tribes” and “Bands” were subsequently further reified in B.I.A. administrative categories, salvage ethnographies written in the “ethnographic present,” Indian Claims Commission litigation, the construction of certain kinds of reservation-oriented “Indian sovereignty” through the U.S. Congress’ Indian Self-Determination Act, the internalization of blood-quantum identity expressed in terms of “Tribes,” “Bands” and particular Indian reservations, et cetera. Such self-designations as “seven thirty-seconds Consolidated Tribes Indian, and my grandmother was a fullblood,” may in fact accurately convey certain aspects of contemporary identity for some people—in the paradigms of colonization, B.I.A. administration and internalized Euroamerican definition. However, it is unreasonable to either project such categories into the historical past as salient (and sometimes legally significant) “ethnicities,” or to insist on imposing them on indigenous people who prefer to define themselves according to their own understandings of who we really are.
Another problem with reification of external definitions of group-ness, whether those unilaterally imposed by colonial processes or those discerned and recorded by anthropologists, is that such definitions are embedded in the epistemological substrate, and seamlessly integrated with the discursive milieux, of the definers. The rules, the bat, the ball, the bases, the numbered uniforms, the cheerleaders, the playing field, the concessions, the gate-keepers, the stands and the parking lot—and the umpire—are all created by, belong to, and are under the control of the colonizing definers. The aesthetics, values and world-views of those to whom the dominating systems and processes belong are inescapable, always-everywhere, an inherent part of the context. The discursive and epistemological domains of Euroamerica and the Western hegemony of which Euroamerica is an aspect are hierarchical, and not-so-subtly biased. Even though individuals and groups operating within the confines of what has been dubbed the “white world” may well be utterly, impeccably well intentioned and fair, the systems and processes in which they are embedded, are not.
Downing and Kushner, in their introduction to Cultural Survival’s Human Rights and Anthropology, write:
Anthropologists advocate that culturally distinct groups are entitled to fair and unprejudiced treatment before the law.
I cannot imagine that any ethical anthropologist would disagree with the principles intended by that statement. Given that prejudice, violence and other atrocities perpetrated against indigenous peoples and other colonially-defined “others” has saturated Euroamerican/Western history for centuries, it would be flagrantly unethical not to advocate “fair and unprejudiced treatment,” to stand in mute witness to genocide, ethnocide, ecocide and other brutality, to condone by silence. It is good that Cultural Survival is trying to stop the juggernaut, good that they are affirming the urgent need for fundamental human rights.
In my understanding, Cultural Survival is an organization of deeply committed anthropologists who are seriously concerned about the human rights violations and other abuses confronting indigenous and other non-majority peoples. The arena in which they work is a complex one, and there are many facets, many ways of seeing. I would not presume to criticize anyone for not seeing the world as I do—there are many paths and many perspectives, more than even the most gifted can even glimpse, much less know deeply, in a lifetime. Furthermore, what is written in any, or even many, publications is far less than the knowledge of the author, and the discursive constraints of academic writing tend to privilege some aspects of knowledge, and slight others.
However, it appears that the advocacy of Cultural Survival is beset by the biases embedded in their epistemological substrate and discourses. Once a “culturally distinct group” is defined in Euroamerican English, the systems and processes intended to aid their survival are oriented toward their group-ness in Euroamerican parameters. For example, Barnett writes in the same Human Rights and Anthropology volume,
Many cultural and subcultural groups and tribes believe that they cannot survive if they allow or foster internal groups that oppose the core values of the majority group ... protection and freedom of diversity means that cultural dissidents must have the right not only to leave the cultural units they find inimical to them, but also to find sanctuary in other units
The “cultural units” to which Barnett refers are, at least with reference to some U.S. Indian reservations, almost certainly products of external definition and administration. The Ahnishinahbæótjibway at Red Lake are among those indigenous people who are inherently of the land and have been an integral part of a particular place for countless generations. As Wub-e-ke-niew put it
The bones of our ancestors, the living beings upon the earth, and the earth itself are all one, inseparable.
What Barnett seems to be advocating is exactly the situation which Wub-e-ke-niew and other Ahnishinahbæótjibway emphatically decried: being defined as a “dissident minority” of the colonially-defined “cultural group” of “Red Lake Indians.” Leaving the externally ascribed “cultural unit” means, in on-the-ground reality, being forced by externally administered and federally supported economic and political pressures—and violence—into becoming refugees scattered through several enclaves separated in some instances by hundreds of miles. For indigenous people deeply interconnected with the land, it means eradication of profound aspects of community, culture, identity and self. Defining the Ahnishinahbæótjibway in the same “group” as federally recognized Ojibwe Indians very effectively obscures the systems and processes which have destroyed the Ahnishinahbæótjibway, and renders almost invisible the holocaust of a once-numerous people. As Wub-e-ke-niew put it, “in the English language, I do not exist.”
 Downing, Theodore E. and Gilbert Kushner, eds. Human Rights and Anthropology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cultural Survival, 1988. page 7.
 Clifford R. Barnett. “Powerless people,” Ibid, p. 25.
 We Have The Right To Exist, Op cit., p. 286