The Native Elite: A (Re)Introduction of Access & Power

9 months ago, I wrote The Native Elite. A blog post commenting on and introducing the concept of a subset of peoples within native communities who possess strands of power that differentiates themselves from the rest of native communities.

I wrote that blog post in an attempt to name an issue that I was seeing within my own Diné community, as well as the communities of other Indigenous Peoples.

In that last blog post, I wrote the following:

The Native Elite are a subset of Indigenous Folx, particularly within the “borders” of the US, who have elaborated spheres of influence in Native politics, identity, education, etc. They have access to resources because they are non-threatening to the non-Native Elite: White Folx. 

Much like the bourgeoisie (A Marxist reference), the Native Elite upholds the interests of capitalism and the disenfranchisement of both their own and other minoritized communities.  

Since then, I have been trying to better articulate who the native elite are and how they recycle colonial violence.

In that last blog post, I included a list of people who I identified as the native elite as an attempt to frame who the native elite might include or who they could be within our own communities.

The list was not meant for specificity, rather the list was meant to describe the means of access to spaces and resources of the native elite. ,

The central idea behind the native elite is about access. The concept of the native elite articulates how some natives have access to spaces and resources more so than others because of our own social positions within a hierarchical system in what is currently the United States. It is about naming an issue about who is deemed desirable and who is seen as non-threatening to others, which allows them to have access to spaces and resources. All of which operates within systems of inequity like racism, classism, ableism, colorism, sexism, and many more. 

Gatekeeping

@xodanix3 wrote an article that mentions a social mechanism of gatekeeping, a social phenomenon in which someone regulates access to a space or resource, particularly within social media. In the article, she writes:

It becomes increasingly difficult and intimidating for users outside of particular social circles to discern true intent behind motives of those directing discourse. As someone who joined social media platforms with the intent to share my opinions, I was unaware of any of this coming in.  The longer ive been a user and the more circles I become involved with, the more wary I become of the dangers of assigning gatekeepers to pedestals. It becomes more evident that so many are catering to self-interest and often time’s personal politics derail from larger issues.

“Lateral oppression” is a common response used to dismiss valid criticisms of gatekeepers. Denying people the right to criticize the manner in which gatekeepers represent communities and direct discourse is an act of lateral oppression in itself. I would rather be a part of a space where critical thinking and accountability is not vilified as toxic.

The distinction between gatekeeping and the native elite is that gatekeeping can be a mechanism for organizing the native elite. Gatekeeping is a tool of regulation of access and resources. An individual can be a gatekeeper, yet may not necessarily be part of the native elite. An individual may be part of the native elite, yet is not necessarily a gatekeeper.

An example that I can think of is how we often think about language fluency and how that can determine someone’s ability to claim an identity or even regulate an identity. For example, the Navajo Nation requires that presidential candidates be fluent in the Navajo language, yet the Navajo Nation offers very little opportunities for people to learn the language or even support their learning. The language requirement is an example of a gatekeeping mechanism as it is regulating who has access to be in a position of power on the Navajo Nation. 

The native elite may be the people who know Diné bizaad, yet they possibly could not be the ones who are enforcing the language requirement. Those who are enforcing the language requirement may not even know Diné bizaad. All we know for certain is that there is a language requirement that is selective and regulates who can be a presidential candidate for the Navajo Nation. 

Assimilation

Another important aspect of the native elite is assimilation. In a later expanded twitter thread, I mentioned the weaponization of indigenous ways of knowing, and the regulation of our identity. Those two instances can be discussed within the process of assimilation.

Assimilation is a complex and lifelong process. Yet, it is a gradual process in which a person or group belongs to one community with specific cultural practices ‘adopts’ the practices of another, slowly becoming a member of the other community. Often times, within instances of power, particularly in what is currently the United States, the process of assimilation is forced upon Indigenous Peoples.

Why might that be important within the discussion of the native elite? Assimilation for Indigenous Peoples has always been predicated on the famous words of then-Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School – an American Indian Boarding School, “kill the indian in him, save the man” (Capt. Pratt, 1892. p. 46).

His words and Pratt’s advocacy for assimilation for Indigenous Peoples during the 19th century was based on the assumption that indigenous ways of knowing were incompetent and in contrast with how what is currently the United States understands themselves. He strongly believed that our languages were savaged, yet still considered us ‘salvageable’ as long as we were stripped of our own forms of knowledge and language.

In a particular way, Pratt’s vision of assimilation has come to fruition. The idea that we, as Indigenous Peoples are “salvageable” conveys the idea that some of us can be perceived as non-threatening, which allows a select few access to spaces and resources, or capital.

A prime example of processes of assimilation is how I am often seen as non-threatening because I possess “good English” and my mannerism (i.e. etiquette) are often associated with whiteness. I was forced to speak “proper English” and exhibit “proper etiquette” in public spaces in order to not appear ‘different. These dynamics allow other non-natives to interact with me without feeling threatened despite being a visibly brown feminine-presenting 6’1 individual (obviously there is more to the social perception of myself that allows for this non-threatening perception, which can be expanded upon in a later blog post). 

Community Cultural Wealth | Capital

Another aspect of the native elite to consider is that of capital. There is a 2005 article written by Tara J. Yosso, Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth that conveys the idea of capital as it pertains to communities of color. Yosso conceptualizes community cultural wealth and offers critiques on the deficit-based thinking of capital towards communities of color.

From this article, I am drawing Yosso’s understanding of capital and how it situates itself with understanding the native elite. Yosso refers to Pierre Bourdieu’s work. Yosso (2005) writes the following:

According to Bourdieu, cultural capital refers to the accumulation of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities possessed and inherited by privileged groups in society. Bourdieu asserts that cultural capital (i.e., education, language), social capital (i.e., social networks, connections) and economic capital (i.e., money and other material possessions) can be acquired two ways, from one’s family and/or through formal schooling. The dominant groups within society are able to maintain power because access is limited to acquiring and learning strategies to use these forms of capital for social mobility. (p. 76)

Despite Bourdieu’s attempt to critique social and cultural reproduction, his theory of cultural capital asserted that some communities of people are culturally wealthy while others are culturally poor. Bourdieu’s theory “refers to an accumulation of specific forms of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are valued by privileged groups in society” (p. 76).

Yet, Yosso offers that there are more forms of capital beyond Bourdieu’s conceptions. She offers 6 more, aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistant, that are unique and specific to communities of color. 

The conception of capital is expanded, and re-framed towards community cultural wealth, moving from a deficit-based thinking understanding to a more strengths-based understanding of capital for communities of color. 

Yet, I would argue that this also furthers that there are communities, or subsets of people, who have access to spaces and resources more so than others simply because of axes of power that everyone possesses and, unfortunately, do not possess, especially within a society of exploitation. Although all of us possess these additional forms of capital, there is an inequitable distribution of access that bars some of us from fully utilizing them or even accessing them. 

Yosso’s article was written as a critique for education, and the ways of knowing that education preferred and privileged. Education has offered credibility, some more so than others, as a way to access particular spaces and resources, while denying others ways of knowing and life experiences because they are not seen as ‘valid sources of data’. For example, oral histories and oral narratives were not seen as valid sources of data for a long time in the field of social sciences. They were not seen as credible, as some would say compared to the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math, who work was more quantitive than qualitative. 

But, going back to this offer of credibility, I have a degree from an Ivy League institution. This degree is written in Latin and informs everyone that I graduated from Brown University with an Honors in Ethnic Studies. Having a degree in Latin makes it inaccessible, yet also showcases a level of elitism because it allows me access to a network of alumni, whose wealth is 5x that of the median income of those on the Navajo Nation reservation. In addition, the degree also allows me to regulate who has access to Brown University, especially during admission season when I was asked to conduct alumni interviews. After each interview, I had to submit a form that asked if I believe the student was ‘worthy’ of attending Brown University and why. I was being asked to gatekeep access to resources while gaining access to the same resources. 

Weaponization

My conception of the native elite is not so much a deficit-based approach, rather what I hoped that I convey is a critique of the manifestations of power that exists within the interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics among Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous ways of knowing are forms of cultural wealth within Yosso’s framework. They provide communities the resiliency to resist colonialism. Yet, they also can be used as a weapon that recycles colonial violence against our own peoples.

The form of weaponization of cultural wealth refers back to what I earlier stated about the native elite – that they have elaborated spheres of influence that allows them to uphold the interests of capitalism and the disenfranchisement of both their own and other minoritized communities within what is currently the United States.

The process of assimilation in the 18th century may appear differently now in the 21st century, but it is still an aspiration of settler colonialism, to strip many of us, Indigenous Peoples, of our ways of knowing in order to be palatable for settler colonial supremacy.

Growing up, I have seen the harm that the native elite causes and the consequences for retaliating against them. In particular, I would name my father’s family as part of the native elite. They had access to spaces and resources on the Navajo Nation that many do not. They are in many ways culturally wealthy. 

My father’s mother was a public official for the local county. She currently serves on the Board for the Navajo Nation Shopping Center and was involved in Diné curriculum and cultural development at Diné College for several years. In addition, she worked under various Navajo Nation presidents, often working alongside them during elections. My father’s mother has a lot of cultural and social capital that are unique to the reservation, and many people know of her and her work.

Her husband, my father’s father, was a teacher for quite some while and is a silversmith. His extended family is involved in the government of the Hopi and Yavapai communities, and are managers of the casinos and hotels. 

Yet, what makes them both part of the native elite is their regulation of Diné identity. Both of my father’s parents had gendered expectations of their grandchildren that they felt aligned with their understandings of Diné ways of knowing, which recycled violence against queer + trans-identifying folx (an example is them making homophobic and transphobic comments about some of their grandchildren). They made judgments of peoples’ bodies and presentations, often deeming them unworthy of being in particular positions (an example is my father’s mother critiquing one of the president’s wife, and saying that she needs to stand up straighter so that she can lose the hump on her back which was ‘inappropriate’ for a first lady). 

I share the above not for self-victimization, but the fact that the most influential natives often are the most violent. I am aware of how influential my father’s family is. Their names carry weight on the Navajo Nation, everyone knows who they are, and the work that they have done. They are seen as non-threatening to non-Native folx because of how they present themselves and how they communicate with them. 

I try to distance myself from my father’s family, mostly because they do not claim me, and I do not claim them, also of the above issues mentioned. Yet, I need to recognize that in some particular ways I benefit from my father’s connection to the native elite on the Navajo Nation reservation. I have access to spaces and resources on the Navajo Nation, simply by mentioning my father’s parents’ name, which is an effect of being part of the native elite. 

Some Self-Reflections

Many of my own writings (Indigenous Hypervisibility, An Ever Changing One, Anti-Blackness in Native Communities, etc.) remind me to ask whose voices are often heard? Whose presence is often tolerated? Whose words are often remembered? I/We need to answer those type of questions or I/we need to be cognizant of those questions when we are in a position of power. Many of us may not be part of what I conceptualize as the native elite, but we still recycle the influences/ violence of the native elite against ourselves and against others.  

The consequence of writing this blog post is that I inadvertently perpetuated cycles of colonial violence because this blog post is inaccessible. There are words, languages, and concepts that I used throughout that showcase my own cultural wealth that I have and that I have used to convey the native elite. It is something I am interrogating and working through, especially as I continue to gain access to spaces and resources that were never meant for an Indigenous-identifying person. I am sorry for the violence I caused and hope that I can re-write this blog post in a much more accessible way.

In conceptualizing how I/we can mitigate colonial violence if often means that I/we need to be critical of ourselves and our peoples. An aspiration for liberation means an interrogation of what I/we see, what I/we do not see, and what I/we refuse to see in a world full of injustice, ones that were created towards us and ones that we recycle because it is easier than fighting against.

The most violent of violence is that from our own people. I/We need to do better and be better. 

References

Capt. Pratt, R. H. 1892. The advantages of mingling Indians with Whites. In I. C. Barrows (Ed.), Proceedings of the national conference of charities and correction. pp. 45-58. Denver, CO: Press of Geo. H. Ellis.

Yosso, T. J. 2005. Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), pp 69-81. 

 

 

P.S. Some people I recommend following via Twitter who have written or who are writing/critiquing power and privilege, especially among Indigenous Peoples are @xodanix3, @lilrednacho, @MahpiyaWaciWin@CanteZuyaWin, and @Hexin_Hussy. 

Please support them as best as you could!

 

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