The Native Elite

Hey, folx. I think it is the time that we talk about a particular trend that I am seeing in our community. 
But first, a story.
In 2013, I was one out of 6 (known) Native scholars who were projected to graduate in 2017 from an elite institution, Brown University. From the onset of my Brown undergrad, I was hypervisible and routinely called a person of color.
This was entirely new for me because racism was foreign me. Much of what I knew about racial minoritized groups came from media stereotypes and limited interactions with racialized folx.
In my section, To Be Diné, To Be Me: Engaging with Solidarity, of, The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom, I wrote about how I struggled with understanding myself as an oppressed individual constantly violated by daily acts of colonization. While also trying to conceptualize what solidarity meant to me. 
I struggled with this because I was and, in many ways, still part of what I call the ‘Native Elite’. (This is the trend.)
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.  

The Native Elite includes:

  1. Natives who attend and graduate from Ivy Leagues – not limited to undergrad. Includes legacies and non-first generational Natives.
  2. Natives who have a Ph.D. 
  3. Natives whose combined income is above 60,000. 
  4. Natives who make jokes at the expense of other Natives. For example, jokes about life on the Rez, Spirituality, at the expense of women, trans folx, etc. 
  5. Natives who are non-threatening to the Non-Native Elite. These are the types who play upon tropes in a matter that does not displease or offend White Non-Natives.
  6. Natives who believe they are ’empowering’ their communities and create savior complexes (a state of mind which a person holds the belief that they are destined to become a savior/assist or help others, this can manifest in oppressive ways, that are paternalistic).
  7. Cis-Native men & women, emphasis on native men. Much of Western society emphasizes and privileges masculinity.

The list could go on. It is not exhaustive or exclusive.

The Native Elite are in influential positions. They affect the trajectory of Native Nations. They lead the conversations about Native issues. Above all, they decide who is Indigenous and who is not. 

Any defiance against the Native Elite is subject to retaliatory actions.

Devon Abbott Miheusah (Choctaw) provides a critique against what they call the ‘Academic Gatekeepers’ in the book; Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Schools and Empowering Communities. Mieusah (p. 37) states, and I quote:

“Other professors are not racist, arrogant, or especially ignorant. But they are jealous, which may be the worst kind of gatekeeper, and they are well-known across all spectrums of academia. Jealous Gatekeepers are determined to keep power out of the hands of scholars of all races and cultures, especially those who are highly published, awarded, and secure in their stature outside the university. The gatekeepers [cause] harm because their behavior is calculated and purposefully; they routinely rumor-monger, and lie about their object of jealousy.” p. 37.

“Scholars who challenge these gatekeeping strategies, especially those with few or no allies, will be subject to retaliatory action because often they are the only ones who will speak up.” p. 44 

This is an unfortunate reality for many “new,” up and coming Native folx who routinely defy the status quo. The Native Elite exists in many spaces not solely within the confines of communities. They exist in every subset of institutions and systems.  

Within the education system, similar to Miheusah, the Native Elite are those who use their positions to influence both Native and Non-Native thought(s) and knowledge(s). 

One of the (many) things that I struggle with, and that I am increasingly becoming aware of is how we can achieve liberation.
The reality is that elite schools, such as Brown and many others (i.e. Ivy League Schools), colonized and influence Native youth. Prominent Natives, who are the Native Elite, influence who speaks in our White-Washed-Colonized World. They amplify certain voices and silence others. Prominent Natives/Native Elite initiate change and defy the status quo, on their terms. 

Identifying the Native Elite provides a sense of recognition for many of us, who struggle with the power relations.

It challenges those who tell us to: “Keep your eyes down, your mouth shut, and listen to me. You don’t know anything.”

Liberation becomes complicated when the people you’re risking your entire sense of selves are the people who don’t want to lose their meager amount of privilege and power they acquired.
In addition,  from her 2016 TedxTalk, The Urgency of Intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw, advocates a phenomenon in naming; “where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem, and when you can’t see a problem, you pretty much can’t solve it.” 
In naming the Native Elite, I am recognizing the violence that they impose and create through silencing my and other native voices. I am naming a problem that is occurring in our communities. It affects the growth, and efforts for liberation.
There are many prominent natives who are oppressive and awful. I could list their names, but I do not have the social capital or safety network to support my claims. It’s my word against theirs. Unfortunately, my voice does not carry a lot of weight at the moment.
Maybe someday, but that day is not today.  

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