Saturday, August 8, 2015
Some years ago when I was discussing illegal immigration in American Government I unwisely asked this question: “Why do these people come here?” I was speaking of undocumented workers from Mexico and I knew, but momentarily forgot, that “these people” was a politically incorrect phrase.
One of my students called me out on it, after class. The young man was Native American and he explained that he considered Latin Americans in general to be his people, i.e., to share a common lineage, because their populations had a large share of Native American ancestors.
I acknowledged my faux pas, but I also pointed out something that had never occurred to either of us until that moment. Inca and Aztec are, I suspect, rather far removed from the Lokota people in the history of their tribes. Are modern Mexicans to be viewed as Native Americans because all Native Americans are in some sense one people? If so, then I can make the same argument that the Mexicans are my people. After all, they also have Spanish ancestors and the Spaniards, like my English, Irish, French, and German ancestors, are all “Europeans”. You see the problem.
Native American tribes have identities that are clearly pre-Columbian. The concept of Native Americans, however, is post-Columbian. It makes sense only to distinguish the aboriginal populations from European Johnny-Come-Lately colonials. These distinctions, like all nationalities, are mythological. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as one recognizes what is really going on. One need only consider the current power of Hindu Nationalism in India to recognize that the power of such concepts to unify one group is usually part and parcel of what sets that group in opposition to another.