Stupid Memes I

So there’s a meme I’m seeing announcing that (“fun fact”!) “Native Americans weren’t allowed US citizenship until 1924.”

This is sort of true, in the most technical aspect, the same way that it’s true that the US has only 46 states (MA, PA, VA, and KY are “commonwealths”! Mind blown!). It’s true because of semantic gamesmanship. In other words, it’s false.

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Even a century and half before 1924, a Native American who moved to Boston and became a cooper or a silversmith could become a US citizen. The controversy (by 1924) was over whether Native Americans who belonged to a separate, tribal government and were bound by tribal law were also US citizens. Saying “Native Americans were not allowed US citizenship” means, in this context, the same thing as “Canadians were not allowed US citizenship.” The only complicating factor was that, unlike Canada (thanks for nothing, War of 1812), these Indian nations were located on US soil; so the citizenship of those born into them was legally ambiguous.

The 1924 law that clarified this ambiguity and acknowledged the citizenship of all US-born Native Americans, regardless of tribal affiliation, was not a clear-cut victory for Native Americans, some of whom feared that this would erode Native sovereignty. I’m hardly in a position to judge the relative merits of all arguments here (though I lean towards viewing it positively), I’m just pointing out that the meme is so misleading as to be nonsense. Of course “so misleading as to be nonsense” is in fact not bad a for a meme, assuming we grade on the curve.

What’s interesting in this meme is the way it engages in one of our modern vices, which is assuming that everything in the past should be read in light of our current preoccupations – and not even the most apposite preoccupations. A colonialist reading, or a reading of cultural appropriation, would have made sense in this context, but we tried to apply a racial narrative, and made a blunder of the whole thing.

FamilyTree.jpgThe history of racial attitudes towards (and among!) Native Americans is a topic that deserves a more intelligent and less reductive discussion than a Stupid Meme (TM) like this. I’m not the one to write it, but here’s an interesting artifact from that history.

In 1959 Norman Rockwell painted this family tree of a red-blooded young boy who is 1/16 Native American. In 1959, even a progressive like Rockwell would never have painted a family tree with a black ancestor; he probably would not have painted a family tree with a Jewish ancestor. But just as in our modern age, when being 1/16 Native American is a cool lie to tell at parties, Rockwell saw nothing strange about creating a mixed-race kid. The only controversy was the inclusion of a pirate.

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