Academic journal article Southern Cultures

When Heritage Is Hip

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

When Heritage Is Hip

Article excerpt

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Social scientists can go on and on about that most complicated of topics: race and ethnicity. But however varied our opinions about race and its many corollaries-the causes of racial inequalities, for example, or how best to achieve racial justice, or the relationship between race and ethnicity--most of us accept the premise that race is not a biological reality. It is, instead, a "social construction," something that derives its meaning from the interpretations folks give it rather than from its intrinsic properties. It is not that social scientists disregard physical differences among various peoples--to the contrary, we usually place great social (if not inherent) significance on how individuals differ from each other. But these particular differences--skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and the like--need not connote "race" as that term has come to be understood, anymore than, say, eye or hair color, height, body shape, or male pattern baldness do. Conventional "racial" differences have become culturally significant only because people extract meaning from them and impose meaning on them. (1)

Nowhere is the subjective, highly interpretive nature of race more apparent than in the case of Native Americans or "American Indians." Not only has the cultural meaning of "Indian" dramatically changed through time--merely contrast, for instance, the image of the "merciless Indian savages" in the Declaration of Independence with the image of the "noble savage," as portrayed on "Indian-head" pennies and "buffalo" nickels--but the federal government has, throughout history, altered both the very criteria used to determine who is an Indian (what race is a person who is part-Indian?) and the methods used to ascertain "Indianness" (how much "Indianness" makes one an Indian?). It was not until 1960, moreover, that the U. S. Census permitted Americans to define their own race, a move clearly based on the supposition that race is a subjective phenomenon, not an immutable, objective fact. Consequently, estimates of the size of the Native American population have, until the last forty years, been error-prone and subject to much guesswork, territorial changes, and shifts in definition. (2)

Census data indicate the numbers of Native Americans, as well as their demographic rank relative to other racial groups, have grown appreciably in recent decades. In 1960, for example, Indians (including Alaska Natives) numbered about 550,000 and constituted about .3 percent of the population. By 1980, more than 1.4 million Americans, or about .6 percent of the population, told Census enumerators they were Native Americans or Alaska Natives, a three-fold increase in absolute numbers in just two decades. Another million more folks claimed to be solely Indian in 2000, bringing that total to just shy of 2.5 million, or almost one percent of all Americans, and an additional 1.6 million more Americans claimed to be Indian and some other race, or about 4.1 million people altogether. Census estimates in 2006 suggest that about 4.5 million Americans claimed to be wholly or part Native American. Conventional demographic processes--birth and death, and in- and out-migration--simply cannot explain such dramatic increases in the size of a population. Scholars, in fact, credit a variety of social, political and economic factors--such as the heightened pride in being Indian, rising casino revenues, a genealogical "Roots" phenomenon--for such rapid increases of these magnitudes, again emphasizing the constructed nature of race. As a zoos article in The Christian Science Monitor put it, "it's cool to be an Indian." (3)

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With all this in mind, we at Southern Cultures thought readers of this themed issue on Native Americans might be interested to learn what thirty years of the General Social Survey (GSS) tell us about regional patterns in Americans' propensity to claim Indian racial status and ethnic ancestry and how these might have changed in the last generation or so. …

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