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Studies in American Indian Literatures 17.4 (2005) 1-26

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Refiguring Indian Blood through Poetry, Photography, and Performance Art

One of the most provocative issues facing American Indians today concerns the competing definitions of Indian identity.1 Significant questions asked about identity include, Are there characteristics associated with Indianness? Does Indian identity originate from genetics or from cultural affiliation? Finally, Is Indian identity static, or can it change? American Indians and non-Indians have defined Indian identity through law, biology, and culture. All three overlap in specific ways, but more significantly, all have ties to outdated blood quantum standards associated with nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theories of race. While the dominant culture has largely discredited and discontinued the use of the "one-drop rule" historically used to determine a legally codified African American identity, Indians and non-Indians alike continue to foreground blood as the standard for determining American Indian identity.

Blood quantum standards divide and alienate American Indian communities and perpetuate a colonial discourse that promotes internalized self-hatred, alienation, and fractionation. This internalized oppression appears in the work of mixed-blood authors Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna/Sioux/Lebanese) and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene). At the same time, other full- and mixed-blood poets and artists such as Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama/Pit River/Navajo), Teresa Iyall-Santos (Coeur d'Alene/Yakama), James Luna (Luiseño/Diegueño), Marie Annharte Baker (Anishinabe/Irish), and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Muskogee/Diné) create oppositional models of representation that challenge [End Page 1] current paradigms of Indian identity and, at the same time, challenge Indigenous audiences to create alternative understandings of what it means to be Indian. They use their poetry and photography, as well as their own bodies, to create images that either refigure the binary of blood and identity that adds up to "Indian" or reinforce the strength of multifarious Indian identities that cannot be measured by blood.

In Paula Gunn Allen's poem "Dear World," a mixed-blood identity causes internalized oppression and racial self-loathing that manifests itself through an illness that is figured in physical, mental, and spiritual terms. Allen's poem illustrates how blood quantum standards tend to promote internalized self-hatred, forcing the mixed-blood person to blame herself or himself, rather than the vagaries of history and prevalence of non-Indian violence against Indians, for the effects of internalized racism. In the poem, a daughter talks to her mother, who has lupus, about what the mother feels is a connection between her mixed-blood status and her illness. The mother describes lupus as "a disease / of self-attack," similar to "a mugger" who breaks into "your home," and when the police arrive, she tells her daughter, "they beat up on you / instead of on your attackers" (56). In medical terms, lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks normal tissue. In other words, one's own immune system fights itself, literally setting one's own body on fire by creating infflammation as a protective process designed to eliminate a foreign body and protect itself. The daughter recognizes the logic in her mother's analogy. She tells her mother,

that makes sense.
It's in the blood,
in the dynamic.

The daughter realizes,

A halfbreed woman
can hardly do anything else
but attack herself,
her blood attacks itself.
(56) [End Page 2]

She believes, "There are historical reasons for this [the blood attacking itself]" (56). While the daughter positions her mother's illness in a historical context, she also implies that her mother has learned to hate herself, which explains why she "can hardly do anything else but attack herself."

The history of white–Indian relations is written in the blood of the mother's body, exhibiting itself as physical illness and dysfunction. The narrator unites illness and history through blood whose "Indian" side inevitably attacks a foreign intruder, meaning the white, Euramerican blood contained in her mother's body, a foreign blood that has colonized and assumed power over the "Indian country...


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