By Mollie Halpern
Indigenous rights is a moral imperative. Regardless of traditions, language, religion or location the potential for abuse must be guarded against. Indigenous minorities have been subjected to many atrocities. One is oppressors telling them through government acts who they may include in their tribe.
The Martinez-Cobo report for the UN discusses a variety of factors from indigenous tribes around the world, to find a working definition. The first part of the report states, “… the right to define what is an indigenous person be reserved for the indigenous people themselves. Under no circumstance should we let artificial definitions … define who we are.”
The Orang Asli of Malaysia have 18 different subgroups and do not see themselves as one people, although the government has grouped them together. They are animists, but many have been converted to Islam and Christianity, keeping their egalitarian and spiritual traditions. In Malaysia the definition of the aborigine population has gone from male parent ancestry, to either parent, and now includes any child adopted by the aborigine that is raised in the culture, speaks an aboriginal language, and remains a member of the aboriginal community.
Adoption by a Cherokee parent doesn’t make you Cherokee. You must have a biological parent that you can trace back to an ancestor. Demonstrating this connection to one of the five Cherokee tribes is a requirement.
The Tlingit of Alaska must show descent through their birth certificate. If not available, two members of the tribe must come forward to say they know the person is Tlingit. They must profess the person asking for tribal membership was adopted, or they knew the parent not listed on the birth certificate was Tlingit.
The Hebrew tribe has decided if the mother is Jewish the child is Jewish, regardless of that child’s world views or tenants on faith. They can adhere to Judaism at any time in their life. The Hebrews or Jews use a matriarchal lineage with a patriarchal distinction for Kohains, Levites, and Israelites. Advances in genetic testing show that Kohains share a common lineage on y-DNA. Judaism is ethno-religious like Shintoism. Where Shinto is considered for only those of Japanese heritage, Judaism accepts converts regardless of race or nationality.
The Martinez-Cobo report goes on to give a Native American perspective, “ The Indian peoples of the Americas must be recognized according to their understanding of themselves, rather than being defined by the perception of the value-systems of alien dominant societies.” Therefore, if other people outside of the Hebrew tribe claim some are the descendants of another people, due to fair skin or blonde hair, who cares? The tribe has decided regardless of race they belong. Just as if all of China decided to convert to orthodox Judaism tomorrow, we would accept them. Outsiders don’t get to insist they must have brown skin and dark curly hair, or come from a particular region. Just as each Native American tribe decides “citizenship” to their sovereign lands for themselves, through who they decide is part of their tribe.
Native Americans, have been reluctant to teach their spirituality to anyone outside their tribe. They decide the fate of their own tribal practice, free of alien demands and free from attacks that not teaching spirituality to outsiders is racist. Their oppressors have already taken so much, they do not want their spiritual identity to be pillaged. For First People tribes who have reservations or “sovereign” land, protecting the land from outsiders living there is no more racist than Israel being considered a Jewish country. It would be absurd to insist white people should live on Native reservations, just as it is absurd to ask the Jews to accept their oppressors on their sovereign land.