For April Fools’ Day: Whither the Wanabi?*

Everywhere they go in Indian country, the Wanabi are despised and ridiculed.  They seem to get everything wrong.  They never take advantage of a good opportunity to shut up.  They ask stupid questions and then hear what they want to hear, no matter what the answer is.  They have no dress sense.  They call the regalia “costumes.”  Many of them can’t dance, and the ones who can insist on doing the wrong steps, which might really screw up the weather one of these days. 

On what is plausibly “their” day, let me play the white/black/yellow/brown devil’s advocate for a moment.

The Wanabi are numerous, many of them are wealthy, and they support all kinds of Indian political causes, businesses, and cultural events.  Many of them aren’t actually stupid or rude – they’re just uninformed.  You’d be surprised at how much some of them can learn with a little patient, knowledgeable guidance.

After all, the Wanabi will never meet the mandatory criteria for federal recognition.  They have no treaty rights.  They have never banded together to act as a unit, and are unlikely to do so in the future.  They’re only allowed to operate casinos in states where everyone else can. 

Do you have knowledge or skills in traditional arts or other practices?  Would you like to pass that on to your kids, but they just want to drink Coke, play Xbox, and listen to hip-hop?  Eventually, they will have kids who will rebel against them by wanting to learn the ancestral ways.  In the meantime, unless everything you know has to be kept in the family or community, why not sift through the Wanabi for someone teachable, discreet, and trustworthy to help you hold down the fort in the meantime?

Behind every goofy-looking Wanabi facade, there might be a good heart, a willing pair of hands, a roomy and reliable vehicle, a school that pays well for “Culture Day” speakers, or 300 cubicle-neighbors poised to buy raffle tickets. 

So, next time you hear the traditional Wanabi greeting, “Jutek vee-sah?” why not smile and return the traditional response, “Yah, witek vee-sah; amextu!”

(If you don’t “get it,” try saying it out loud).


*The Wanabi “tribe” consists of people who aren’t Indians, but act like they “wanna be.”  (I’m part Wanabi myself, but I can’t prove it because my great-grandpa’s dog ate the records : ) ).

A long time ago, in a country that I am sitting in right now, someone who wanted to be an Indian (and could make her- or himself useful to a tribe) often could be.  Tribes freely adopted non-Indians as well as Indians from other tribes.  One particularly fascinating and successful category of adoptees were the “Black Seminoles” – Africans who escaped American slavery, joined the Seminole Nation, and served in the Seminole Wars

Then came the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.  (See – there IS some law in this article!)  After the dismal failure of the well-meant but disastrous Dawes Allotment Act to fully (and forcibly) assimilate American Indians into European-American culture and life (and incidentally grab som hu-u-ge – tracts of land), the 1934 Act gave tribes the power to organize their own governments and to write their own constitutions.  This included the authority to determine who belonged to the tribe.  Unfortunately, the Allotment Act’s decades of starvation, vigorous discouragement of any kind of tribal-community assembly, and education confined to Euro-style agriculture, minimal-skill trades, and single-family housekeeping had left Indians in no shape to jump right up and bang out constitutions that would meet with the required approval of the Secretary of the Interior. 

Enter the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) (“We’re from the government and we’re here to help you!”) with hard-to-read but easy-to-sign boilerplate constitutions that mainly provided that all significant tribal-government actions required BIA approval.  In the area of deciding who belonged to the tribe, the BIA warned the tribal leaders that unless they limited enrollment to a certain degree of tribal blood, their treaty rights that included per-member annuities could go up in a puff of smoke.  Although there was some possibly legitimate concern about fraud at the time, we ended up with results like full-blooded Indians with fathers from matrilineal tribes and mothers from patrilineal tribes being unable to enroll in either, or to inherit from either parent’s estate.  Now tribal citizens have to carry “CDIB cards” showing they have a Certified Degree of Indian Blood and (dang!! I can’t remember who said this and apparently I’m not the only one) “ironically, only horses, dogs and Indians have to know their pedigree.”

As a result, the Wanabi are left with no place to go.  Who knows – their numbers might suddenly and drastically decrease if they did have the option of paying tribal taxes, meeting the daily Commodity Cooking Challenge, being constantly volunteered for community service, having a whole bunch of people “all up in their business” all the time, and – let’s not forget – living up to the cumulative expectations of seven generations of ancestors.

From the ‘1930’s through the ‘1950’s, the dominant Wanabi demographic was kids playing “cowboys-and-Indians,” inspired by Western-themed (as told from the settlers’ side) movies and TV shows.  (“Cowboys-and-developers” would better reflect the current conflict; maybe I’ll teach my friends’ kids that one).  In the ‘1960’s and early ‘1970’s it was hippies and other far-leftists identifying with all oppressed peoples to show solidarity (or just to have an excuse to take peyote), whether the oppressed peoples wanted them or not.  Since the late ‘1970’s the New Agers have dominated.  The New Age spiritual movement was characterized by a refreshing open-mindedness to all spiritual beliefs (at least on the surface – there was still the occasional subtext of “but mine is of course the best”).  However, the unfortunate flip side was that a horde of charlatans soon found they could easily exploit all that openness to make some major, accountability-free bucks.  Many, perhaps most, American Indian cultures keep their spiritual practices to themselves, so the charlatans (not all Wanabi, either) had an open field to make up any old thing and sell it as “ancient, traditional Indian spirituality” for heap big wampum (and sometimes “in-kind” payments, on the nature of which I shall not elaborate).

The Wanabi cultural oddity goes back further, and is much wider, than this:  those who want to know more might want to read Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture by S. Elizabeth Bird.

One thought on “For April Fools’ Day: Whither the Wanabi?*

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