In a small clearing in the middle of the Shawnee National Forest, Barney Bush sprinkles a handful of glittery dust into a bonfire and pokes at the night sky with an eagle feather as if signing some kind of phantom letter.
It’s the second evening of Reconnection Days, an annual festival held on the third weekend in September by the Vinyard Indian Settlement, a small nonprofit entity 345 miles south of Chicago that’s the literal stomping grounds of a tribe of self-identifying Native Americans led by Bush, a distinguished poet, author, activist, and educator. Three times a year, the Vinyard Indians invite the public to join them on their 25-acre parcel of land a mile north of the speck-on-the-map town of Herod, Illinois, to participate in Native American-themed feasts, crafts, and traditional ceremonies that they say were quietly passed down to them from their Shawnee ancestors.
Bush is a hulking figure. The 73-year-old strolls the grounds of the settlement with the help of a long walking stick. He’s nearly bald on top but has a knot of long dark hair hanging from the back of his head, and he wears a tiny red stud in each ear. Like many rural downstate Illinoisans, he speaks with something of a southern drawl. When Bush calls himself an Indian, for instance, he sounds as if he’s saying “End-yun.”
“Glad to see so many young people here tonight,” Bush says to the crowd gathered around the blaze. There’s wistfulness in his sonorous voice. “We’d like to make more use of this place while we still have some elders alive.”
The Vinyards say they once practiced such rituals in secret, in fear of the hostile white world all around them. But in recent years they’ve made a more public embrace of what they assert to be their native heritage. They aim to expand the settlement’s footprint both physically and culturally—to buy more acres of nearby property (“our homelands,” Bush says) to preserve them from energy companies who would use the land to hydrofrack for oil and natural gas and strip-mine for coal. They also want to build a cultural center on the settlement to preserve their heritage and bring tourism dollars and maybe even some hope to an area that’s desperately in need of economic relief.
In May 2015, the Vinyards were on the verge of becoming Illinois’s first state-recognized Indian tribe. The Vinyard Indian Settlement of Shawnee Indians Recognition Act, HB 3127, which had unanimously passed in the Illinois house, seemed like a lock in the senate until members of a coalition of federally recognized Indian tribes traveled to Springfield to testify against the Vinyard Indians, accusing them of being white people posing as natives. The senate responded to the outcry by delaying the bill. Now, more than two years later, it remains stuck in bureaucratic limbo.
Members of the Vinyards suggest their critics are playing politics to protect their own share of federal funds divvied up among the native population. According to Bush, the tribes’ testimony and the information they provided to the senate were patently false. “They gave the senators so much misinformation that . . . I think they did more harm to themselves in trying to demean us.”
Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee Tribe, one of the leaders who went before the state senate in the matter, often compares Bush to Rachel Dolezal. The 40-year-old from Spokane, Washington, not only successfully assumed the identity of a black woman for much of her adult life before being exposed as white by her parents in June 2015, but also ascended into leadership roles in the African-American community and centered her life around her chosen identity. She’d been head of an NAACP chapter, a black studies teacher, and a member of a police oversight commission. According to Barnes, Bush has played the same game as Dolezal—only for much longer.
“The world should see that Bush is like Dolezal, where he’s this racial or ethnicity shifter,” Barnes tells me. (The implication is that Bush dyes his hair black and applies tanning spray to appear Native American.) “These [ceremonial] activities he presents for people are minstrel shows. When they do those pantomimes, that is offensive and racist.”
Tonight what’s drawn a small group through the thick black wood to a spot just south of the Vinyard Indian Settlement is a ritual Bush calls the stomp dance. Tribe members cluster around the fire alongside curious locals and young activists from the Carbondale area, some of whom occupied the Standing Rock encampment during last year’s Dakota Pipeline protests. Outsiders are allowed to dance if they follow the rules: no pictures, no recordings, no drugs or alcohol; women are required to cover their legs with skirts or long pieces of uncut fabric.
Mark Denzer, a Vinyard Indian elder and executive director of the settlement, instructs those gathered to hold hands in a ring around the blaze. Earlier in the night, while Bush prepared squash for a shared feast, his granddaughter Haleigh used pliers to affix dozens of deer hooves to a pair of leather chaps that she’s wearing as part of the ceremony. As the group begins to shuffle counterclockwise around the fire, the percussive clacking of the hooves echoes through the warm air. Denzer begins a series of evocative call-and-response songs in an indecipherable language.
For a moment after the music stops the forest goes quiet until eerie howls from a pack of coyotes pierce the silence. Bush chuckles knowingly, as if he’s somehow summoned a kind of animal magic to the middle of the southern-Illinois wilderness. Shadows from the flickering flames dance on the faces of those assembled. There are expressions of delight and wonder. Raw encounters with nature are scarce these days. Maybe that’s what I’m doing here. Maybe that’s what everyone is here for. To brush up against something that feels primal and authentic.
Still, Bush wants the Vinyard Indian Settlement to be defined by more than Native American song-and-dance routines. “I remember my granddad asking me why I did [powwow dances]. And I said, ‘Well, I am proud to be an Indian.’ And he said, ‘Don’t you already know you’re an Indian?’ He’s right. If we can maintain ourselves here culturally as an entity and keep to some semblance of traditional ways and grow on those and be more engaged in the community and social causes . . . ” He trails off, seeming to continue rattling off in his head his list of ambitions for his tribe.
But instead of expanding their reach and impact, the Vinyard Indians find themselves devoting what limited resources they have to proving their identity, says Georgia De La Garza, the settlement’s business manager. (“I’m not a Vinyard Indian, but I’m Cherokee,” she says. “My great-grandmother was on the Trail of Tears.”) “I think it’s really sad that they’ve had to prove who they are. Sometimes I hear Barney’s voice and hear the stories he grew up with and see him practice the traditions of being a Shawnee on a daily basis. For him to be denied, it’s heartbreaking. Really heartbreaking.”
History, as they say, is written by the winners—but the consolation prize for the losers is that they sometimes get naming rights. America in particular has a tendency to honor people and things systematically uprooted, destroyed, or murdered to make room for the very thing being named. It’s a cruel irony, for instance, that the names of so many of our suburbs and subdivisions carry the words “forest,” “deer,” “fox,” or “meadow,” memorializing the flora and fauna cut down to make way for modern civilization.
It’s far from a 20th-century phenomenon. Illinois, of course, takes its name from a confederation of Indian tribes also known as the Illiniwek. The group is estimated to have numbered more than 10,000 people in 1673. But the war and disease that came with the influx of European settlers into the territory ravaged the population. By the time the Illiniwek ceded the last of their land to the U.S. in 1832—just 14 years after the state of Illinois officially joined the union—they were reduced to a village of fewer than 300 people.
When in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially named the 280,000 acres of southern-Illinois woodlands the Shawnee National Forest, Shawnee Indians and other native tribes had been a rarity there for at least a century. What Indians remained in Illinois or anywhere east of the Mississippi in the 1830s were swept away by current president Donald Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, who in his 1830 inaugural address articulated a profoundly racist notion that came to be called manifest destiny: “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can divine or industry execute?” Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 worked as advertised, removing 46,000 Native American people from their land to the west. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail serves today as a stark reminder of the grueling journey of thousands of Cherokees through the Shawnee National Forest en route to land designated as Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
A smattering of Indians managed to avoid the long arm of Jackson’s removal policy and remained in the midwest by assimilating into white society. They dressed, acted, and spoke like whites, and sometimes adopted Christianity as part of the smokescreen. “A lot of tribal communities really did hide in plain sight,” says Doug Kiel, a citizen of the Oneida Nation and a Northwestern University assistant professor who lectures on Native American history. “It was either defy the ruling and continue to fight for territory, be sent off to reservations out of the way of white expansionism, or try to fit into white society as best they could.”
The Vinyards cite oral histories passed down from their elders to support their claim of being descended from one of these groups of assimilated Indians. According to tribal lore, about 80 of their Shawnee ancestors led by Chief Sedowii crossed the Ohio River in 1809 or 1810 near what is now Shawneetown, Illinois, to escape a colonial militia.
The militia had been pursuing the Shawnee from Ohio to prevent them from joining the resistance army of Tecumseh, the Shawnee Indian political leader and war chief. Chief Sedowii’s people encountered a different group of Shawnees and French salt makers, who briefly provided them with food and shelter before sending them on their way into the wilderness of what is now Gallatin County, in southeastern Illinois. As the story goes, they journeyed a few miles to the area currently known as Karbers Ridge and came upon a friendly community of German immigrants, all of whom had taken up the surname of Vinyard. Bush says some of the Shawnee were removed to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Blytheville, Arkansas, and later ended up in what would become Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Others stayed and intermarried with the German settlers, taking the name Vinyard as a form of camouflage.
“My granddad said they stayed there and kind of blended in with the German immigrants. That small group of people wanted to survive, so they did what they had to do,” Bush says. “The local white folks got used to those Indians being there, but they made fun of the Germans by calling it the Vinyard Indian Settlement. That name got started as kind of derisive term.”
According to Bush, some residents of the Vinyard Indian Settlement kept remnants of old Shawnee culture and practices alive in secret until the early 1950s. “When my grandfather passed on in about 1953, the assimilation had become so pervasive that no one wanted to continue anything in public. So they asked different members of the family to take over the settlement because no one would, including my own mother.” Growing up in Herod in the Vinyard Indian Settlement area, Bush says he always felt like an Indian, even if some of his family members tried to hide from their heritage. “It hangs over us like a cloud,” he says of his ancestry, however disputed. “It’s sometimes a cloud of good water or a cloud of bad water, but it’s always hung over us. And we all know that. And there’s people in the family who left here to get away from it all.”
—Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee Tribe
Like the Shawnee people he claims to descend from, Bush lived a rather nomadic existence for many years, moving to native communities throughout Oklahoma and other western states, including Colorado, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. “When I was about 16 or 17, I jumped in the van with my cousins and just took off west,” Bush says. “They’re the ones who took me into the powwow culture. I started dancing and feeling very proud of myself. I was manifesting some part of my ancestry.”
Bush’s involvement in the Native American community deepened in the late 60s and 70s as he became a “red power” activist and organizer associated with the American Indian Movement, the civil rights campaign that formed in Minneapolis in 1968 and is closely associated with the Black Panthers. He blossomed as an educator, teaching writing and English in various Native American schools, including the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was instrumental in establishing an Oklahoma school for Cheyenne Indians called the Institute of the Southern Plains. Bush is perhaps best known as a multidisciplinary artist. He’s published several books of poetry, and his writing has been anthologized in collections like the 1988 Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry. He had a recording deal with Paris-based Nato Records, which released several of his musical and spoken-word performances, including the double album Remake of the American Dream, featuring music and vocals by Bush and English composer Tony Hymas on piano. Guitarist Jeff Beck plays over a reading of a Bush poem about Indian chief Kintpuash (aka Captain Jack) on the 1998 Hymas experimental jazz album Oyaté. Bush even opened for Joey Ramone at the 1996 Hodiits’a II music festival in Navajo territory in Arizona. “Bush’s poetry reading, his message about strength, unity and determination in the face of constant set-backs was potent and resounding,” MTV News wrote of the performance. “Bush, a kindly older gentleman with shoulder-length salt and pepper hair, stood defiantly at center stage and read from his notebook, zapping the kids with lines like, ‘I was once told that the pen was mightier than the sword, I don’t know if that’s true, I think greed might be stronger.’ Bush railed against the ‘vampires of the system’ and the ‘cultural pedophiles’ who tried to deny the children of the [reservation] their culture.”
It was also during the late 90s that Bush met with his first cousin and several other members of the Vinyard Indian Settlement, who asked him to return to southern Illinois from New Mexico, take over as chairman, and revive it from its near dormant state. He agreed on the condition that the tribe’s ambitions go beyond ceremony.
“What does it mean to continue the culture? Does it mean just to have feast days? Because I’ve always been a bastard when it comes to ceremony and the value of culture,” he says. “I want culture to do something. I don’t want it to just look pretty—all the feathers and the bells and jingles and buckskins and fringe. Let’s have a [political and cultural] impact here in southern Illinois.”
Two centuries after European settlers supplanted the Shawnee, Illiniwek, and other native peoples, it’s the whites who are now vanishing from the Ohio River Valley area of “Little Egypt” in southern Illinois surrounding the Vinyard Indian Settlement. The cause isn’t war or government-sanctioned removal but economic deprivation. Over the last generation, globalization and outsourcing have scrubbed the region of much of its manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs.
The state has bled an estimated 300,000 factory workers since 2000, which disproportionately affects southern-Illinois workers. Little Egypt is still coal-mining country, but because the methods of modern coal production require fewer miners, companies like Peabody Energy keep extracting more wealth from the ground while paying fewer locals to do the dirty work. (Fifty-six million tons of coal was produced in 2015 compared with 33 million in 2010, according to the Illinois Coal Association.) Factor in America’s so-called war on coal, which continues in the form of strict new environmental regulations, and Illinois has lost about 1,300 jobs in coal over the last few years, according to the Chicago Tribune, bringing the total number employed to only 2,800, a fraction of the 50,000 working during the industry’s peak in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped state government keeps cutting millions annually (including $19 million in 2017 alone) from the budget of Southern Illinois University—a regional economic hub with an estimated $859 million economic impact on the southern 23 counties of Illinois, according to a 2011 study.
Pope County, where the Vinyard Indian Settlement sits, teems with enough rugged natural beauty to mask the area’s haunted, empty quality. The abundance of decrepit, vacant, or uninhabitable farmhouses and storefronts makes it easy to imagine a time in the near future in which humans are extinct from the place. Forty percent of all homes in the county are vacant—much higher than the 10 percent statewide vacancy rate. Since the 2010 census, the county’s population has dropped 6 percent, to 4,470.
Pope County’s biggest break in decades came in late August. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world flocked to the Shawnee National Forest and surrounding towns to view the so-called Great American Eclipse; the southern tip of Illinois was in the path of totality, which made the area a prime destination. “I had rooms booked for a year and a half” in advance, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Golconda, the seat of Pope County, told me. But the shot in the arm lasted only a weekend.
—Barney Bush, Vinyard Indian Settlement chairman
Three weeks after the eclipse, Golconda, where 13,000 Cherokees once crossed the Ohio River by ferry along the Trail of Tears, is practically a ghost town. There are more vultures circling overhead than there are people in the streets. Some large houses situated along the riverbanks—even those lining Columbus Avenue, once considered the wealthy district of this town of 668—are boarded up or in a state of disrepair. Some look as if they would crumble in a stiff wind. The rich have all moved away, and what’s left of the population is disproportionately poor—the poverty rate in Golconda is 25 percent, nearly double the rate in the rest of the state. (For children under the age of 18, it’s 43 percent.) Alcoholism and drug addiction are a growing problem, and the region is ground zero for Illinois’s opioid crisis. According to a June report from the Belleville News-Democrat based on numbers obtained from the Illinois Department of Health, the number of prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers in Illinois’s 16 southern counties grew 30 percent from 2008 to 2016—much more than in the rest of the state.
“We have a lot of dysfunction in these counties down here that needs to be attended to—as much down here as in the inner city. But because we have so many trees left, you just can’t see it,” Bush says. “All we’ve got left is fracking and strip mining.”
Environmental destruction by greedy corporations is a persistent theme in Bush’s poetry. His 1985 book of poems Inherit the Blood told the story of a grandmother confronted with an encroaching coal mine. “I’ve always been concerned about the idea of people destroying the landscape for coal or for oil,” Bush says, “and destroying our old village sites and graveyards in order to get to all of that.”
At an anti-fracking lecture several years ago, Bush and De La Garza became fast friends. (“I said at the meeting that we needed to organize and stop the fracking,” De La Garza recalls, “and Barney stood up and said ‘Oh-ho!’ and turned around and shook my hand, and that was the beginning of our friendship right there.”) She’s an outspoken environmental activist and founder of Shawnee Hills and Hollers, an organization advocating for a fossil-fuel-free southern Illinois, and a community organizer for an anti-mining group called Justice for Rocky Branch. (“I’m really known by the coal industry here,” she says. “I fight it tooth and nail.”)
In addition to the environmental activism its members are engaged in, Bush and other Vinyard Indian Settlement folks are in the midst of dreaming up a Native American cultural center for Pope County. “It would be amazing for the community,” De La Garza says. “We would like to be able to have a cultural living center for the people, for the elders to teach youth crafts and stories and the language, learn farming and gardening, and also a place for the public to be educated. We’ve been archiving flints, tools. The Shawnee are known for their beadwork—we’ve got some beautiful old beadwork, leatherwork, and moccasins.”
De La Garza has been a catalyst for the Vinyards. A couple years ago, she convinced Bush and the six-member tribal council to earn income on their land by converting a cabin on the property dubbed the Mak-Wa Lodge into an Airbnb. At the end of 2014 she pushed the tribe to begin seeking recognition from the state of Illinois. The official status, De La Garza told them, would be an advantage in applying for grants and obtaining federal money to help purchase more of what the Vinyards call their homelands.
Because of her activism work, De La Garza knows her way around the halls of power in Springfield. She eventually drummed up support from state rep Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg (who resigned in September for unspecified health reasons) and southern-Illinois state senator Gary Forby, who lost in 2016. For southern-Illinois legislators, the Vinyard Indians and their proposed cultural center and programming posed an opportunity to draw tourism dollars to an area starved for them. Phelps first introduced HB 3127 to the Illinois house in February 2015 with two Democratic legislators, representatives Greg Harris of Chicago and Stephanie Kifowit of Aurora, serving as cosponsors. The bill would make the tribe “eligible for any services and benefits provided by the United States and state agencies to Indians that are otherwise available to state-recognized tribes.” State recognition of native tribes isn’t a common practice. Only 16 states have voted to acknowledge tribes—partly because it’s largely a symbolic gesture. State recognition, however, does sometimes open a door to the possibility of smaller federal grants. Between 2007 and 2010, 24 federal programs awarded more than $100 million to 26 tribes that weren’t federally recognized, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
In April, HB 3127 passed unanimously, 113-0, in the Illinois house. It seemed all but guaranteed to pass in the senate until May 2015, when several federally recognized Indian tribes—including the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Miami Tribe, and the Absentee Shawnee Tribe—wrote letters to lawmakers and sent representatives to Springfield to testify that the Vinyards were frauds, fake Indians appropriating native culture.
Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe spoke out against the Vinyards during a senate hearing. “This happens all the time,” he says. “There are 400 fake Cherokee tribes. There are 80-some fake Shawnee ones. And a similar number of fake Delawares.
“We don’t want—we don’t believe [the Vinyards] can get federal recognition. They can’t meet the criteria. They’ve done the DNA testing. And it’s not there. They’re not Native American at all,” Barnes says. “The problem is that the state of Illinois has no established criteria. You can self-identify and say ‘I am Indian,’ but that doesn’t make you a nation. That does not make you have the rights to enter into a treaty with the government as a nation of people that preexisted the United States.”
For support, the tribes critical of the Vinyards’ claims cited Illinois and Indiana historical records detailing the removal of Shawnee around the War of 1812 and during Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. They included a letter from Lee Ann Flynn, Bush’s cousin, in which she states she researched the family genealogy and found no relation to Shawnee Indians in their bloodlines. “I have asked but never received any documentation from Barney or the Board of Directors of the Vinyard Indian Settlement,” Flynn wrote. “In fact I was told the documentation I was seeking was ‘the white man’s way of hiding us,’ which makes no sense to me because the census records do exist and show all family members to be ‘white.’ ”
According to De La Garza, the federally recognized tribes submitted a “fake genealogy report where they had Barney’s dad married to his grandmother.” The senate then offered the Vinyard Indians the chance to submit their own genealogy report, De La Garza says. “They said, ‘If you prove you are who say you are, then we’ll come back to the table.’ ” She obtained the volunteer services of a former boss, Juli Claussen, a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, who compiled her own report that was submitted to the legislature. It concludes that Bush and his family members are, in fact, descended from Shawnee: “I hold the oral history as credible in this case because it is consistent between individuals from various branches of the family; it is detailed; the non-verbal cues of the interviewees were consistent with truthfulness; a great deal of the information on identities of ancestors was verifiable by the official records and its accuracy confirmed when cross-checked with those records; and remnants of Native American rituals, language and traditions have been preserved and carried on by descendants.”
De La Garza claims that the other tribes testified against the Vinyards out of greed. “They would be losing some of the federal funds. They want everything for themselves. They don’t like to share,” she says. “They offered Barney, ‘If you try to get federally recognized we’ll say you’re Shawnee. But if you say that you don’t want federal recognition, then you’re not Indian.’ That’s what they told him, point-blank. They said, ‘If you want to be federally recognized, you’re Shawnee.’ That way they can come here and grab the land and build casinos. It’s very interesting. Very political.”
According to Barnes, the Shawnee made no such offer to Bush. “That’s completely preposterous,” he says. “We don’t want [casinos] there.”
After testimony from Barnes and other Indians, the senate responded by sending the bill to legislative purgatory. It bounced around various committees and was amended and subjected to further readings over the next year before being sent back to the rules committee in June 2016. The final entry in the bill’s status, dated January 10, 2017, is “session sine die”—postponed indefinitely. De La Garza says Forby told her the committee would bring the bill back to the table after the Vinyards submitted their own genealogy report supporting their claim to a Shawnee bloodline. They did so in early 2016. “We handed in the big book to the senate and they called committee and said, ‘Absolutely, you are who you say you are. We want this to happen.’ But this was in 2016.”
The Vinyards are trying anew to find sponsors in the senate to revive HB 3127 for 2018, but so far there are no takers.
My numerous calls and e-mails to Phelps and Forby, the former legislators who’d originally supported the Vinyards, went unanswered.
Barnes wasn’t surprised those who’d once championed the Vinyards’ quest for official standing wouldn’t want to speak on the record about the issue. “They were clueless and had been uneducated. And they didn’t understand federal Indian policy. Once they found out that they made a foray into the federal arena and made no provisions to check the authenticity of [Bush’s] claim, I think they feel embarrassed now,” he says. “They had almost just created a brand-new tribe out of a bunch of Europeans.”
The population of people who self-identify as Indians keeps climbing, according to U.S. Census figures. The number of people who claimed to be American Indian or Alaska Native jumped 18 percent from 2000 to 2010 to 2.9 million—double the rate of growth of the total U.S. population. The percentage increase was even more pronounced among those of a multiracial background: 2.3 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races in 2010—a 39 percent increase from the 2000 census.
“Why is it that everyone claims to be Native American?” Barnes asks. (There have been several cases in recent years in which white people have claimed to have Indian blood without being able to provide substantial proof; Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, actor Johnny Depp, and academics Ward Churchill and Susan Taffe Reed are among them.) “What is this exoticism that allows people to think that being a Native American gives them a sort of cachet?”
It’s a trend that began to take off in the 70s. “All of a sudden, with the 1970 census, during the red-power movement, a lot of people began to feel more comfortable claiming to be Indian,” says Kiel, the Northwestern lecturer. “Some had the perception that it meant there were fiscal benefits and you were entitled to free stuff, which is often not the case.”
There are also cultural reasons. “I think it’s often an attempt to escape the blandness and emptiness of whiteness with something that feels exotic,” Kiel says. In more left or liberal circles, especially where there’s an increasing call for white people to “check their privilege,” a native identity may confer upon the claimant the benefit of speaking as a member of a marginalized group.
That’s not to say that when people misidentify their bloodlines, it’s always done on purpose. Sometimes false family lore is passed down for generations. Warren, for example, has said that she grew up with stories of her family’s native ancestry. “I am very proud of my heritage,” the senator told NPR in 2012. “These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I’m very proud of it.”
—Doug Kiel, a citizen of the Oneida Nation and a Northwestern University assistant professor who lectures on Native American history
I also know this firsthand. The day after I visited the Vinyard Indian Settlement, I carried out my father’s last wishes: to bury his ashes in an urn bearing the fleur-de-lis as an homage to his French heritage. His single-minded obsession with his family tree led him to decorate his bedroom like a French museum. He hung a fleur-de-lis flag and shield and posters of French monarchy. He wore necklaces and rings displaying the symbol. But for decades my dad had been infatuated with what he believed was his Irish heritage—so much so that he once planned to change our family’s surname to something more Gaelic. The French fixation came just three years ago, after he got a DNA test through the ancestry website 23andMe. The results showed that the family history my great-grandfather had written 40 years ago—in which he claimed that my dad’s side of the family was overwhelmingly Irish and British, and that we were probably related to the explorer John Smith—was mostly bunk. Our dominant ancestry, the test revealed, is French, and my dad adopted it like someone else might change his allegiance to a sports team.
Being Native American in the U.S. certainly has different connotations than being French or Irish. Who is counted as native and who isn’t is essential to the 567 federally recognized tribal nations who have a formal relationship with the U.S. government. Billions of dollars are divided and distributed every year to the tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (In his proposed budget, President Trump plans to allocate 2.5 billion to the bureau, $303 million less than in 2017.) The more tribes there are, the thinking goes, the fewer the federal resources available for each. That’s partly why the battle over native authenticity has grown increasingly fierce. In a New York Times Magazine story published in January, David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, said there’s been a surge in tribal members being “disenrolled”—between 5,000 and 9,000 people in 79 tribes across 20 states since the mid-90s.
The way the federal government decides who qualifies as an Indian is through the so-called blood quantum measurement, a rather arbitrary percentage of bloodlines related to ancestry. The concept of the blood quantum dates back hundreds of years, but it didn’t become a part of federal law until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which allowed federally recognized tribes to form constitutions and statutes to define their own membership criteria. As a result, most tribes began adopting blood quantum requirements that demand a member’s blood be at least one-16th to one-half that of their tribal ancestry. The Vinyard Indian Settlement has set blood requirements for what Bush calls its “citizens” at a quarter Indian, with at least an eighth of that being Shawnee. But actually determining blood quantum has always been an inexact science that involves consulting incomplete records—often from times when Native Americans weren’t counted (the U.S. Census didn’t officially include Native Americans until 1890).
The focus on blood quantum measurements also prioritizes race over all other factors. “It’s a fraught system that excludes many,” Kiel says. “Part of the problem is it’s a European concept to define Indians by their blood. But for many native people, ideas of belonging, kinship, and communities go beyond what’s in blood. People could be adopted into a community. But increasingly, since the 19th century, we’ve relied on a certain magical number to determine your Indianness, and it becomes the way the U.S. rules Indians. The U.S. makes a census and sets a bar, but it’s entirely an external measure.”
Asked specifically about the Vinyard Indian claim, Kiel wavers. “Questions of identity in Indian country are always so hard. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical because there are a lot of pretenders. It’s just true,” he says. “But there are gray areas. One of the reasons why the [blood quantum] still exists is underlying anxieties for Native Americans: ‘What if we look too white? Then people aren’t going to recognize our sovereignty.’ That’s a real anxiety. There’s a lot of ambiguity, and it leaves space for those who play Indian.”
When it comes to questions about his own blood quantum, Bush is elusive, sometimes contradictory. On one occasion, he said, “In my growing up, I just have always thought of myself as an Indian.” Later he reiterated the Vinyard Indian Settlement’s blood requirement. Pushed again about his own percentage, Bush gave a tortuous answer. “Well, that’s a good question,” he said. “The qualification—I think the truth of the matter is—should be the qualifying truth. That we’re basically all here now, as we exist now. We’re descendants of Indians. As far as being an Indian is concerned, we might be culturally Indian. Culturally, socially—that sort of thing. But we’re descendants of those people.
“I don’t want to get into conflicts over who’s Indian and who’s not Indian,” Bush continued, “because that’s an old, old battle in Indian country that’s not going to get won.”
He has strong words for critics of the Vinyards, including Barnes and others who testified in front of the senate. “If you’re going to blow your mouth off about full-bloods and who’s an Indian, who’s not—if you’re the descendant of anyone who is not a [full-blood] Indian, you’re not a full-blood Indian. That’s a fact.”
“There are people who have become so ingrained in this identity of federal recognition, state recognition—now you’re not legitimate if you’re not one of those people or under one of those rolls,” Bush says. “And it doesn’t matter what your blood degree is. According to my aunt, you weren’t a full-blood Indian if you had a non-Indian ancestor. Which is true, you aren’t. And the tribes of eastern Oklahoma, you go into those health centers down there, and you think you’re in a health center in Pennsylvania. There are people who are descendants that are still eligible. The Cherokee tribe honors citizenship as long as you can prove a Cherokee ancestor all the way back to Andy Jackson.”
Peggy Brewer, a Golconda soap maker and beekeeper who was among the attendees at Reconnection Days, says she was skeptical of Bush and the Vinyards until she met and talked to them. “I watched them for years and read about their events and some of the negative things said about them online,” she says. “But I think [Bush is] a good man with good intentions. When you’re mixed race, you always get questioned.”
While the stomp dance at Reconnection Days is advertised as a Native American ritual, it feels strikingly similar to a Christian church service. There’s chantlike music, reverential acknowledgment of a Creator, and something like a group confessional. In between trips around the bonfire, those sitting around the blaze are summoned to “speak your truth” while gripping an eagle feather like a talisman. Tribesmen and nonmembers alike describe struggles with all manner of problems: financial troubles, loneliness, loved ones addicted to alcohol or opioids, grieving for the dead. They say how thankful they are to have a community to share their pain with.
Bush seems to be struggling with a different kind of pain. Earlier he’d told me that he wasn’t in physical condition for a prolonged stomp dance, as would be the tradition of his forebears. “I can’t stay up for dancing all night long anymore. I’m just past that point of being able to handle it,” said. “But I go out and I take a couple of rounds.”
After trudging around the fire for two song cycles, Bush is the first to bid the group good night. Limping with his walking stick toward the woods, he disappears into the darkness. v