David Thorn
“Being American”

Native Identity: A story of genetic discourse

Many people look at the Native American population, and they see a defeated
people.  Poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, and disease run rampant within
the Native American communities, and the Native people do not seem to care
about their plight.  Is this the identity that Native American’s subscribe too?  
Experts continue to spend countless man- hours, and millions of dollars
creating programs to treat “The Problems” that plague Native Americans, but
nothing seems to help. You can’t kill a disease by treating the symptoms, and
letting the disease runs its course means death for the Native people.  I believe
that the cure is there, but it takes more than a pill, or change in diet to make it
effective, it will mean changing the self- identity of the Native American.
The first step in the long journey to changing a self-identity is to identify who you
During the Pleistocene Ice Age, most of the earth’s water supply was locked up
in huge ice masses, and as a result the sea level dropped somewhere between
280-350 feet below the sea level of today.  This lowering of the sea level left
wide areas of land exposed, that formerly was under water.  One of these
stretches of land created a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, and it is a
widely held belief among Anthropologists that humans passed over this land
bridge, and this is how the Americas were first populated.  For the Native
Americans, they have their own stories of where their people came from.  Each
tribe has their own creation story that is passed down from generation to
generation.  Usually the individual creation stories express the worldview of the
particular tribe, and attempt to explain why the world was created, the purpose
for creation, and what place each animal has in the big picture.  Regardless of
which story you hear or believe, the bottom line is that Native People have been
here in what is now called America for at least the last 13,000 years.  The
Native people are not immigrants or refuges to this country, they were here first.
Since Native people were already here, the next question is, how did they get to
where they are now?  From the time of the first explorers to this land, people
heard accounts of the native people who lived on this land.  In the 1500’s
Cabeza de Vaca traveled through Texas, and recounted how he met a different
tribe of Indians during each days journey.  This same story is heard again and
again as explorers and settles came to this New World, but shortly after this
contact between the Native people and the explores took place, the Native
population began to disappear.  The main reason for this wide and rapid
population reduction is believed to be disease.  Diseases such as small pox,
and cholera were brought from Europe, and because the Native population had
no immunity to these diseases, they had devastating results.  With fast
dwindling numbers, the native people were spread out across much greater
areas, and their presence on the land was less dramatic.  This combined with
the fact that many of the tribes made seasonal migrations across the land,
created a situation whereby vast areas of land were left unoccupied during
many parts of the year.  As settlers moved into these areas, many times they
found lands that appeared to be vacant and abandoned.  Upon the Native
peoples return, they found people occupying land previously used by them.  A
commonly held belief by Native people is that land is not owned, and this was in
direct conflict with European ideas.  The resulting conflicts resulted in Native
people losing usage of large areas of land, sometimes voluntarily moving on,
sometimes through treaties, and many times by violent confrontation.  As Native
populations continued to decrease due to illness, the number of new settlers
continued to increase. A situation was soon created where the whole Native
way of life was being altered.  The amount of land available for hunting and
gathering was decreasing.  Farming techniques began to change the
landscape, and habitats and game animals began to disappear.  Competition
for land now wasn’t just between Natives and settlers, but between different
tribes.  Previously Tribes for the most part honored long held boundaries of
historically used areas of land.  Now with settlement and changing conditions, it
was every tribe for themselves.
Eventually, settlement encroachment and so called treaties, left the Native
populations without enough land to support themselves as they had in the past.  
At this point many Native’s began to settle in and around the towns and
settlements in an attempt to access supplies and resources.  As the Natives
came in from the frontier, even more land was lost to the ever-increasing
number of settlers coming into this new land.  This voluntary migration for many
Native people was an attempt to adapt to the changing situation that they found
themselves in.  Disease had wiped out entire tribes, and broken down many of
the main structures of the Native culture. Many Native people found themselves
without families, tribal leaders, or religious leaders.  They had lost access to
resources both voluntarily and by force or trickery.  In the face of the powerful
and every growing American government, Native people attempted to
compromise as a way of surviving.  In many cases this meant relinquishing what
little land they had, for guaranteed ownership of land and resources in areas
that the American government was not interested in. Once again a voluntary
migration took place for many tribes as they moved to new areas.  In most
cases however, the land that Native people were sent to was lacking in any
resources, and guarantees of supplies were usually never met.  Without
resources or supplies, Native people began to migrate back to their lands,
hoping to utilize the little resources that were left.  As the Native people began
moving back into their old areas, conflicts immediately arouse between settlers
who now claimed ownership of these areas.  Soon the American government
began to implement laws and regulations to deal with what they called “The
Indian Problem”, and now the Native people were given no choice.  They now
were subjected to Forced relocation.
The U.S. Government took a legal stand against the Native people, and
enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This was the first of a long line of
government actions that would be imposed against the Native people.  In 1836
the Creek Removal was enacted, and two years later in 1838 the Cherokee
Trail of Tears took place.  From a cultural identity standpoint, Native people
stood in a precarious position.  At this point in history, disease had wiped out
entire tribes of people across the continent.  Those Native people who survived
the disease found themselves living in communities of broken families.  Tribal
elders were gone, religious leaders and medicine men also fell prey to the
diseases, and entire social structures and kinship lines had disappeared.  With
the new governmental actions came removal of the people from their
homelands, onto land in areas where they were unfamiliar, and unaccustomed
to the environment.  The Native people were moved to land that was unwanted
by the American Government, and the reason it was not valuable to the
Government was because it was void of resources for the most part.  This
created a situation where the Native people were dependant on Government
rations and commodities for survival, and in most cases these Allotments were
few and far between.  Another big factor was that boundaries were now
established for the Native people.  No longer could they hunt and gather food
across the wide stretches of land like their ancestors had done for thousands of
years, the American government expected the Native people to become
farmers, which was not a traditional activity for most Native people.  
Government actions laid groundwork for the further destruction of the Native
culture, and their relocation was paramount to incarceration.  
In the years to follow, up until recent times, government actions continued to
focus on restriction of cultural values, and have failed to address the Native
people as Americans.  The following is a brief list of some of the most
impacting government actions:        1887 General Allotment (Dawes) Act
1924 Citizenship Act
1934 Indian Reorganization Act
1952 Voluntary Relocation Program
1968 Indian Civil Rights Act
1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act
1990 The Native American Graves Protection an Repatriation Act
An analysis of each of these actions, and the impact they have had on cultural
identity formation for the Native people of today, would be extensive to say the
least, so this topic will not be addressed fully in this project, but it should not be
overlooked in any discussion of identity formation for the Native Americans,
because not only has it influenced the Native peoples self identity, it has also
influenced the perception the American public has of the Native American
Starting back in the 1800’s the American people had already established an
idea of what an “Indian” was, and what they looked like.  Popular novels and
newspapers of the time, depicted Native people as fierce, savage beasts who
wore practically no clothes accept for the full feather headdress that streamed
down their back. This of course was not the true picture, but in the environment
the Native people had been thrust into, this was the image that they were
expected to exhibit.  Once again, cultural traditions were pushed aside to
accommodate the hegemony of the time, and the Native identity took yet
another turn.  Through the years this image has persisted even to this day.  
Dime novels of the 1800’s depicted the “Indian” as a savage, and in later years
popular writers like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour continued the portrayal of the
bloodthirsty savage. It was an easy transition then, when the camera was
introduced and film became the popular medium.  Some of the first American
films were westerns, and like the popular literature of the time, the “Indians”
once again was depicted as the “savage” who is defeated in the end by the
hero.  From movies to television, with each new medium, a new interest is
fostered in the “Western”, and with this interest comes the usual depiction of
“the Indian”.  The Native people have been forced to live in a world that has a
long established image, of what a Native American is, and today’s society
continues to perpetrate the Native American Identity as something it is not.  The
old image of the cigar store Indian, Red Man chewing tobacco, and land O’
lakes butter are just a few of the popular images that are seen on almost a daily
basis by the American public.  Combine this with the Professional sports, and
school mascots that portray the old image of the Native American, and you are
talking about nearly the entire population of the United States having the
stereotypical idea of Native people reinforced many times a day, 365 days a
The following are a few examples:



The identity of the Native people is not just being reinforced for the American
public on a daily basis, but also on the Native people themselves, and
especially on the Native children who grow up exposed to this concept of “The
In America today, the popular culture degrades and ridicules the Native
American population on a daily basis, and no other minority group is subjected
to this cultural insensitivity.  In order to understand how this is possible, in a land
that supposedly offers everyone freedom and equal rights, you must consider
the demographics of the Native Americans, and address the issue of “Agency”.
According to the Census 2000 figures issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, the
total population of the United States is 281,421,906, and the Native American
population of the United States is listed as 2,475,956.  Statistically the Native
American population is only 0.9% of the total U.S. Population.  If you include
Native Americans who are combined with at least one or more other races, you
come up with a total “Indian” population of 4,119,301, for a 1.9% of total U.S.
population. These numerical figures do not give Native people much of a voice
in a very large population, and it is even worse when you look at where the
Native Americans live.  According to the same Census 2000 figures, “four out
of ten Native Indians live in the Western United States, and over half of all
Native Indians live in only 10 of the 50 States”.  “Less than 1 percent of the total
Native Indian population is located in 21 of the States”.  Not only are the Native
people few in numbers compared to the overall population, but also they are
demographically spread out in such a manner as no to have any political
strength.  If a minority group cannot exercise a political voice in the society, then
they are invisible to the hegemony and warrant no consideration.  They are
given no consideration when the government is making and interpreting
policies, because they have no agency as a group.  In essence, the Native
people have had to endure a government who accidentally, and purposely,
killed off the majority of the Native population with disease.  A government who
forced them from their homeland, incarcerated them on reservations, and left
them without the resources to survive.  A government who enacted laws meant
to stop the Native people from practicing their religion and teaching their culture
to the next generation.  A Country that has established its own identity for the
Native people, and reinforces it in everyday popular culture, despite the
objections of the Native people themselves.  An identity is formed over a long
period of time, taking in factors and experiences of the past, and blending them
with the present.  When you consider the past few hundred years for the Native
Americans, it is easy to see how an entire ethnic group could develop a
negative self-identity.  In reality, it is hard to see how the Native people have
managed to exist in such a hostile environment as America has been for them.
Exist they do however, but in modern times they have found themselves battling
with one of their old enemies from the past.  The enemy who is once again
threatening the existence of the Native people is disease.
Diabetes is a disease that threatens everyone, and it is the seventh leading
cause of death in the United States.  For Native Americans however, they are
2.8 times more likely to have diabetes than whites. According to the American
Diabetes Association, the highest rate of diabetes in the world is found among
the Pima Indians of Arizona.  Among this tribe about 50% of adults between the
ages of 30 and 64 have diabetes.  The American Diabetes Association goes
even further in their classification of diabetes among Native Americans, and
refers to it as an epidemic, due to the fact that Diabetes, and other
complications of the disease, are the major cause of death and health
problems in the Native American population as a whole.  Diabetes
complications can take the form of heart disease, kidney disease, amputations,
and blindness, to name a few, and   according to current American Diabetes
Association figures, Native Americans have been having a greatly increased
rate of kidney failure, amputations, and blindness recently.  Further statistics
indicate that people with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease,
and likewise five times more likely to suffer strokes.  Of those diabetics who
have strokes, the chance of having another stroke is two to four times more
likely.  More American Diabetes Association figures indicate that diabetic
women who develop heart disease, have shown a 23% increase in deaths, as
compared to a 27% decrease in heart disease related deaths in women
without diabetes.  It appears that the Native people's past is coming around full
circle, and unless something is done quickly the Native American population
could once again suffer a major decline.    According to U.S. Mortality Data,
which was released by the Centers For Disease Control, death rates among
American Indian or Alaska Natives, increased form 441 of every 100,000
population in 1990, to 458 in 1998. The 2000 data report shows even more of
an increase, with numbers of 697.7 per 100,000 of population.  In the United
States as a whole, the data for 2000 indicates an overall decrease in death
rates for all races except for Native Americans. If the current situation among
Native Americans continues on its course, the population will eventually reach a
point where the race as it once existed, will be gone forever. The severity of the
situation has not gone unnoticed however, but the solution appears to be
elusive, and the reason this may be, is because of the currently accepted
Native American Identity.  Part of the currently believed stereotypical behavior
of the Native Americans is that they are “lazy and good for nothing”.  Most
people think that Native people have brought this situation on themselves, due
to their lifestyle and eating and drinking habits, but according to recent studies,
there may be more going on with the health condition of the Native people then
anyone ever suspected.
In 1962, and again in 1982, an anthropological geneticist by the name of J.V.
Neel, formulated a hypothesis of what he called a “thrifty genotype”.  In Neel’s
hypothesis, he argued that the “thrifty gene”, was an adaptation to store energy
in a feast or famine lifestyle that was common among some Native
populations.  These same Native populations who lived the feast or famine
existence then, are the same Native populations who have the highest rates of
Type II diabetes now (Neel).  At the time this theory was presented, Neel lacked
any clear genetic data, or metabolic mechanisms to support his theory, so for
the most part it was dismissed as only an interesting concept.  In 1984
however, three researchers by the names of K.M. Weiss, R.E. Ferrell, and C.L.
Hanis, began looking at health data on American Indians and Mexican-
Americans, and noticed certain patterns of prevalence for both diabetes and
obesity.  They called it a “New World Syndrome” (Weiss).  About this same
time, researchers in other areas of the world were conducting research on
prehistoric migration patterns into the New World, and this caused a great deal
of debate over genetic adaptation to new diets.  Over the next few years,
scientific advances allowed researchers to see the relationship between food
intakes, energy levels, and the metabolism.  At this point Neel’s hypothesis
began to stir a greater interest.  Over the next few years up until approximately
1987, researchers concentrated on breaking down the connection between the
kind of foods we eat, and how the body utilized it on a genetic and metabolic
level.  In the end, Neel’s hypothesis has been proven to be a viable theory on
the cause of diabetes and obesity in the Native American population.  
Basically, Native people in most parts of the ancient world lived a lifestyle of
feast or famine.  At certain times of the year the diet contained high levels of
carbohydrates with little protein and fat intake.  Sugar intake would have been
used as fuel for the muscles, and the physically demanding daily routine of the
time period, would have created a situation were insulin would not have been
necessary to break down the glucose in the system.  Also, the high
carbohydrate diet was high in soluble and insoluble dietary fiber, which would
have helped decrease the absorption rate of glucose from the intestine, once
again greatly limiting the need for insulin.  With the sugar intake sufficiently
fueling the body, there was no reason to burn fat, so the fat could be stored for
use during times of famine.  The problem for the modern Native population
comes from the fact that they have gone through a high degree of dietary
acculturation to a Western diet and lifestyle.  The average diet in the U.S. is
high in fats and carbohydrates, and much lower in protein then the ancient
Native population would have consumed.  Further, the lifestyle has become less
labor intensive, and people do not get the daily exercise that life once
provided.  The new diet, and the lack of exercise have created the situation
whereby the Native American’s body believes it is in a feasting situation.  The
fat intake is stored for times of famine, and the sugars are burned as fuel for the
muscles.  The problem at this point is that the lack of exercise, and the lack of
sufficient dietary fiber, does not allow the body to utilize the glucose in the
system the way that it normally would in a previous Native lifestyle situation.  In
response, the body produces large amounts of insulin to deal with the glucose
levels that are not being absorbed by the muscles.  The continuous storage of
fat in the body leads to obesity, which in turn creates an increase in insulin
resistance, thus causing very high levels of glucose in the body.  And last but
not least, once this situation develops, it creates a chain of events involving the
gall bladder, which is effected by the glucose levels and metabolic alterations
going on in the body.  The Cholesterol levels in the gall bladder create a high
risk of gall bladder disease and gallstones, as well as affecting the cholesterol
levels in the blood.  The hegemony has forced the Native population to
assimilate and acculturate into the American culture, and genetically the two
were not compatible.  Thousands of years of genetic adaptation took place in
the Native population as they migrated across the Bering Strait, and began to
populate the Americas.  A slow adaptation took place that allowed the people
to survive in their changing environment, but the American Government
drastically changed the lifestyle and environment of the Native people within a
few short years.  Even the couple of hundred years that have passed since the
last changes took place, is no comparison to the thousands of years it took to
get to where they had been.
The consequences of contact with “The white man,” totally disrupted the life and
culture of the Native people.  From that point on the Native Americans began to
form a new self-identity that was based on the hegemonic view of who they
were.  Over the years this Native identity has formed, and been reinforced by
modern society to the point that many Native Americans accept the view from
the outside, and fully accept all of the disadvantages that it implies. The last
couple of hundred years are not enough time for genetic adaptation to take
place, as exemplified by the high rate of disease that is now being attributed to
genetic conditions.  The Native American currently accepts these genetic
conditions as part of their identity.  Diabetes, obesity, and early death rates are
all accepted parts of the Native American identity, and with acceptance comes
a diminished desire to correct the problem.  Diets and medications are not
enough to save the Native people from their current destiny, what it will take is a
change in who they think that they are.  They must create a new identity based
on whom their people were before contact with “the white man”, and disregard
the hegemonic imposed identity that currently exists for most of them.  The
Native American Identity that exists today is of a dying Indian.


[1]  American Diabetes Association, Basic Diabetes Facts and Figures
Among Native               Americans.

[2]  Vtla Kaliseji – Native American Diabetes Resources, Alcoholism and

[3]  Neel, J.V. 1962. Diabetes Mellitus: A “Thrifty” Genotype Rendered
Detrimental by          “Progress”. American Journal of Human Genetics 14:353-
362.Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology. Brown, Peter J. Emory
University. Mayfield Publishing Company.1998 5:46-47

[4]  Weiss, K.M., R.E. Ferrell, and C.L. Hanis. 1984. A New World Syndrome
of       Metabolic Diseases with a Genetic and Evolutionary Basis. Yearbook of
Physical   Anthropology 27:153-178. Understanding and Applying Medical
Anthropology. Brown,  Peter J. Emory University. Mayfield Publishing
Company. 1998. 5:47-51

[5]  HospitalManagement.net. Prelinminary US Mortality Data For 2000
Released By the    Centers for Disease Control.

[6]  U.S. Census Bureau. The American Indian and Alaska Native Population:

[7]  U.S. Census Bureau. Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics
2000, 2000 Census of Population and Housing. United States.  

[8]  Brown, Peter J. Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology. Emory
University. Mayfield Publishing. 1998. 5:46-52