Thick concepts are generally thought of as concepts that are both descriptive and normative. They describe something and, at the same time, say what something should be. Thinner concepts are concepts, then, that pull apart the normative and descriptive. In this essay, I want to use ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ in different ways than these terms of art. I shall be using the terms thick and thin to mean equivocal concepts that are bundled together and can be pulled apart.
The notion of the ‘ideal’ American Indian is a concept, in my terms, that is very thick; very loaded. As I have explained before, there are at least five different ways American Indians are conceived; in religious, cultural, racial, genetic and political terms. The idea of what I shall call ‘the ideal American Indian’ merges all of these together into one single body. The ideal American Indian, then, (that is, the particular individual or concept that epitomizes the American Indian) includes all of these different forms of identity. (We could include, too, that the ideal American Indian is generally understood to be male.)
Anyone who is identified as American Indian, but fails to embody one or more of these aspects of identity is understood to be somehow less of an American Indian. That is, the more aspects of identity one is lacking, the further away one is from being an ideal or epitome of American Indian.
This is how we come to get insults that aim at hurting someone who is thought of as less of an American Indian. An ‘apple’, for instance, is one who is red on the outside but white on the inside. What this means, in my terms, is that the individual called an ‘apple’ is politically, genetically or racially understood to be ‘American Indian’ but is culturally or religiously not ‘American Indian’.
I want to argue that the thick idea of what an American Indian is and ought to be should be replaced with a thinner idea of American Indian, so as to give individual human beings more opprutinities for authenticity and less pressure to cover parts of themselves.
In Kenji Yoshino’s book Covering, he argues that society should be more accepting to a diversity of different identities to make room for such authenticity. Agreeing with Yoshino, I shall follow him in thinking that society ought to accept a plurality of identities, and this includes American Indian identities.
We should use the political concept of American Indian—that is, we should use the concept that an American Indian is just that individual who is or is eligible to be a citizen of a tribal nation—rather than any of the others because they make room for individual tribal—and world—citizens to be more authentic in their identities. When we merge all of the five identities above to make the ‘ideal American Indian’ that all American Indians should strive for, we are severely limiting the choices individuals can make, what they can believe, how they can dress, or what they can look like and still be considered ‘American Indian’.
However, one major problem, and one worth living with, is that when we conceive of American Indians in this thinner way we are left with the problem of including individuals into tribal polities in a more just way—a way that does not depend upon race, or blood quantum. This is, as I said, a problem worth having, if any problem is. And it is one that any polity has to deal with.
When we thin out our concept of the ideal American Indian and supplant it with a simple, thinner political concept, we come to find the problems American Indian polities have are not too much unlike to problems other polities have.
(Cross-posted at JenniferLeeLawson.com)