ⓘ Native American identity in the United States is an evolving topic based on the struggle to define Native American or Indian both for people who consider themse ..


ⓘ Native American identity in the United States

Native American identity in the United States is an evolving topic based on the struggle to define "Native American" or Indian" both for people who consider themselves Native American and for people who do not. Some people seek an identity that will provide for a stable definition for legal, social, and personal purposes. There are a number of different factors which have been used to define "Indianness," and the source and potential use of the definition play a role in what definition is used. Facets which characterize "Indianness" include culture, society, genes/biology, law, and self-identity. An important question is whether the definition should be dynamic and changeable across time and situation, or whether it is possible to define "Indianness" in a static way. The dynamic definitions may be based in how Indians adapt and adjust to dominant society, which may be called an "oppositional process" by which the boundaries between Indians and the dominant groups are maintained. Another reason for dynamic definitions is the process of "ethnogenesis", which is the process by which the ethnic identity of the group is developed and renewed as social organizations and cultures evolve. The question of identity, especially aboriginal identity, is common in many societies worldwide.

The future of their identity is extremely important to Native Americans. Activist Russell Means spoke frequently about the crumbling Indian way of life, the loss of traditions, languages, and sacred places. He was concerned that there may soon be no more Native Americans, only "Native American Americans, like Polish Americans and Italian Americans." As the number of Indians has grown ten times as many today as in 1890, the number who carry on tribal traditions shrinks one fifth as many as in 1890, has been common among many ethnic groups over time. Means said, "We might speak our language, we might look like Indians and sound like Indians, but we won’t be Indians."


1. Definitions

There are various ways in which Indian identity has been defined. Some definitions seek universal applicability, while others only seek definitions for particular purposes, such as for tribal membership for the purposes of legal jurisdiction. The individual seeks to have a personal identity that matches social and legal definitions, although perhaps any definition will fail to categorize correctly the identity of everyone.

American Indians were perhaps clearly identifiable at the turn of the 20th century, but today the concept is contested. Malcolm Margolin, co-editor of News From Native California muses, "I don’t know what an Indian is. and to prosecute me for telling people of my Indian heritage is to deny me some of my civil liberties.and constitutes racial discrimination."

Some critics believe that using federal laws to define "Indian" allows continued government control over Indians, even as the government seeks to establish a sense of deference to tribal sovereignty. Critics say Indianness becomes a rigid legal term defined by the BIA, rather than an expression of tradition, history, and culture. For instance, some groups which claim descendants from tribes that predate European contact have not been able to achieve federal recognition. On the other hand, Indian tribes have participated in setting policy with BIA as to how tribes should be recognized. According to Rennard Strickland, an Indian Law scholar, the federal government uses the process of recognizing groups to "divide and conquer Indians: "the question of who is more or most Indian may draw people away from common concerns."


1.1. Definitions Self-identification

In some cases, one can self-identify about being Native American. For example, one can often choose to identify as Indian without outside verification when filling out a census form, a college application, or writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. A "self-identified Indian" is a person who may not satisfy the legal requirements which define a Native American according to the United States government or a single tribe, but who understands and expresses her own identity as Native American. However, many people who do not satisfy tribal requirements identify themselves as Native American, whether due to biology, culture, or some other reason. The United States census allows citizens to check any ethnicity without requirements of validation. Thus, the census allows individuals to self-identify as Native American, merely by checking the racial category, "Native American/Alaska Native". In 1990, about 60 percent of the more than 1.8 million persons identifying themselves in the census as American Indian were actually enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. Using self identification allows both uniformity and includes many different ideas of "Indianness". This is practiced by nearly half a million Americans who receive no benefits because

  • they are not enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe, or
  • they are members of tribes whose recognition was terminated by the government during programs in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • they are full members of tribes which have never been recognized, or

Identity is in some way a personal issue; based on the way one feels about oneself and ones experiences. Horse 2001 describes five influences on self-identity as Indian:

  • "The validity of one’s American Indian genealogy";
  • "One’s enrollment or lack of it in a tribe."
  • "The extent to which one is grounded in one’s Native American language and culture, one’s cultural identity";
  • "One’s self-concept as an American Indian"; and
  • "The extent to which one holds a traditional American Indian general philosophy or worldview emphasizing balance and harmony and drawing on Indian spirituality";

University of Kansas sociologist Joane Nagel traces the tripling in the number of Americans reporting American Indian as their race in the U.S. Census from 1960 to 1990 from 523.591 to 1.878.285 to federal Indian policy, American ethnic politics, and American Indian political activism. Much of the population "growth" was due to "ethnic switching", where people who previously marked one group, later mark another. This is made possible by our increasing stress on ethnicity as a social construct. In addition, since 2000 self-identification in US censuses has allowed individuals to check multiple ethnic categories, which is a factor in the increased American Indian population since the 1990 census. Yet, self-identification is problematic on many levels. It is sometimes said, in fun, that the largest tribe in the United States may be the "Wantabes".

Garroutte identifies some practical problems with self-identification as a policy, quoting the struggles of Indian service providers who deal with many people who claim ancestors, some steps removed, who were Indian. She quotes a social worker, "Hell, if all that was real, there are more Cherokees in the world than there are Chinese." She writes that in self-identification, privileging an individuals claim over tribes right to define citizenship can be a threat to tribal sovereignty.


1.2. Definitions Personal reasons for self-identification

Many individuals seek broader definitions of Indian for personal reasons. Some people whose careers involve the fact that they emphasize Native American heritage and self-identify as Native American face difficulties if their appearance, behavior, or tribal membership status does not conform to legal and social definitions. Some have a longing for recognition. Cynthia Hunt, who self-identifies as a member of the state-recognized Lumbee tribe, says: "I feel as if Im not a real Indian until Ive got that BIA stamp of approval. Youre told all your life that youre Indian, but sometimes you want to be that kind of Indian that everybody else accepts as Indian."

The importance that one "look Indian" can be greater than ones biological or legal status. Native American Literature professor Becca Gercken-Hawkins writes about the trouble of recognition for those who do not look Indian; "I self-identify as Cherokee and Irish American, and even though I do not look especially Indian with my dark curly hair and light skin, I easily meet my tribes blood quantum standards. My family has been working for years to get the documentation that will allow us to be enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Because of my appearance and my lack of enrollment status, I expect questions regarding my identity, but even so, I was surprised when a fellow graduate student advised me - in all seriousness - to straighten my hair and work on a tan before any interviews. Thinking she was joking, I asked if I should put a feather in my hair, and she replied with a straight face that a feather might be a bit much, but I should at least wear traditional Native jewelry."

Louis Owens, an unenrolled author of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, discusses his feelings about his status of not being a real Indian because hes not enrolled. "I am not a real Indian. Because growing up in different times, I naively thought that Indian was something we were, not something we did or had or were required to prove on demand. Listening to my mothers stories about Oklahoma, about brutally hard lives and dreams that cut across the fabric of every experience, I thought I was Indian."


2. Historic struggles

Florida State anthropologist J. Anthony Paredes considers the question of Indianness that may be asked about pre-ceramic peoples what modern archaeologists call the "Early" and "Middle Archaic" period, pre-maize burial mound cultures, etc. Paredes asks, "Would any have been any less awed than ourselves to come upon a so-called Paleo-Indian hunter hurling a spear at a woolly mastodon?" His question reflects the point that indigenous cultures are themselves the products of millennia of history and change.

The question of "Indianness" was different in colonial times. Integration into Indian tribes was not difficult, as Indians typically accepted persons based not on ethnic or racial characteristics, but on learnable and acquirable designators such as "language, culturally appropriate behavior, social affiliation, and loyalty." Non-Indian captives were often adopted into society, including, famously, Mary Jemison. As a side note, the "gauntlet" was a ceremony that was often misunderstood as a form of torture, or punishment but within Indian society was seen as a ritual way for the captives to leave their European society and become a tribal member.

Since the mid-19th century, controversy and competition have worked both within and outside tribes, as societies evolved. In the early 1860s, novelist John Rollin Ridge led a group of delegates to Washington D.C. in an attempt to gain federal recognition for a "Southern Cherokee Nation" which was a faction that was opposed to the leadership of rival faction leader and Cherokee Chief John Ross.

In 1911, Arthur C. Parker, Carlos Montezuma, and others founded the Society of American Indians as the first national association founded and run primarily by Native Americans. The group campaigned for full citizenship for Indians, and other reforms, goals similar to other groups and fraternal clubs, which led to blurred distinctions between the different groups and their members. With different groups and people of different ethnicities involved in parallel and often competing groups, accusations that one was not a real Indian was a painful accusation for those involved. In 1918, Arapaho Cleaver Warden testified in hearings related to Indian religious ceremonies, "We only ask a fair and impartial trial by reasonable white people, not half-breeds who do not know a bit of their ancestors or kindred. A true Indian is one who helps for a race and not that secretary of the Society of American Indians."

In the 1920s, a famous court case was set to investigate the ethnic identity of a woman known as "Princess Chinquilla" and her associate Red Fox James aka Skiuhushu. Chinquilla was a New York woman who claimed to have been separated from her Cheyenne parents at birth. She and James created a fraternal club which was to counter existing groups "founded by white people to help the red race" in that it was founded by Indians. The clubs opening received much praise for supporting this purpose, and was seen as authentic; it involved a Council Fire, the peace pipe, and speeches by Robert Ely, White Horse Eagle, and American Indian Defense Association President Haven Emerson. In the 1920s, fraternal clubs were common in New York, and titles such as "princess" and "chief" were bestowed by the club to Natives and non-Natives. This allowed non-Natives to "try on" Indian identities.

Just as the struggle for recognition is not new, Indian entrepreneurship based on that recognition is not new. An example is a stipulation of the Creek Treaty of 1805 that gave Creeks the exclusive right to operate certain ferries and "houses of entertainment" along a federal road from Ocmulgee, Georgia to Mobile, Alabama, as the road went over parts of Creek Nation land purchased as an easement.


3. Unity and nationalism

The issue of Indianness had somewhat expanded meaning in the 1960s with Indian nationalist movements such as the American Indian Movement. The American Indian Movement unified nationalist identity was in contrast to the "brotherhood of tribes" nationalism of groups like the National Indian Youth Council and the National Congress of American Indians. This unified Indian identity has been cited to the teachings of 19th century Shawnee leader Tecumseh to unify all Indians against "white oppression." The movements of the 1960s changed dramatically how Indians see their identity, both as separate from whites, as a member of a tribe, and as a member of a unified category encompassing all Indians.


4. Examples

Different tribes have unique cultures, histories, and situations that have made particular the question of identity in each tribe. Tribal membership may be based on descent, blood quantum, and/or reservation habitation.


4.1. Examples Cherokee

Historically, race was not a factor in the acceptance of individuals into Cherokee society, since historically, the Cherokee people viewed their self-identity as a political rather than racial distinction. Going far back into the early colonial period, based upon existing social and historical evidence as well as oral history among the Cherokee themselves, the Cherokee society was best described as an Indian republic. Race and blood quantum are not factors in Cherokee Nation tribal citizenship eligibility like the majority of Oklahoma tribes. To be considered a citizen in the Cherokee Nation, an individual needs a direct Cherokee by blood or Cherokee freedmen ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls. The tribe currently has members who also have African, Latino, Asian, white and other ancestry, and an estimated 75 percent of tribal members are less than one-quarter Indian by blood. The other two Cherokee tribes, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, do have a minimum blood quantum requirement. Numerous Cherokee heritage groups operate in the Southeastern U.S.

Theda Perdue 2000 recounts a story from "before the American Revolution" where a black slave named Molly is accepted as a Cherokee as a "replacement" for a woman who was beaten to death by her white husband. According to Cherokee historical practices, vengeance for the womans death was required for her soul to find peace, and the husband was able to prevent his own execution by fleeing to the town of Chota where according to Cherokee law he was safe and purchasing Molly as an exchange. When the wives family accepted Molly, later known as "Chickaw," she became a part of their clan the Deer Clan, and thus Cherokee.

Inheritance was largely matrilineal, and kinship and clan membership was of primary importance until around 1810, when the seven Cherokee clans began the abolition of blood vengeance by giving the sacred duty to the new Cherokee National government. Clans formally relinquished judicial responsibilities by the 1820s when the Cherokee Supreme Court was established. When in 1825, the National Council extended citizenship to biracial children of Cherokee men, the matrilineal definition of clans was broken and clan membership no longer defined Cherokee citizenship. These ideas were largely incorporated into the 1827 Cherokee constitution. The constitution did, state that "No person who is of negro or mulatlo parentage, either by the father or mother side, shall be eligible to hold any office of profit, honor or trust under this Government," with an exception for, "negroes and descendants of white and Indian men by negro women who may have been set free." Although by this time, some Cherokee considered clans to be anachronistic, this feeling may have been more widely held among the elite than the general population. Thus even in the initial constitution, the Cherokee reserved the right to define who was and was not Cherokee as a political rather than racial distinction. Novelist John Rollin Ridge led a group of delegates to Washington, D.C., as early as the 1860s in an attempt to gain federal recognition for a "Southern Cherokee Nation" which was a faction that was opposed to the leadership of rival faction leader and Cherokee Chief John Ross.


4.2. Examples Navajo

Most of the 158.633 Navajos enumerated in the 1980 census and the 219.198 Navajos enumerated in the 1990 census were enrolled in the Navajo Nation, which is the nation with the largest number of enrolled citizens. It is notable as there is only a small number of people who identify as Navajo who are not registered.


4.3. Examples Lumbee

In 1952, Lumbee people who were organized under the name Croatan Indians voted to adopt the name of "Lumbee," for the Lumber River near their homelands. The US federal government acknowledged them as being Indians in the 1956 Lumbee Act but not as a federally recognized tribe. The Act withheld the full benefits of federal recognition from the tribe.

Since then, the Lumbee people have tried to appeal to Congress for legislation to gain full federal recognition. Their effort has been opposed by several federally recognized tribes.

When the Lumbee of North Carolina petitioned for recognition in 1974, many federally recognized tribes adamantly opposed them. These tribes made no secret of their fear that passage of the legislation would dilute services to historically recognized tribes. The Lumbee were at one point known by the state as the Cherokee Indians of Robeson County and applied for federal benefits under that name in the early 20th century. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been at the forefront of the opposition of the Lumbee. It is sometimes noted that if granted full federal recognition, the designation would bring tens of millions of dollars in federal benefits, and also the chance to open a casino along Interstate 95 which would compete with a nearby Eastern Cherokee Nation casino.

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