Who Is An Indian

by Barbara "Shining Woman" Warren

No single definition of "Indian" exists - socially, administratively, legislatively or judicially. Currently in the United States 10 to 20 million people may have Indian ancestry, but only a small percentage identify themselves as being primarily Indian.

The Bureau of the Census counts anyone an Indian who declares himself or herself to be an Indian. In 1990 the Census figures showed there were 1,959,234 American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the United States (1,878,285 American Indians, 57,152 Eskimos, and 23,797 Aleuts). This is a 37.9 percent increase over the 1980 recorded total of 1,420,000. The increase is attributed to improved census taking and more self-identification during the 1990 count.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, no single Federal or tribal criterion establishes a person's identity as an Indian. Government agencies use differing criteria to determine who is an Indian eligible to participate in their programs. Tribes also have varying eligibility criteria for membership. To determine what the criteria might be for agencies or Tribes, one must contact them directly.

To be eligible for Bureau of Indian Affairs services, an Indian must (1) be a member of a Tribe recognized by the Federal Government, (2) one-half or more Indian blood of tribes indigenous to the United States (25 USC 479) ; or (3) must, for some purposes, be of one-fourth or more Indian ancestry. By legislative and administrative decision, the Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians of Alaska are eligible for BIA services. Most of the BIA's services and programs, however, are limited to Indians living on or near Indian reservations.

"There is no universally accepted definition of the term 'Indian.'...Although there is one ethnological definition of Indian, there are many legal definitions...Many federal laws use the word "Indian' without defining it. This allows federal agencies to decide who is an Indian under those laws. Some agencies have been accused of defining Indian too narrowly, thereby depriving people of benefits that Congress intended them to receive. When Congress has not defined the term, courts have used a two-part test to determine who is an Indian. First, the person must have some Indian blood, that is, some identifiable Indian ancestry. Second, the Indian community must recognize this person as an Indian...The Census Bureau takes a simple approach to these problems. The bureau lists every person as an Indian who claims to be one."

~ Stephen L. Pevar, The Rights of Indians and Tribes: The Basic American Civil Liberties Union Guide to Indian and Tribal Rights, 1992.

What Is a Tribe

Ethnologists define a tribe as a group of indigenous people, bound by blood ties, who are socially, politically, and religiously organized according to the tenets of their own culture, who live together, occupying a definite territory, and who speak a common language or dialect.

According to Webster's "New World Dictionary" the word tribe means...a group of persons, families, or clans believed to be descended from a common ancestor and forming a close community under a leader, or chief.

"By a 'tribe' we understand a body of Indians of the same or similar race, united in community under one leadership or government, and inhabiting a particular though sometimes ill-defined territory..."

~ US. Supreme Court (In Montoya v. United States 1901, p. 266)

"At the most general level, a tribe is simply a group of Indians that has been recognized as constituting a distinct and historically continuous political entity for at least some governmental purpose."

~ Canby, 1981

The Bureau of Indian Affairs states there are more than 550 Federally recognized Tribes in the United States, including 223 village groups in Alaska. "Federally recognized" means these tribes and groups have a special, legal relationship with the US government. This relationship is referred to as a government-to-government relationship.

"Legally, no universal definition for the generic term 'tribe' exists in the US Constitution, federal statutes, or regulations. In most instances, a question of a tribe's political existence can now be resolved by reference to a treaty, legislative agreement, statute, or executive order of the President 'recognizing' the tribe at some time in the past. In other cases the definition of 'tribe' will depend in part on the context and the purpose for which the term is used."

~ Jack Utter, American Indians: Answers to Today's Questions, 1993

"Each Indian tribe has eligibility requirements for enrollment...Although these requirements determine tribal membership, they do not necessarily determine who is Indian for other purposes. To be considered an Indian for federal purposes, an individual must have some Indian. blood. A non-Indian who is adopted into an Indian tribe is not an Indian under federal law. However, under certain federal laws small amounts of Indian blood, together with recognition as an Indian by the Indian community, will qualify a person as an Indian....The fact that the federal government does not recognize a person as an Indian does not prevent a tribe from considering that person an Indian for tribal purposes. Similarly, lack of tribal membership does not prevent a person from being recognized as an Indian under most federal laws."

~ Stephen L. Pevar, The Rights of Indians and Tribes: The Basic American Civil Liberties Union Guide to Indian and Tribal Rights, 1992.

Nation/Band/Tribe: These terms have been used interchangeably in Indian treaties and statues by the Federal Government.

Who Is a Native American

"The term 'Naive American' is widely recognized as meaning a person who is of a tribe or people indigenous to the United States. It is most frequently applied to American Indians of the 48 coterminous states, but it also includes Alaska's three ethnological groups - Indians, Eskimos (Inuit), and Aleuts. Native Hawaiians are also considered to be Native Americans."

~ Jack Utter, American Indians: Answers to Today's Questions, 1993

Identity: What Is An Indian

~ White Deer of Autumn (Gabriel Horn) Taken from Moccasin Trail, May, 1981

How much Indian are you?

This question was asked of a group of American Indian Children at Andersen Elementary School in Minneapolis. Their answers were quite interesting and very disturbing.

In this circle of black, brown and blondish hair - of black, brown, green, blue and hazel eyes, of wiry, curly, kinky and straight hair, they were very percent-of-blood oriented. From 15/32 to 1/4 to 1/2 they called out their individual percents - that is until they began to laugh.

Yes, it is ridiculous, especially when one child was asked to point to half of him that was Indian and the half that wasn't...

The Native American, the Indian, the Navajo - call him what you will - knows he is an Indian because of the mystic tie to the land, the dim memory of his people's literature that has been denied him, the awareness of his relationship to Sakoiatisan, Manitou, Huaca, Wakan Tanka (depending on his being Iroquois, Algonquian, Inca or Sioux) somehow all manifest themselves within him and constantly call him back to his ancestors.

"My cultural identity makes me what I am. It is my beliefs that make me Indian."

...An individual's sacred regard for language, his concept of the Creation and his desire to live in harmony with the natural world need be applied when seeking to define an Indian.

LaDoona Harris: "I can't define the Indian anymore than you can define what you are. Different government agencies define him by amount of blood. I had a Comanche Mother and an Irish father. But I am Comanche. I'm not Irish, and I'm not Indian first. I'm Comanche first, Indian second. When the Comanche took in someone, he became Comanche, He wasn't part this, part that. He was all Comanche or he wasn't Comanche at all. Blood runs the heart. The heart knows what it is."

Elizabeth Hallmark, an Ojibwe: "Just because an individual has a tribal enrollment number entitling him to certain services, does not, in my mind, define this person as an Indian. It is the heart of this person that speaks to me. That's where my Indianess is - in my heart."

John Fire-Lame Deer associated Indianess with the heart also. His beliefs in the concepts symbolized in the pipe identified him as an Indian. He realized that to truly understand what it meant to be an Indian was to understand the Pipe. Even as an old man he was still learning.

To be Indian is a way of life, a looking within and feeling a part of all life, a allegiance to, and love for, this earth. Historically, we did not judge individuals by the color of their eyes or the color of their hair, but how they conducted and lived their lives. To debase our identity by reducing us to percents of blood is another version of genocide...

The last time some of us were required to show papers for proof of blood was when we wanted to breed our dogs or horses. The confusion of attempting to define what is Indian will persist in governmental bureaucracies, but will not be shared by many American Indians who know what they are.

For many of us, to be Indian is not a heritage granted by legislation, percent of blood or Bureaucratic studies, or even by a community's consideration. It comes from the heart and the heart knows what it is...

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