American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


An American Indian may be identified in three ways: One is through self-identification; another is by tribal identification and definition; and a third is by legal definition, as defined by the U.S. government. Legal definition has created many issues for American Indians regarding their identity, affecting their abilities to receive federal benefits such as health and education benefits, their rights for leadership in Indian nations, and their cultural heritage. American Indians are the only minority group in the United States whose members carry an identifying card with a number, tribal affiliation, and blood quantum attached to it to receive recognition for federal benefits.

History has often portrayed America as a "melting pot" of cultures and ethnic groups. Only in recent years has that version of identity definition been challenged. In 1971, Hazel W. Hertzberg wrote a 362-page book on The Search for an American Indian Identity (1971). In this book, she discussed the issue of how the indigenous people of the United States defined themselves as part of American society and whether they embodied the melting pot theory or some other form of pan-Indianism, the amalgamation of various Indian groups to share cultural similarities.

Society has treated people from distinct cultures as having pureblood stock. Even immigrants who came to this country were treated as being either pure German, Italian, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, or whatever. It has been assumed as well that, when those of European stock came to North America and intermarried with the indigenous people, their pure European bloodlines and those of the indigenous people became diluted. When intermarriage produced children, they became identified as "half-breeds," a term that also becomes an issue of identity. One has only to read Maria Campbell's book Halfbreed (1982) to get a picture of the issues associated with the label of being a half-breed Indian.

Prior to 1887 and the passage of the Dawes Allotment Act, most American Indian people were easily identifiable. They lived in separate communities and identified themselves as such. They lived a different lifestyle vis-à-vis European immigrants. They ate different foods and dressed in a different manner. Their entire cultures and religions were based on a subsistence lifestyle directly connected to the land. They identified themselves by their nations: Dakota, Cheyenne, Anishinabe, Dine, Absaalooke, Mohawk, Huron, Delaware, and so on. It was the Europeans who identified them as Indian. This would be not only the name applied to them across the board, but also a name that would be applied to them all for 500 years. Then in the 1970s this name would be changed to American Indian or Native American. Even today there is confusion as to what to call the indigenous people of this country. Most American Indian people identify themselves as Indian or by their tribal affiliations. Some like to say that they had the name "Indian" for 500 years, and then it was changed to "Native American." Some have explained that the name "Indian" came from the Spanish term indios, which means "of God," in which case the term may be preferable to "Native American."

It is only when money, land, or some other benefit is legislated for the indigenous people of America that the United States became involved in developing a legal definition of an Indian. When land allotments had to be made to individual Indians, the federal government wanted to make sure that only "American Indian" people were getting the allotments, not non-Indians who either had married into the tribal groups or had been adopted into the tribal groups.

This problem came from the American Indian tradition of "adopting" outsiders into their cultures and it caused politicians much concern. The adoption of outsiders meant that individuals from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds who had befriended American Indians could be invited to become full-fledged members of a given tribe. An elaborate ceremony could take place within the tribal community during which the invited person would be adopted into the tribe with full participation and benefits. If a non-Indian had been adopted into a tribal group, most politicians believed that it was not legal for non-Indians, so adopted, to receive any benefits from the federal government through reparations to Indian tribes. The government was faced with trying to identify legal members of tribal groups.

Indian nations exercise a sovereign right to determine their own membership qualifications. As a community that was confined to a specified area of land (reservations), a tribe knew who the members of their community were. As the twentieth century approached and the movement to urban areas of many tribal members became a reality, the identification process became difficult. Yet, tribes still have the sovereign right to identify their own tribal members. Many tribes who are federally recognized were encouraged under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to adopt the federal definition of Indian identity. Books such as Felix Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1941) and David H. Getches' Federal Indian Law: Cases and Materials (1979) are good sources of discussion of the legal definition and the Indian Reorganization Act.

The federal and legal definition of an Indian has wreaked havoc on Indian people and will forever impact American Indians in some negative way. Felix Cohen said: "If a person is three-fourths Caucasian and one-fourth Indian, it is absurd, from the ethnological standpoint, to assign him to the Indian race. Yet legally such a person may be an Indian" (Cohen, 1941, 2). The federal (legal) definition is that a person must be an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe and have at least one-quarter Indian blood. Further, in the lower forty-eight states, a person can be enrolled in only one tribal group. Once enrolled in one tribal group, the identifying blood quantum of other tribal groups disappears. Adding to that confusion is the discussion of what happens when marriage takes place between two people of two different tribal groups. Parents are forced to pick a tribe for their children. What happens to their other tribal blood? It disappears.

Which tribes are federally recognized and how did they get federal recognition? A tribe became federally recognized when its members made their identity known to the U.S. military in some fashion. Throughout American history, "recognition" often happened through confrontation of some kind. Currently more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes exist in the United States, as well as roughly 300 nonfederally recognized tribes.

How does a parent decide where to enroll children? This is not a simple matter. Some Indian nations are matrilineal, meaning that the children belong to the clan of the mother. Some Indian nations are patrilineal, meaning that their children belong to the clan of the father. Depending on the family dynamics, the decision to enroll one's child will depend a great deal on internal discussion with the birth parent, with the grandparents, and with the extended family. It would be easy if decisions could be based on lineal clanship alone, but with so many intermarriages between different tribal groups as well as intermarriage with "whites," the process becomes complicated. What if the married couple belong to tribes that were traditional enemies? This can create a lot of animosity among families.

Some parents in today's society have chosen to go with the Indian nation that has the strongest economic prospects. For example, a tribe may have developed a natural resource, such as coal, oil, or natural gas, or may be building a casino. The potential for economic sustainability in a tribe with such prospects can be enormous, and young parents in particular may opt to align the future of their children with the economic development of one tribe over another.

Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are not under the same constraints as the Indians of the lower forty-eight states. For example, an Alaska Native can be identified with several tribal groups should their parents be from different tribal groups. Therefore the blood of two tribes is included in their identity.

What good does it do a person to have federal recognition? Treaty rights become a factor. Many of the traditional elders signed treaties fully aware that they were signing them as representatives of sovereign nations who were negotiating with another sovereign nation and were to receive education and health benefits forever as well as certain sovereign rights.

Lastly, self-identification is an ideal that will always exist regardless of federal or legal definitions. A person who grows up with an Indian identity and takes it on as his or her own believes that he or she is an Indian, regardless of the law. If a grandparent is enrolled and the adult parents are not enrolled, then the grandchildren may not be eligible for enrollment. Despite that, the grandparent may raise the grandchildren with the cultural traditions. Is that grandchild any less "Indian" than one who meets the legal and tribal definitions?

American Indian people today stand at a crossroads on the issue of identification. They see that their numbers are decreasing, and the decrease is all due to the complexities of the legal definitions versus their own rights to identify their members. Parents have intermarried with non-Indians but their children may be just as "Indian" as the grandparents. Why is the federal government still insisting on its definition?

Jeanne Eder

Further Reading
Campbell, Maria. 1982. Halfbreed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Canby, William C., Jr. 2004. American Indian Law, 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: West.; Cohen, Felix S. 1941. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.; Garroutte, Eva. 2003. Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Hertzberg, Hazel W. 1971. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Jackson, Deborah Davis. 2002. Our Elders Lived It: American Indian Identity in the City. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer