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Who Decides Who's an Indian?

Ruth Hopkins
11/10/13

Who decides who is Indian? In pre-colonial times, it was obvious. Indigenous individuals were part of a whole tribal society. They were simply one of the People. They lived in the village, performed daily work, spoke the language, participated in ceremonies, hunted and gathered with the rest, intermarried, and had children within that group.

Enter the federal government, wielding it's militarily enforced termination and assimilation policies against Natives. From a western legal standpoint, the government now says who is Indian. Suits in D.C. decide whether or not to federally recognize Tribes, and then delegate Tribal enrollment authority to those Tribes. Blood quantum was invented and utilized in the first Tribal rolls. Whether or not you're ‘Indian’ became a matter of paperwork. One could completely assimilate—cut their hair, convert to Christianity (or any other religion), move away from the Reservation and their people, never speak a word of their language, and know absolutely nothing about their tribal heritage, lineage, or culture, and still be deemed ‘Indian’, with enough blood quantum.

Post-boarding school era, we now find ourselves in the midst of a Native awakening. Lucky for us, traditional holdouts kept Native languages, ceremonies, and cultural teachings alive. They passed them onto us, and others who returned to the ways. There is no doubt in my mind that these individuals, ones who keep the language and the ways, are Native; enrollment records be damned.

So what of the rest? I see academics, bloggers and keyboard philosophers, both Native and non-Native, attempting to design Litmus Tests for who is ‘Indian’. While we can argue about intention, the results are still the same.

An individual may meet the test of one, and not another. Here: let me use myself as an example. I was born and raised on the rez, and I still live here. I'm enrolled in a federally recognized Tribe. I go to ceremony, know my heritage, and do my best to keep our sacred ways. I've dedicated my life to the service of the Oyate (the People). Heck, I even make bomb taniga and frybread and I've never dated a non-Native man in my life. But…I am not fluent in my Native language (although I'm trying). I have degrees from western institutions of higher education. I wear western clothes most of the time and have a penchant for designer shoes and handbags (like ones that will set off my Russell Means T-shirt, dentalium and beadwork nicely). Also, my mother is white (despite her thick Rez accent) and in the middle of winter, wow, I'm pale. Despite identifying as Native and having many witnesses testifying to such, there are a few who would say I don't meet the test.

Today, Natives lie all along this continuum, positioned at various levels on the 'Indian-ness' scale.

What of those who don’t meet particular litmus tests of what someone has deemed a true Indian? If someone has blonde highlights, watches Bad Girls Club, or shops at Victoria’s Secret, are we supposed to pull their card? Some Natives have lost their way through no fault of their own. Assimilation swept through Indian country like a plague. Urban relocation programs and military service moved entire Native family groups away from their homelands. Others were adopted out to non-Native homes. Do we reject the survivors who only want to come home?

If someone identifies as Native and has ties to prove it, what purpose does alienating them serve? So we can say we're "better" via "more Indian-er than you" contests? Is that what our ancestors would want? Just because someone doesn’t look like, talk like, or act like the stereotypical Hollywood ‘Indian’ standard we’ve all been spoon-fed doesn’t mean they aren’t necessarily Native, nor does it mean they don’t have a place within Native society and an ability to contribute to our causes. Sure, there are fakes (pretendians) and it’s our way to call them out, but real recognizes real (and Rez cred is another matter). Look to their words and actions.

I don't decide who is Indian. I am not the Creator. All I’m saying is perhaps instead of focusing on exclusion, we should work on changing hearts and minds. Decolonize the world, starting with you. Let people’s spirits remind them of who they are. We’ve all got some unlearning to do, even yours truly.

If someone comes to me in a good way with sincere questions about my culture, I will do my best, in a humble way, to answer. Sometimes our hands are clenched fists, fighting against the system- but other times our hands should be open, willing to offer assistance, and teach. This is our responsibility, as the seventh generation. The sacred fire is still there, beneath the haze of mainstream society. Seek and ye shall find. This is how we will remain strong and keep our ways alive for the next millennia.

Remember, if we go back far enough, we are all Indigenous. If we want to save Mother Earth, we need support. No man is an island, and we cannot complete these tasks alone. This is how we make the world over, Indigenous style.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton, Mdewakanton, Hunkpapa) is a writer, blogger, administrator, and the Chief Judge of the Spirit Lake Nation. She's a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, a founding writer for Lastrealindians.com, and a contributor to Truthout.org, Jezebel.com, Counterpunch.org, and Racialicious.com. Her work has been featured in dozens of other places online and in print. She's also a published horror author.

 

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Anonymous's picture
thank you from one who's ancestors lost themselves and had to hide in plain sight because they could have been deported to Oklahoma or sold into slavery. thank you from a person who has learned forgiveness from all of the name-calling from people who do not even realize that they bought a system of thinking that was forced on them. thank you for you kind and compassionate words. wa do
Anonymous
Two Bears Growling's picture
Excellent post Ruth! You preach the very SAME story I have been sharing for a very long time. You make very good points in regards to what makes someone "Indian". After many years on Mother Earth I have decided the answer is a very simple one: Our spirit that is inside us. I remember long ago when I would talk to various elders about a number of things that it always came up that someone had adopted someone who was white or from another tribe. Were these people also included as "Indian". It was always answered, "yes". It wasn't because of their skin color or who their people had been before. When someone is taken in by a tribal family they ARE of that tribe & that family. Such individuals who had been adopted by a tribal family WERE considered "Indian" regardless of where they came from or if their skin color was lighter or darker than others in the tribe. I don't believe there are pure-bloods any more with all the mixing that has taken place over the past 100's of years. At the same time, these elders also spoke of folks who were born into the tribe who became as the whites, Loafs About the Fort as they were called, due to their ideas & selling out the people by touching the pen to the paper & always trying to please the white agents on the Rez. We would call that person a brown-noser today. Much like politicians as it were today! As you said, you aren't fluent in your language, but you ARE trying to learn to speak it better. That's the key right there: You are trying to learn more about your people's language, the culture, religion, etc. I can offer nothing but praise to you & others who ARE trying. After all, in the days of the ancestors that was what mattered when others came into the tribe either by marriage or adoption. I see so many in many different places who have that CDIB Card, but they are as white in their ways & behaviors as any inter-city person who never set foot in Indian Country. They listen to none of our tribal music, don't know one thing about their culture; let alone one word of the language. Most sad thing of all about these types of folks is that they could care less about learning anything either! Still, they have that CDIB Card & get those benefits & percapita checks! That's ALL that matters to them: Benefits! So in conclusion to my comment, I would have to say that what makes someone "Indian" or not had to do with what is on the inside of ones spirit & not if someone had a roll number or were born into a particular tribe or had particular types of features or tones of skin color. Having a native spirit is what should matter most of all. After all, it is the condition of the spirit that the Great Spirit judges us all by.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
Pidamaya ye mitakuyapi. Wopida tanka.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thank you for such an outstanding article. In the long run we need everybody to make this world stay a habitable planet. It must however start with us, not because we are better than others but because we understand our role as caretakers of our Earth. It is up to us to teach others the significance of preserving her for life to continue. I don't know exactly how we go about doing that in such a way that will impact the highest numbers of our population. I do feel if we do not reach others and enlist their support we will lose Earth. I'm in my late years and it won't effect me so much but it will effect all who come behind us. If our culture is to survive then Earth must survive. I don't know about anyone else but I wouldn't want to live on the moon. I also believe to be Indian the heart must be Indian with a desire to keep our language, traditions and culture alive. I come from the Cherokee Long Hair Clan. We were the teachers for those of other tribes or of non-Indian blood. If we adopted them into our tribe they had to have the heart, learn the language and in every way live as a Cherokee. If that happened they became a member of our tribe. As I say this I do feel hesitant because of our history, I must put aside my prejudice though if we are to succeed. Thanks again for your article.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Let the pakis decide who are indians...we are native american first nations people. Not from indian at all. We need to define ourselves. Isn't that what soveriegnty means?
Anonymous
chahta ohoyo's picture
this would be from a disenfranchised choctaw who's ggg grandmother fell in love with and decided to marry a white man, and live her whole life as a regular american citizen, while her own blood sister was a registered member of the choctaw nation...do you think i can be 'enumerated' even tho i am a direct bloodline relative of a enrolee?? nope...im not complaining because being 'enrolled' brings with it a whole new set of parameters and rules that my ggg grandmother obviously thought life would be a whole lot better without...i know i am choctaw, and have been accepted as such by my choctaw relations, and the nation in oklahoma..its just kind of sad that the u s govt gets to dictate who is and who isnt 'indian enough', and how that fact was imposed on we indigenees...
chahta ohoyo
Anonymous's picture
Very well said and thoughtfully written...and I could not agree more. Howa, osda!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thank you. Wado.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Just a quote from a recent television show. "There are only three things that have pedigrees; horses, dogs, and Indians". Here on our rez, we have families, with full brothers and sisters, one might be on the roll and one might not be. It doesn't make sense, but the enrollment law was changed and the youngest kid has to suffer, while watching the other two get free education, per capita and voting rights in Tribal elections while he can't. It's just crazy.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
You are so right! Being a member of the Lumbee a tribe of NC I've dealt with this issue my entire life! Instead of appreciating the fact that we have survived and maintained our identity as "Indian", we get blasted by white genealogist and some government recognized tribes as everything but Indian. We were government recognized in 1956 w/o money, and that is still not good enough to be invited to meet at the White House! I can go back to the 18th century and beyond to find that my ancestors identified as "Indian". I don't have to wait on the government or some other government verified Indian to define me. I know who I am!
Anonymous

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