Sue Reynolds
Gigi Yazzie with Eagle Feather Fan.

Authenticity: Ethnic Indians, non-Indians and Reservation Indians

Duane Champagne
1/6/14

Authenticity is a puzzling feature of contemporary Indian life. Growing up on an Indian reservation, I rarely encountered challenges to one’s identity as an Indian person. People within the reservation community knew most of the families. If they didn’t know the family connections of a specific person they could learn with a few inquiries to elders or their own family members.

One grows up on reservation community where there is an old and somewhat fixed family and kinship structure. There is very little doubt about who belongs and who does not, at least from a lineal descendent point of view. Tribal membership, because of blood quantum and other rules, may be more complicated and legalistic. A person whose family has lived within a tribal reservation community for as long as people can remember and who are legally tribal members usually do not encounter challenges to tribal identity from tribal community members.

This is not so say, in the contemporary world, that every member of a reservation community has strong commitments to traditional culture and identity. Many tribal and reservation communities are composed of mixed cultural heritages. The Navajo are often recognized for retaining their language and culture. However, about one-third of the Navajo population is traditional, while one-third are Christians, and another third are Mormons.

Living within most contemporary reservation communities often implies that an Indian person is living within a multi-cultural community. That is not to say that most reservation Indians do not share a commitment to community and Indian identity, they in fact do. Many contemporary tribal reservation members adhere to non-Indian worldviews, but at the same time have political and kinship ties to reservation communities and indigenous issues. While cultural views may differ among tribal members, they often share commitments to political and economic continuity of the indigenous nation. This contemporary pattern of American Indian reservation identity reflects contemporary U.S. practices of multiculturalism. While cultural views and identities may vary, there is often general agreement about national identity, purpose, and political ground rules.

The cultural complexities of contemporary Indian communities tend to confuse non-Indians who are expecting and often demand traditional cultural expression and personas from contemporary Indian people. If a person does not look and act like an Indian—usually a stereotypical image of a Plains Sioux Indian—then many non-Indians doubt the Indian authenticity of tribal member.

Reservation Indians usually have very secure identities, and so when non-Indians or ethnic Indians doubt their authenticity, reservation Indians often find these circumstances amusing.  Ethnic Indians can be defined as persons of Indian descent who are not members of a tribal community and often their families have not have had contact with a home community for generations. For reservation Indians, authenticity is confirmed within the local reservation community. While for many ethnic Indians and non-Indians, Indian authenticity is determined by stereotypes and images that are common within American society.

There are more non-Indians in the U.S. than reservation Indians, and generally the views of non-Indians prevail. Non-Indian views of Indian authenticity drowned out reservation understandings of Indian authenticity. Before the 1980s, some times Indians often conformed to U.S. images of authenticity by dressing in Plains Indian clothes and headdresses, partly because otherwise they could not be recognized as Indians. Southern California Indians, for example, do not traditionally have powwow dances, but have dances and songs based on their tribal creation teachings that narrate an epic migration of ancestral birds who end by establishing the homeland of the people. Unfortunately, much contemporary discussion about Indian authenticity focuses more on U.S. definitions of authenticity than tribal understandings, which are less well known and understood by the U.S. public and many ethnic Indians.

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sama's picture
sama
Submitted by sama on
"Ethnic Indians can be defined as persons of Indian descent who are not members of a tribal community and often their families have not have had contact with a home community for generations." thank you so much for this definition. Via two DNA tests I found out last year that I am part Native American. I was lied to about my ethnicity when I was growing up even tho I always intuited I was not what I was told. Found out my sister was really my mother, so have no idea who my father was. just wish I could learn which tribe. :(

chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
dwayne this article is a total 'duh' moment written for the un initiated, or just a ictmn 'filler'

jacobjohn316's picture
jacobjohn316
Submitted by jacobjohn316 on
In your viewpoint, "What is the understanding of Reservation Indians' authenticity?" In other words, "What does it mean to be Indian, according to a true Indian?" lol It sounds funny when you ask it, but the article is not clear.

alexjacobs's picture
alexjacobs
Submitted by alexjacobs on
I believe it was the AMERICAN HOLOCAUST book (David Stannard?) that claimed according to their research (around 1992) the Native population hovers around 1%, so then it was 2 million, now maybe 3 million, but they also claimed 12 million Americans could claim some small percentage of Native blood by this time around 2015...those numbers should start many debates, altho we are not One In The Same, some issues could be addressed if we could reach that 12 million instead of 3 million...at 1% we will always be next to invisible...

builds-the-fire's picture
builds-the-fire
Submitted by builds-the-fire on
Duane, thank you for not putting all Ethnics in the same boat, and your comment concerning the lack of contact with a home community for several generations. I am family history and DNA confirmed part Native American. For various reasons, my people lost contact with our home community. I am on a search for that community now: partly because of what I feel inside and the family history I've grown up knowing; partly because when someone came to my African-American history class in college and began to tell everyone what African tribe they belonged to, she was (embarrassingly) silent when I asked her what my African tribe might be based on my features--as she had told everyone else theirs based on their features; and lastly, partly because I can't wear my hair in the most comfortable and easiest hairstyle for me to care for it in without some wise-crack calling me Pocahontas... I had to take classes in college to learn about my African and African-American shared history. I'm out of college, but I find myself reading online newspapers like this one, and other material to learn about my shared Native American history. Thank you for your article!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I've NEVER questioned anyone's "authenticity" when they've claimed Native blood, but that could be in part due to the fact that I'm an "ethnic-Indian" myself. I have proof that my grandfather was N'De, but he lost all connections to the Apache when his father left the family. He did learn how to hunt, trap, and track before my great-grandfather left, and did manage to pass on this knowledge to my own father who taught me (then left). As I child I remember month-long "vacations" in the wild, the smell of a cooking fire on a crisp morning and deer hunting in the bitter cold. My mother was Mexican, but I was pretty much raised Indian until my father left. Since many tribes use matrilineal lineage, I would NOT be considered Apache by most "reservation" Indians. However, I'm not claiming Native blood for any other purpose than to honor the most important man in my life, my grandfather. I'm not looking for any free handouts, no subsidies or anything that will cost anyone anything. I'm simply paying homage to the most patient, loving relative in my life. When people start questioning percentage of Native blood, I can't help but roll my eyes. It's not a contest. Being pure-blood ANYTHING doesn't make you any better than anyone else. That kind of thinking is what propels Nazi skinheads and other White Supremicists.

indianmedicine's picture
indianmedicine
Submitted by indianmedicine on
This article compliments the article on "Off Reservations NAI In The Cities" earlier....... .......................................................................................................................................... As too "Blood Quantity", unfortunately a "legal standing" must exist ever since Non-Indians tried to be Members of Casino Indian Tribes................................................. ........................................................................................................................................... Besides "physically" being present among a Tribe, does NOT necessarily make you an "First People / Aboriginal" individual; it is the VALUES you hold that determine what "Culture" you are............................................................................................................... .......................................................................................................................................... For many, knowing a "blood line" into NAI Communities, is more a "Spiritual" issue then the physical monetary question; because most NAI / First People's / Aboriginal have a "Spiritual" connection more so then a "genealogy" relation................................ ........................................................................................................................................ So, by adopting " a Non-Indian Religion"; does NOT nullify the individual from being NAI or First People; because it is only a theology that was either Thrust upon an NAI; or grasped because their "Indian Spirituality" was never presented to them to accept or deny................................................................................................................................ ....................................................................................................................................... As to "Physical Characteristics" determining a person as Indian or Non-Indian - that friends is a serious flaw created by the "Entertainment Industry" much as the "Circle The Wagons" maneuver and having "Indian War Parties" run their horses around so the Euro-Americans could shoot them down like at an Arcade and the Indian Warriors not figuring the tactic was not in their best interest ! (Duh and Duh again !).................. ........................................................................................................................................ In fact, ground troop military warfare copied Indian Warfare methods & implemented them into "Special Warfare Units". ................................................................................. ........................................................................................................................................ To make the mistake of telling an Indian that he doesn't look Indian because he doesn't act, speak, or look like the Plains Indians portrayed in American Entertainment Industry; is indicative of a Moron judging an Village Idiot who believes them !............. ....................................................................................................................................... It is the stereotyping that is taught from generation too generation, and the fact that a Euro-American does not physically resemble a European Ethnic People does not necessarily hold true either............................................................................................ ....................................................................................................................................... Speaking of Tribal Values, many Female Euro-Americans that were captured, taken, etc. often after being rescued from the "Red Heathens" tried to return back to their Captors because of the Values Indians had for their Women Folk. (Yes, I agree not all did, and not all Indian Women were treated with human respect - A People Problem amongst all People's.)................................................................................................... ...................................................................................................................................... Mr. Champagne does surface some very good Talking Points and issues to ask ones self in "Knowing The Self"; but then again - I believe in Reincarnation to "Perfect The Spirit" in accordance to The Creator's Way.

HB4Patriotism's picture
HB4Patriotism
Submitted by HB4Patriotism on
Indians are from India a country located in Asia below China! STOP the ignorant confusions of the white man by calling the ABORIGINALS of the "Americas" Indians! Yes, from Canada all the way to Argentina are the ABORIGINALS of the "Americas". Just like "Black people" are called African-Americans, ALL white people are Euro-Americans! Even-Steven!

waprog2's picture
waprog2
Submitted by waprog2 on
I'm an enthnic Indian and have worked for ages to find a name that means Native ancestry, but the BIA says I'm White, but I don't want to step on enrolled people's rights. We are sort of forming our own community thanks to the internet. We also have different cultural areas that cause confusion. Those of us from the Southeastern Tribes are not at all like the Plains people, but both are equally Native, and both should be honored for being who they are. Same with Northwestern and Southwestern. We just need to get past allowing outsiders to define us. Thanks for publishing this.

davidche-weilee's picture
davidche-weilee
Submitted by davidche-weilee on
Hi Duane, thanks for sharing this provoking issue. I agree with your point. The definition of the authentic Indians should not be fully based on non-Indian understandings. The biggest danger of losing tribal definition will be that the mainstream cultural government's system would permanently uproot the connection from indigenous origins. Unfortunately, in many cases, assimilation has deprived many indigenous peoples of their most elementary essences and has rapidly exerted its negative influences. If indigenous peoples thoroughly lose their native identity and cultural roots, they might face many more challenges. One of the fatal wounds for Native Americans is that it is difficult to find sources of evidence demonstrating the differences when indigenous peoples need these roots as examples of the difference or fight for their justification for their homeland, territory, sovereignty, self-determination. In sum, there is a need to establish a legitimate mechanism of examining the authentic Indians based on tribal community's viewpoints/voice to a certain extent. Sincerely, Che-Wei Lee

chupitit's picture
chupitit
Submitted by chupitit on
Let me begin by expressing my...appreciation for the topic you've chosen to take on. A lot of what you said resonates with me because you are talking about a difficult subject that is composed of many, and varying, circumstances. I also commend your willingness to by-pass blood quantum BUT must admit that I am often frustrated by what a lot of people (including members of Tribal Nations) understand about the concept. As such, regulating "enrollment" is up to every tribe and it is they who determine their membership as written in their Tribal Constitutions. What follows is the idea that (and you touch upon the subject) blood quantum is NOT any measure of one's identity. There are many who are "full blood" who do not have the familial or communal ties to their Tribal Nations that someone who may only be a quarter of that same Tribal blood. On the flip side, just because one has Tribal blood doesn't mean that it's an automatic pass to understanding, participating, accepting, demonstrating and being accepted as a member of a Tribal Nation and/or community. What you say is that a connection happens when one lives within an Indian community--the community, the families, "the people" (which btw is what many Tribes call themselves when identifying themselves in their own languages, ie. Tohono O'odham, Desert People), observe, perceive, understand, & ultimately accept someone as belonging to their community and/or Tribe. In my opinion it is the RECIPROCITY that is the identifying factor. Further, I believe that there is something inherent in Tribal thinking. A twist of reality that perceives the world differently--which only makes sense because inner societal knowledge about tribal ceremonies and sacred history is disseminated by family members and/or community members that are vetted by said community/Tribe. Which speaks to when you mentioned the Dine and their three main religious affiliations; Traditional, Christian, Mormon, (which to be technical is still Christian). Thing is, I don't know about every tribe and the religion factors but from what I've observed with my mother and grandmother (who are Catholic), is their way of practicing Catholicism is heavily influenced by their understanding, and everyday practice, of O'odham Himdag (culture, way of living, values, morals, etc.). Long and short is a discussion of this nature is exploratory and composed of many rich layers and I enjoyed what you had to say even if I have some of my own ideas--Thank You.

refazenda's picture
refazenda
Submitted by refazenda on
Thanks for posting this. While it is unfortunate that some people have attempted to enroll solely because of their eligibility to obtain benefits (i.e. the aforementioned 'casino Indians'), some of us have grown up as Indians culturally, even though we did not live on reservations. As is the case with many people, some of our ancestors left our nations, either willingly or forcibly, and did not return. That doesn't mean they didn't teach us our culture (my grandfather, for example, was an herbalist, and he taught me that, among other things). It's not easy not having the same opportunity to express our culture in a distant/foreign land/culture, and yet Indians have created community houses for urban Indians to have a place to congregate and support each other, even if it is on an inter-tribal basis. We've made great attempts to retain and sustain our culture, even when out families are not "pure". I think there's honor in that continuance of culture.

RobynL's picture
RobynL
Submitted by RobynL on
If a French person leaves France for Bogata, then they are no longer fully French, but become only ethnic French? Or the Scot who moves to LA is now only ethnically Scottish? But, a Native American who is still on Native American soil is somehow different? You're only truly First Nations if you live on a rez? This question made me ponder quite a bit,and I am wrapping my brain around the idea of how I would be described as to how I should be classified within this discussion. My mother lost her status rights because she left her family home as a very young woman. It was the rule of the government for Natives. Leave the area, leave your heritage and rights too. Her family, our family still live in our home lands, but we don't see them very often, so does that make her brother somehow more Native than she, or even me? ...........................................................................................................................................I felt insecure in my identity for many years because some people told me I didn't really have one because I wasn't on a reservation. I was called derisive Native-based names as a child from the other side too, and then after all that, I was later told, I should be proud of who I am. I didn't feel that pride until I stopped having to live in survival mode and finally learned where I really came from overall. ...........................................................................................................................................I don't believe I look or sound like a stereotypical plains Indian and so not everyone knows where I come from at first glance, but I do know I feel that I am as First Nations as any other First Nations person. I may have been taken from the culture for awhile, but I did not have my ancestry removed from my blood, or my DNA. I'm not sure what the problem is with people who have First Nations ancestry and claiming it being fully accepted and even adopted into tribes to whom they do, or could, belong.

Kepin's picture
Kepin
Submitted by Kepin on
I just fell on this article today, and thought it curious since I just posted a new blogpost yesterday on this subject. Although I don't understand why "ethnic" should be used the way you use it. But if you take a look at my post, you will understand what I mean. http://kepinomasinahikewin.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/race-ethnicity-and-the-law/

number1's picture
number1
Submitted by number1 on
Blood Quantum and the use of Certificates of Indian Blood have become a badge of HONOR for those of us who still retain full blood status. It shows that our parents and grandparents thought well enough of retaining our native blood by having talks with us about whom we were to marry when we grew older. My grandfather, a full blood Navajo man, always stressed to me the importance of marrying someone who spoke fluent Navajo. As a result, my children are full blood Navajo and I have passed on the same teachings to my kids. Is it important to hold onto our blood quantum? Yes. If those of us who don't hold onto what precious native blood we have left, there will be hardly any natives to hold the government accountable to the treaties they made with our tribes. I know it's a trend for some natives to knock blood quantum; but that was said and done back in the 70s when scores of natives were trying to re-identify with their tribal heritage. Most of the people had been indoctrinated into government programs aimed to make "citizens" out of reservation Indians back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Nowadays, I can't stress the importance of our people retaining their bloodlines and marrying back into our tribes. I'm proud to be a full blood Native American in 21st Century America. It speaks well of my ancestors and my people. We have survived.

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
100IndigenousAm...
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
As member of the Dine' (Navajo) tribe, I always look forward to reader's comments, and the responses to this article was interesting and revealing. We see and feel things subjectively and our writing becomes a subtle self-portrait. For myself, I make every effort to root my thoughts in the sacredness rooted in my ancestral beliefs and practices. I am full Dine’, my language is Dine' first, my critical thoughts come from my ancestral values, I feel pride in being a part of the entire Pan-America Native population, and I hold on tightly to my full biological, spiritual being The gifts of my mental acuteness comes from non-English schooled parents and relatives. I say, return to the pride of our ancestors and keep it all reddish-brown if possible, it is a good color.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
In the region I live (the American southwest) ethnicity is further confused by a factor common to indigenous peoples: when the Spanish swept through the southwest EVERYONE got Spanish names. The percentage of Ethnic-Indians is quite high here, but the Native culture is intertwined with the Latino culture to the point that they both blur slightly at the edges. I've encountered many Native words among my Hispanic relatives and many of the Mescalero speak Spanish quite fluently.
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