Dwanna L. Robertson, University of Massachusetts (right), talked with Michelle M. Jacob, University of San Diego, before their presentations at an American Sociological Association annual meeting August 17-20 in Denver, Colorado.

Dwanna L. Robertson: Indian Identity Still Controversial

Carol Berry

If she’d planned to tackle some of the most contentious issues in Indian country, a Mvskoke (Creek) sociologist couldn’t have done a better job.

Blood quantum, lineal descent, tribal membership, federal recognition, sovereignty—all came under the scrutiny of Dwanna L. Robertson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts and contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network, who spoke at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) annual meeting August 17-20 in Denver that drew some 6,000 members.

Robertson addressed the Indigenous Peoples session of the ASA meeting on the topic “A Necessary Evil: Framing an American Indian Legal Identity.” She described interviews with 30 Natives, only half of whom had legal identities in terms of tribal enrollment or other federal validation.

“Native American people is the only race in America that has to prove that they’re Indian,” she quoted one study participant. “If you’re black and you say, ‘I’m black,’ and nobody will question it. If you’re white, you say, ‘I’m white” and nobody questions it, but if you’re Indian they want to see your CDIB card. ‘Well, you say you’re Indian (but) let’s see your card.”

She pointed out that of 4.7 million who identified as American Indian in the 2009 census, only 1.9 million are enrolled members of federally recognized tribes and the numbers indicate there are 2.8 million who identify ethnically as American Indian but who are not citizens of federally recognized tribes.

Some American Indians live outside ethnic/cultural or racial identity and occupy a “unique political status,” she said, describing legal identification through tribal citizenship, lineal descent, blood quantum and parents’ tribal affiliation, all of which can contribute to access to Native services in housing, education, health and other areas.

Two other categories of Native identification are ethnic identification, which includes relational, social and tribal connections, ceremonies and historical belonging; and biological, racial identification, including phenotype, genetics, and other measures, she said.

Claiming “Indianness” is complex, involving criteria that “serve to confuse our ability to define and identify who qualifies to be an Indian,” she said, observing that because Native people commonly believe that “real Indians” are enrolled and have federally-issued cards, people who cannot prove racial heritage, yet identify ethnically/culturally, may be excluded.

Most of her study members expressed concern about requiring only lineal descent and relaxing blood quantum criteria and talked generally about blood quantum as a “necessary evil” in the service of preserving tribal sovereignty, she said. “Tribal enrollment is framed as necessary for the preservation of sovereignty.”

Robertson said a Cheyenne in the study believed that “what is left of sovereignty is in the hands of those left on the land,” which might not be true but which echoed the views of nearly all the study members who mentioned sovereignty as a reason for the blood quantum requirement even though it perpetuates infighting and even though “race” is an artificial construct.

On a personal note, Robertson said the ASA offers a minority fellowship program and, in her application, she filled out questions about racial and ethnic identity, halting only at the request for her “enrollment number.” She gave up the opportunity to attend a major university because of the underlying issue: ‘If I was black, would I need a card [that included the number]?”

Another presenter, Michelle M. Jacob, Yakama, associate professor in the University of San Diego’s department of Ethnic Studies, targeted language revitalization efforts as a form of indigenous resistance, as a “way for people to heal from the effects of colonization,” including historical trauma from language loss in the boarding schools.

Others who spoke were Sarah Dodge Warren, Lewis & Clark College, whose topic was “Indigenous Rights and Naming Regulations in Argentina;” Jan C. Lin, Occidental College, “Native Voices of Los Angeles from the Spanish Pueblo to the World City” and Erin A. Cech, Stanford University, “Unsupported and Uncertain: Communal Goal Incongruence and the Experience of Native American Students in STEM Majors.”

Panelists and attendees offered such closing suggestions as “embrace diversity,” “it’s important to move away from the blood issue,” “it’s really a colonial thing,” “I think it’s troublemaking,” “some tribes privilege blood over culture,” and “this whole field is growing.”

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bertkaulaity's picture
Submitted by bertkaulaity on
issue"embrace diversity " my thinking is; a lot of natives are divers in that we have mulity bloods of Native American Nations and maybe some have one blood of their tribes. Moving away from the blood issue is like denying we even existed or the blood that was spilled by our ancestors allows us to have this conversation at this moment,that is important. The only real thing about the colonial issue is we as native americans would be to never let our history ever be denied. The only troublemaking is trying to keep a proud people down, when oppression is thrust upon any nation there is going to be retaliation. Experienced it first hand, I don't speak our native language and that doesn't make me less proud of who we are as a matter of fact it strengths us to teach our young the language and culture, we all make choices and some are for our own selfish reasons, nepotism in the work place, embezzling funds, abusing power, all of these and many more have their consequences, aho for this opportunity to speak these thoughts.

sierra's picture
Submitted by sierra on
Excellent article, Ms. Robertson. And so all these factors you identified make it very confusing and overwhelming to digest for many who are not in the know about the history of state-indigenous relations as well as the current state policies hidden or outright implemented. While this writer realizes the core issue - we are all related - as one which does not turn folks away, one also realizes that the Cdn federal government at least, has imposed its membership criteria a couple of times in more than three attempts to portray and define who we are. This was done in 1951, 1985 and now in the present with the Real Property Matrimonial law wherein non-native spouses are protected if they live on a Reserve and in the event they get divorced. In 1951 - Indigenous women marrying out were targeted by the state and lost their status, while non-native women marrying in, gained it. In 1985, with Bill C-31, women who lost their status could be re-instated. The influx of those returning to the Reserve would make it necessary for an impact study - given the funding dollars come mostly from Ottawa. The sad thing is, it seems that some non-natives today think that if they have children with a Native; then they're to be automatically accepted in and can live in a territory that does not have enough land for its own members. Well, just like Canada and the U.S., indigenous peoples also ought to have our own criteria for adopting folks in. A "CDIB"/status card alone ought not to qualify, as it does not assist in cultural retention. Communal ties and knowledge of indigenous art, history, current issues and culture ought to be considered as our populations, languages and our remaining territories are no longer large enough to keep accomodating outsiders who may be more interested in the "benefits" (or - fiduciary obligations) that already fall short for current members, especially out west in the Prairie provinces. An elder's Council was set up back here to decide cases on a individual basis, and maybe an offshoot of that was our Council's general agreement on who we are - or - defining ourselves. I can't imagine them searching high and low for reasons to turn individuals away..(that was not always our way) but might that be found among some of the affluent California Pechanga casino 'tribesmen?' Nia:wen.

Submitted by dwanna on
Dear Sierra, Hensci! This particular article was written by Carol Berry, and she did an excellent job at putting into a few words a two hour session. I certainly agree that a CDIB or tribal card should not be the ultimate criteria for citizenship within Native Nations. However, here in the U.S. that's basically how it works. Qualifying for citizenship also varies among the 566 federally recognized tribes. Some criteria includes requiring matrilineal or patrilineal descent, a specific amount of blood quantum, residency requirements, etc. I make no claim to knowing the right way. I challenge the idea that Native Nations of the U.S. have fully adopted a federally-defined authenticity measure. And that measure is based in racist, biological terms. My research shows that most U.S. Indigenous people believe that culture is the second most important aspect to being Native. However, that comes right after a blood tie. I just want us to have the conversations. I want us Native folks to speak for ourselves, rather than having others say what we should do. Mvto for your comment! I appreciate the knowledge you've shared about the First Nations and First Peoples of Canada. Humbly, Dwanna