AP Photo
Now maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct. They don’t look like Indians to me…”

Donald Trump and Federal Indian Policy: ‘They Don’t Look Like Indians to Me’

Bryan Newland
7/28/16

Not surprisingly, the “historic tribes” included many of the Indian tribes that fit the romanticized ideal of Indians – tribes in the Great Plains and the Southwest (i.e. those tribes whose members “looked” like Indians). “Created” tribes were often those tribes whose members did not look like the Indians people saw in Hollywood westerns – people with lighter hair and eyes, or people with mixed Black or Mexican ancestry. This standard of “Indianness” ─ a Federal race-based standard ─ was again used to limit tribal sovereignty and contain the “Indian problem.”

The Department’s disparate treatment of “historic” and “created” tribes got so bad that Congress intervened, and enacted amendments to the IRA in 1994 to prevent the BIA from discriminating among tribes on this basis.

Trump and Indian Policy Today

Indian law today rests in large part upon the distinction between Indians as members of a racial/ethnic group, and Indians as citizens (a more accurate term than “members”) of sovereign political entities. This principle is foundational.

There are 567 federally recognized Indian tribes today, from southeast Florida to the north slope of Alaska. Some tribes’ citizens look like the idealized Indians from George Catlin paintings, while other tribes’ citizens would not “appear” to be Indian to a passerby on the streets of Washington, D.C. Despite the vast differences in their racial purity, every tribe maintains the right to determine its own rules for citizenship, to be governed according to its own laws, and to engage with the United States on a government-to-government basis.

But, there continue to be people who either don’t understand the distinction between the ethnic and political identities of Indian people, or who want to eliminate that distinction altogether.

In its recent decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, the Supreme Court carved a hole in the Indian Child Welfare Act (which was enacted in 1978 to stop the epidemic of Indian children being taken from their families in Indian communities). In writing for the Court, Justice Alito left little doubt that the decision was premised on the Indianness of Baby Girl. Here is the first line of his opinion: “This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee.”

Last year, the Goldwater Institute in Arizona filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior seeking to overturn the entire Indian Child Welfare Act, arguing that the act unlawfully discriminates against Indian children on the basis of race. (The opening page of its complaint alleges, “Children with Indian ancestry, however, are still living in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson”).

The continuation of Indian tribes as sovereign governments in the United States depends, in large part, upon the distinction between Indians as a race of people, and Indians as citizens of Indian tribes. To blur or eliminate that distinction is to take an axe to the trunk of the tree of federal Indian law – federal laws applicable to Indians would be subject to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against racial discrimination.

Donald Trump’s most notable comments about Indian tribes – made before the Committee on Natural Resources – reveal that he does not draw the distinction between the racial and political identities of Indian people. His view of the legitimacy of Indian tribes depends on the physical appearance of their members. As he told Don Imus, “it’s just one of those things that we have to straighten out.”

A Trump Administration that acts upon that impulse will dramatically alter federal Indian policy as we know it.

This story was originally published on Turtle Talk on July 25, 2016.

Pages

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

POST A COMMENT

Comments

Old Lady's picture
Old Lady
Submitted by Old Lady on
Trump needs to go back to Europe and stay there...or maybe North Korea or Russia, both of which have endorsed him as the best choice for the next U.S. president.

niijii's picture
niijii
Submitted by niijii on
Many natives hold these same feelings when someone is either more black or more white claiming to be Indian. Its just the way it is in the real world, like it or not.

turbojesus's picture
turbojesus
Submitted by turbojesus on
Who's really indian? Frankly, I don't give a damn. You think I'm going to get crap on toast while some half-chinese asian and a jewish person that made a website become billionaires. Hispanics, blacks, asians and europeans go to ivy league schools and sail yachts then tell me how to run my life while I pay to be a third class citizen and for all the travesties. I don't think so. Screw that. My authority won't be questioned. I'll cut down and divide their image before I allow mine to be. I hope they're ready to die for their beliefs; I know I am.
3