Who is Indian, and what makes a person an Indian?
My answer? There are many definitions of who is an Indian. As a starting point, “Indian” is a misguided label that spread through Europe after 1492. Native people have always associated themselves with their tribe(s) and referenced their tribal names in their tribal languages. Explorers and colonists from Spain, France, England, the Netherlands, and Russia, among other countries, began naming tribes they encountered in North America in European languages. As English became the primary language in the United States, American Indian (to distinguish us from Indians native to India) became the collective term used.
American Indians generally belong to or are descendents of tribes indigenous to what is now the United States.
In modern times the federal government, states, tribes and individuals have formed their own definitions of who is Indian. Three important criteria to consider when answering this question are federal legal definitions, ethnological Indian ancestry, and tribal membership. The federal government lists 565 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaskan Native Communities. Twenty-two states also have criteria for recognizing tribes within their boundaries. The majority of state-recognized tribes, however, are not federally recognized. For United States Census purposes, an individual simply needs to self identify themselves as American Indian and Alaskan Native to be counted in the final summary.
The question of who is an Indian is often debated among Indian people. Does carrying a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) make you Indian? Does being raised away from a reservation and not having traditional knowledge make a person less Indian? Does knowing your language make you more Indian? These are some of the complex questions that have been debated on determining Indian identity. The response depends on who is answering the question.
Skin color does not make you Indian. In our museum I have heard non-Indians comment they have seen an Indian simply if the person they saw has the long black hair, brown skin, and high cheek bones associated with the classic Indian image. In reality, there are proud Indians with blonde hair and blue eyes or black skin. Through intermarriage, their Indian descent comes from one or both Indian parents.
Each tribe has the sovereign authority to define who its members are and who is eligible to be enrolled. Some tribes have blood quantum requirements—a requirement that to be enrolled, a person must have at least a certain degree of tribal ancestry, such as one-fourth—while other tribes’ laws state that a person is eligible for enrollment if one of his or her ancestors appears on a particular historical list of tribal members. Ultimately the question, “Who is an Indian?” is determined by tribal law.
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