Can You Prove You’re Indian?

>My editors want me to add a chapter to my book on the topic of American Indian identity.

Identity holds loads of currency. Seems folks find identity resonant.

But imagine writing a chapter on, say African American identity, or how about Swedish American? Chinese American? White American? What would you say?

Native America is rich, diverse and heterogeneous. Indigenous people account for less than 2% of the total US population, and 18% of Alaska’s population. There are 562 federally recognized tribes. Some of our languages are as different as Turkish is from Portuguese.

In other words, you would be hard-pressed to encapsulate American Indian identity into one little book chapter.

Identity remains a highly charged political issue in many quarters.

Recently Elizabeth Warren, who is running for senate in Massachusetts, was skewered by some members of the press because she claims American Indian ancestry.

But many white-looking citizens make similar claims. I recently conducted a randomized study of residents in the Pacific Northwest and we asked how many folks had Native ancestry.

Twenty percent said they had an Indian ancestor. But only half of the respondents could name their tribal affiliation.

While some family ancestral stories may be fabricated, it also stands to reason that some citizens really do have an Indian ancestor. And it may also hold true for Elizabeth Warren: I don’t know.

But I know that the media got stuck on the story, accusing Warren of using the Native American heritage to gain political currency.

The issue is fraught with danger, however.

American Indians—like our country’s slaves—were identified by race, which was operationalized by blood quantum: what percentage “blood” are you? Can you prove it?

Identity, therefore, was a function of your blood, genes and DNA, rather than your culture and upbringing.

How would you feel if you needed to carry a card in your wallet–an identity card that noted how much African blood flowed through your veins?

While it may sound outrageous, that’s exactly the type of card the US government issues to enrolled tribal members.

I have such a card in my wallet—it’s a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card. The card identifies my blood quantum, but it says nothing about my culture, my family or my relationship with my tribe.

You can’t get that from a card.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, human origin, Indian, science, science communication and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Can You Prove You’re Indian?

  1. remember the “one drop rule” ? That would pretty much make most Americans black.


  2. Charles Hudson says:

    My tribe (Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold) issues its own cards/papers for enrollment purposes. It does included DIB info.
    The system does seem Orwellian on one hand, on the other, members of the tribes I now work for are required to carry tribal ID while exercising their treaty right to fish. This does have the effect of protecting their right by identifying violators. It’s a nuanced process best handled by so-called community policing.


  3. The Osage Tribe also issues ID cards, which you need to show when you vote (and for other benefits, too). While the CDIB card isn’t particularly onerous, it gives me pause that one sovereign government holds sway over another in requiring Indian citizens to carry ID. You’re right: it’s Orwellian and nuanced simultaneously.


  4. I think you make some excellent points but it is important to remember about the Self Determination act. It is no longer the United States government determine who is Indian and who is not. It is now up to the tribal governments to decide that. But you are correct, the DCIB does not say how involved a person is in their culture or community. What if a person who grew up on a reserve misses the the enrollment by one generation. Are they no longer an Indian? Does their culture involvement mean nothing?


  5. Sugel says:

    The psychology of Earth and sky / Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) — Ethnoastronomy as the key to human intellectual development and social organization / Clara Sue Kidwell (Choctaw/Ojibwe) — The power of Seneca women and the legacy of Handsome Lake / John Mohawk (Seneca) — The power of native languages and the performance of indigenous autonomy: the case of Mexico / Inâes Hernâandez-âAvila (Nez Percâe/Chicana) — The metaphysics of federal Indian law and U. S. colonialism of American Indians / M. A. Jaimes-Guerrero (Juaneno/Yaqui) — From time immemorial: the origin and import of the reserved rights doctrine / David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) — Vine Deloria, Jr., and the development of a decolonizing critique of indigenous peoples and international relations / Glenn T. Morris (Shawnee) — International law and U. S. trust responsibility toward Native Americans / S. James Anaya (Purepecha/Apache) — When God became red / Cecil Corbett (Nez Percâe) — Earth mother and prayerful children: sacred sites and religious freedom / Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne) — Religious studies on the margins: decolonizing our minds / Michelene E. Pesantubbee (Choctaw) — American Indian religious traditions, colonialism, resistance, and liberation / George E. Tinker (Osage/Cherokee) — There is no such thing as a one-way land bridge / Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) — Contours of enlightenment: reflections on science, theology, law, and the alternative vision of Vine Deloria, Jr. / Ward Churchill (Keetowah Band of Cherokee) — Transforming American conceptions about Native America: Vine Deloria, Jr., critic and coyote / Inâes Talamantez (Apache/Chicana) — Yuchi travels: up and down the academic “road to disappearance” / Richard A. Grounds (Yuchi/Seminole) — The passage of generations / Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) — Appendix: United Nations draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples (26 August 1994).


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