In America

Who's a Native American? It's complicated

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) – The recent controversy over Massachusetts congressional candidate Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry, where the campaign of her opponent for a senate seat called for her to release documents claiming her Cherokee ancestry, has caused some to ask: What makes someone "legitimately" Native American? And who gets to make that determination?

"Fundamentally, it's the tribe’s right to determine who its citizens are and are not. If we don't know (whether someone is American Indian), we can ask the tribe," said Julia Good Fox, professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Good Fox furthermore points out that citizenship is distinct from ancestry. Tribes have the sovereign right to determine who is and isn't a citizen, just as France and the United States have their own rules about citizenship. Anyone can claim ancestry, but those who do so can't always claim citizenship, Good Fox said.

Determining who is and isn't a member of a tribe can be complicated, and the answers don’t always come in a binary form of "yes" or "no." Part of the reason such determinations can be controversial is because tribes' own rules for establishing membership can vary widely.

Many tribes use parentage as a means of defining membership. Known as "blood quantum," the practice defines tribal membership according to the degree of "pure blood" belonging to that tribe. For example, a person with one grandparent belonging to one tribe and three grandparents not belonging to that tribe would be considered to have a "blood quantum" of one-quarter.  The minimum amount of blood quantum required can be as little as one-thirty-second (equivalent to one great-great-great-grandparent) or as high as one-half (equivalent to one full-blooded tribal parent).

But it hasn't always been that way, says Renee Holt, a doctoral student at Washington State University who studies cultural studies and social thought in education. Her research of different traditional indigenous tribal practices indicates that most tribes did not use blood quantum as the primary determinant of who was a member and who was not. In the case of the Nez Perce tribe, of which Holt is a member, belonging to the tribe meant you spoke the language and followed cultural practices. One did not necessarily have to be of 100% Nez Perce blood to be part of the tribe – cultural affinity was considered more important.

As an example, Holt mentions her uncle, who was adopted as a boy by her great-grandmother and raised alongside her aunt. The uncle lived among the tribe throughout his life, spoke Nez Perce fluently, had a traditional tribal name, and participated in ceremonies and rituals. He was white – but his skin color didn't prevent him from being considered a member of the tribe. Upon his death, he was given a traditional funeral.

"I just thought that was amazing. How do you tell somebody like that that they're not Nez Perce?" asked Holt.

Good Fox said that using blood quantum as a criterion for tribal membership is a fairly recent concept.

"Blood quantum was imposed upon the tribes by the United States. We never had blood quantum a thousand years ago," said Good Fox, who is herself a member of the Pawnee tribe.

Some historians believe this was a way of diminishing the number of  "actual" Native Americans that the government would then be obligated to count when calculating federal money and land disbursed to the tribes.  Among some 19th and early 20th century politicians, there was also the hope that eventually, Native Americans would intermarry and assimilate with whites to the point that they would no longer have the power of a cohesive group – and would no longer have a right to land and monetary payments from the government.

"It seems to me one of the ways of getting rid of the Indian question is just this of intermarriage, and the gradual fading out of the Indian blood; the whole quality and character of the aborigine disappears, they lose all of the traditions of the race; there is no longer any occasion to maintain the tribal relations, and there is then every reason why they shall go and take their place as white people do everywhere," said Anthony Higgins, a U.S. Senator from Delaware, in 1895 congressional testimony.

Many tribes began using blood quantum after the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which allowed tribes to establish their own governments. But others continued to define membership in other ways- including by lineal descent (being able to prove that you had an ancestor listed as a member of that tribe, regardless of your actual percentage of tribal blood), residence on tribal lands, knowledge of tribal language and culture, or membership in a recognized clan.

It's an issue that Holt is personally invested in – being one-quarter Nez Perce,  she’s at the minimum threshold for membership in the Nez Perce tribe with which she is enrolled, according to current rules. Her children are also one-quarter Nez Perce, and if they marry someone outside the tribe, their children – Holt's grandchildren – would be unable to claim membership despite their connection to Nez Perce culture.

"If my children do not have family with a Nez Perce, I won’t have any Nez Perce grandchildren," Holt said. "And there’s a sadness there, there's a hopeless feeling that it's ending with me; it's going to end with them.  I tell my children, 'You must be with a Nez Perce'…When you start thinking like that, you're going crazy."

Good Fox said the popular perception of Native Americans is rooted in stereotypes – the idea that a "real Indian" looks and acts a certain way, and that anyone who doesn't conform to that image is somehow "less Indian."  But the truth is more diverse – different tribes can have different physical characteristics, and intermarriage among other ethnic groups mean that Native Americans often have a multiracial background.

"I think people still have this perception that all American Indians look like this image of Plains Indians from the 1800s," said Good Fox. "We don’t look like how we would have 200 years ago either, so to expect Indians to look the same (as they did then) makes no sense.

"There’s this ignorance about Native American citizenship," said Good Fox. "And what are we learning about American Indians grades K-12? It's all in past-tense, and we don’t get a sense of what an Indian today looks like. That can really be confusing to people."