What is a Native American? Native American Meaning

What is a Native American? Native American Meaning

What is Native American?  What an encumbered question.  One might as well ask “Why is the sky blue?”

Obviously, a rhetorical question to be profound as one does not need the technical scientific answer to “Why the sky is blue?”

The author has been asked the above question concerning Native America many times and each time the answer is different based on how the inflection of the question was asked.  Does one want to know this based on ancestry, beliefs, civilization, culture, customs, ethnicity, heritage, history, humanities, legality, philosophy, principles, race, religion, spirit, thoughts, traditions, values, or others?

Native American DNA

The fact that DNA Testing can give results of one’s race has always been a debate.  This comes from the continuous argument on what is race and how many races there are.   Using DNA testing to determine if one is Native American is a rather heated debate.  What some fail to realize is that the DNA test results will show “markers” usually in the percentage of certain biological traits associated with a certain race.  The DNA test has shocked many people of all races.  From a person who has been told and believed they are “African American” that does the test and finds they are mostly Indo-European, Native American and Asian and 0% Black to a Native American who believes they are a Full Blooded Indian and finds they are mostly Indo-European, Native American and Black.  There are literally thousands of similar stories.   There are examples of so-called Full Blood Indians that have both BIA and CDIB cards and a family tree of Native American Blood dating back hundreds of years that have had the DNA test to show that they are only 30% – 40% Native American and the other 60% – 70%  was a mix of European, African and Asian DNA.  So it can be argued then that race is visceral especially if one believes that humans are all related and there is only one race – HUMAN.  This may seem to be the case whether one is a staunch believer in science or a strict believer in an all-powerful Creator.

Therefore we could say that “What is Native American” is not a question of race.  “What is a Native American?”  is more a matter of time and place of where The Creator formed The People.

Learn more about DNA testing.

What Makes A Legal Native American?

The term “Native American” itself brings controversy.   Some prefer “Native American” while others want the term “American Indian” and still different parts of the population prefer other terms, words, or phrases.  This subject alone has been the basis of many papers, articles, books, and academic Master and Ph.D. thesis and dissertations.

Native Americans are composed of numerous, nations, tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of which survive as intact political communities.   Native Americans have a unique relationship with the United States because they may be members of nations, tribes, or bands who have sovereignty or independence from the government of the United States. Their societies and cultures flourish within a larger population of descendants of immigrants (both voluntary and slave): African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European peoples. Native Americans who were not already U.S. citizens were granted citizenship in 1924 by the Congress of the United States.

Native Americans in the United States

The approximate legal definition for Native Americans or American Indians in the United States is that they are the indigenous peoples in North America within the boundaries of the present-day continental United States, Alaska, and the island state of Hawaii.

For Historical and Cultural definitions Native Americans or American Indians are the indigenous peoples of all of North America and South America as it relates to the continents being referred to as the New World.

That seems simple enough, but actually, the classifications of “Who is Native American?” in the United States is much more complicated.

Legal jargon is rampant and among the laws of the United States since the 19th Century alone, there are over 50 legal definitions of American Indian or Native American.  To make matters worse, each one of these definitions can be confusing when compared to another term because there can be found many double-standards of each meaning.

For example, two Federal Laws give different views on who is Native American:

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-341) states that one is American Indian only if a member of a tribe that is eligible for certain special programs from the United States only for the status of being American Indian.

The term ‘Indian Tribe' means any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (85 Stat. 688) (43 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.), which is recognized as  eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.


The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) states that one is American Indian if they are part of a federal or state recognized tribe regardless of special programs by the U.S. for having status as Indian:

Any Indian tribe, band, nation, Alaska Native village, or any organized group or community which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians; or (2) Any Indian group that has been formally recognized as an Indian tribe by a State legislature or by a State commission or similar organization legislatively vested with State tribal recognition authority.

Confused yet?

Well, it gets worse as The U.S. Department of the Interior (which governs the Bureau of Indians Affairs) explicitly states on its website about the Arts & Crafts Act that, “Under the Act, an Indian is defined as a member of any federal or State recognized Indian Tribe or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe.”

That this contradicts the Bureau of Indian Affairs that rules only BIA Federally Recognized Native Americans are real Native Americans and State Recognized Native Americans are not the real deal.

Many BIA Tribes also argue that State Recognized Tribes are not Native Americans.

There are in reality 3 legal designations of Native America in the United States:

1. Federally Recognized via the Bureau of Indian Affairs

These Tribes are recognized by the U.S. Congress and the BIA and receive certain benefits via the BIA for being Native American.  This is done by some sort of continuous legal relationship binding (usually a treaty, executive order, etc.)

2. Federally Congressional Recognized

These Tribes are recognized by the U.S. Congress but not the BIA and do not receive certain benefits via the BIA for being Native American.  There may be Acts of Congress etc. but there is no continuous legal relationship binding such as a treaty or executive order.

3. State Recognized

 These Tribes are recognized by individual State Legislatures.  This is done through an Act of a State General Assembly Legislature and can be a continuous legal relationship binding between the Tribe and the State Government.


This is the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.  This unique document is official United States paperwork that certifies a person possesses a certain amount of Native American blood of a Federally Recognized American Indian Tribe.  It is issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  It is not a birth certificate as many think or believe.  One must apply for this by providing a full genealogy and other supporting documents showing direct Native American Ancestry from one or both parents from an enrolled Native American on the Dawes Rolls.

The CDIB is rather controversial for both Federally Recognized Tribes, State Recognized Tribes, and non-Recognized Tribes.  The degree of blood is usually the most controversial aspect because the factors are based solely on previous enrollment of relative and have nothing to do with the science element of how much Indian Blood one may have.


The Author is not sure of how to explain what is or is not Native American or what is or what is not being a Native American.  But there are some things it is not limited to as many says: ancestry, beliefs, civilization, culture, customs, ethnicity, heritage, history, humanities, legality, philosophy, principles, race, religion, spirit, thoughts, traditions, values, or other.

It is all that and so much more than for many Native Americans it almost impossible to express in mere words.

Are you Native American?
Start Researching Your Family Tree on Ancestry.com



Duthu,  Bruce N.  2008.  American Indians and the Law.  New York: Penguin Group.

Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties.  1903.  Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office

Mihesuah, Devon.  1996.  Killing the white man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century.  Atlanta: Clarity Press.

Pevar, Stephen L.  1992.  The Rights of Indians and Tribes: The Basic ACLU Guide to Indian and Tribal Rights.  Southern Illinois University Press, 1992

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-341).

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644).

Washburn, Wilcomb E.  1995.  The Assault on Indian Tribalism: The General Allotment Law (Dawes Act) of 1887.  Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Wilkinson, Charles.  2008.  Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations.  New York: W.W. Norton.

Last Updated on February 13, 2023 by Paul G

About Jamie K Oxendine

Jamie K. Oxendine, of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, is the Native American Liaison and Education Consultant for Ohio University in Athens. Ohio. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Toledo teaching “Indians of North America” and at Lourdes University teaching “Native American Culture” for the Lifelong Learning Center. A frequent speaker on Native American topics, he serves as the director of the Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation in Ohio. As a recording artist, he was three times been nominated for a NAMMY (Native American Music Award).

24 Comments on “What is a Native American? Native American Meaning”

  • Avatar for Frances



    I am enrolled in the Crow Tribe of Indians ( Apsáalooke) but was not raised on the reservation although my family had land there and probably still does.

    I have done a lot of genealogy and have traced my Indian ancestors back to Mountain Tail (C 1804).

    I don’t want to be a trouble maker but I have a question about how we indigenous people decided to call ourselves Native Americans. Whose idea was that? Correct me if I am wrong, but I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t decided by a meeting of tribal representatives. We still have the word Indian in our tribal name. To be consistent, shouldn’t it be the Crow Tribe of Native Americans? And where does that leave all the white people born and raised in the US, including my white mother. Isn’t she a native American?

    I read that a white sociology professor from a university in Connecticut came up with the idea. I don’t know if it’s true but if it is, I wonder why “Native Americans” accepted once again something that a white man decided for us just like white men decided the one drop of blood for blacks. I know Russel Means refused to call himself a native American.

    Why do we keep doing this? It just doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, I resent it but then I am old and grew up being called American Indian (yes, I know this was also decided by white people but why repeat the same mistake?). I know my father wouldn’t like this either. At least, if we are going to go by another name, let’s start thinking for ourselves and making our own decisions about what that name is. In the meantime, Indigenous people is more accurate.

  • Avatar for Theresa Gaudett

    When from the Ancestry.com website the 1861 Census of Canada states the race of my great grandmother to be Native (Native American) does this not mean that she was an Indian when they conducted the census. Could it be that the word Indian was shown in the registry as Native (Indian or Savage or Mi’Mag, etc.) and changed to Political Correct grammar (Native American)

    • Avatar for Frances



      Theresa Gaudett after posting my thoughts on being called a native American, I read your posting. In one of the genealogy websites I use, I was almost scolded for refusing to use native American. The virtual signaling by some of the genealogists was obnoxious.

  • Avatar for michael caves

    michael caves


    This government is a beurocracy that has since it’s inception assumed the Idea that they have the god given right to label and judge what other people are and where they belong. The history of my people The Tsalagi which whites would only know as the Cherokee were amongst the first tribes to feel the wrath of the big beast that is the US government and are a race that takes without permission and destroys without remorse and many of my ancestors died on the Trail of Tears, during the Great Removal orchestrated by Andrew Jackson in which thousands of women, children and old people died along the trail from everything from starvation to exposure. I don’t need a blood test or some piece of paper from this government to tell me who I am or where I came from. My father was a Tsalagi asgaya, my mother was a Tsalagi asgehya and I was born under the gigage nvda and my Tsalagi name is Dalonige Wahya and I don’t need some crooked Washington BIA politicians blood test to tell me who I am or who my people are.

  • Avatar for Terrance



    This was a good article, a little confusing to read at parts (mainly the legal stuff). I don’t think that the Government should be able to classify Native America, something about it just seems very wrong.

  • Quinn O'Connor


    Great article. I left with more questions than answers after reading the confusing laws about what the government classifies as a Native American. It is sad to know that laws are in place that are hurting the Native Americans define what they essentially are.

  • Avatar for Alyssandra Schwind

    Alyssandra Schwind


    I found this paper very interesting! Nothing is perfect in this world and everything is forever changing. I hope that the future will be a bright one for Native Americans and people will respect them and treat them equally someday.

  • Avatar for Brianna Potts

    Brianna Potts


    I found this really interesting! The fact that government is able to define what makes someone Native American or not doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Avatar for Alyssa Harford

    Alyssa Harford


    It is unfortunate that so many people are unaware of the complexity that surrounds Native American history and culture. So many people want a short description or an easy answer for many of these questions and topics but the truth is, in any culture, a person has to invest a significant amount of time in order to even begin to grasp the depth of cultural heritage.

  • Avatar for Molly LaBadie

    Molly LaBadie


    very well spoken! would enjoy reading a book on these thoughts.

    Thank you

  • Avatar for Matthew Jones

    Matthew Jones


    I find the idea of defining who is or is not a part of the Native American cultures by blood, DNA, or ‘roll’ to be absolutely repugnant. Having this definitions dictated by white men, no less, is beyond reckoning. It’s astonishing how full of it/ignorant people can be when it comes to the legality of things like this.

    The ending statement is really all anyone can say with any certainty:

    ‘…It is all that [culture, ethnicity, language, philosophy, religion, legality, etc.] and so much more that for many Native Americans it almost impossible to express in mere words.’

    • Avatar for Frances



      I am still an American Indian. Nope to “native American” until there is a meeting of tribal representatives chosen by their tribes and not the government where they decide on a new name.

  • Avatar for Douglas Spirit Bear Neely

    Douglas Spirit Bear Neely


    I have with the help of an Aunt research data bases all over the United States and continually ran into dead ends. Dead ends that ranged from Court Houses being flooded, or burned, even records being destroyed to make space for more current files. My Aunt finally did uncover some records with a picture of my four time Great Grand Father Samuel Arnold Woods which according to the newspaper report was full blood Cherokee. This news just confused us more trying to legitimatize ourselves on paper, instead of family lore. And from reading this helped me realize that we are not alone in trying to master the maze of bureaucracy that is the Federal Government!

  • Avatar for Raschel Garland

    Raschel Garland


    I am on the same page with a lot of the other commentors on this piece. I knew about the difficulties in determining ‘legal identity’, but the DNA part of this was still surprising to me. Always a pleasure to read your insights!

  • Avatar for Noah York

    Noah York


    I didn’t realize the complexity of proving race. DNA testing has blown race out of the water… one could be any race and not have any idea.

  • Avatar for Gary Jeffrey

    Gary Jeffrey


    This was a piece that really inspired me to know where it is that I come from. On another part however, it’s a head shaking experience to know that there are people that have to go through Hell and back just to have even a shred of the birthrights that are theirs. Insightful and thought-provoking!

  • Avatar for Nate Zona

    Nate Zona


    The rabbit hole goes deeper and deeper it seems. So many different ways to define oneself! If only it wasn’t such a legal battle to receive your natural birthrights. Nice article, I enjoyed reading it!

  • Avatar for Storm Norton

    Storm Norton


    Very insightful post! I guess I didn’t really know the term “Native American” or ” American Indian” was so difficult to describe and how many different circumstances could take place.

  • Avatar for Brianna Coulter

    Brianna Coulter


    This article was very interesting. It really makes you think about the country’s legal system in a different way. Why does a federally recognized tribe have more rights than a state recognized tribe? You’re still a part of a Native American tribe either way. Very intriguing article!

  • Avatar for Mark Chase

    Mark Chase


    This was an insightful read. I did not know that there were several complications regarding the legal status of Native Americans. This just goes to show that “true” definitions of peoples and their cultures do not exist, as many factors are involved in shaping identities, leading to different definitions. I hope that Native Americans can overcome legal uncertainties and can educate society about their way of life.

  • Avatar for Alvelia Farmer

    Alvelia Farmer


    This article really was intriguing. It caused me to think outside the box and in turn ask the question, “What does it mean to be African American?” The question itself is loaded and I’m not quite sure how to answer it yet but again, thanks for the good read professor. I enjoyed it.

  • Avatar for johnny



    My ancestry goes back to my Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother. My GGrandfather was a Comanche Cief in 1874-1875 and GGrandmother a Comanche interpreter. Problem…Both were captives as children. No Indian blood. Yet I have indian aunts and uncles from other Comanche last names such as TallSun and Littlebird. Yet with all this ancestral history I cannot be considered Indian. The real problem lies with the way some members of family were gained ….Captives are a large part of the Comanche nation history and many chiefs ere not Indian. I would love to be associated with the Comanche nation but cannot due to the blood test requirements.

  • Avatar for Tammy Kinderman

    Tammy Kinderman


    Well written article. It is hard to define what a Native American is. People will ask “what part of Native American are you?” I don’t feel it is the quanity of blood that runs in your veins but the quality of it, the pride you have.

  • Avatar for Tom Iron Eagle

    Tom Iron Eagle


    Very well said and written! Not a subject that can be spoken of to carefully but you did a fine job. You need to write a book on this.

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