What Is A Native American?

Posted By Jamie K Oxendine August 1st, 2012 Last Updated on: February 28th, 2022

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 other?


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 defender of 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.


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 federally 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 rule only BIA Federally Recognized Native Americans are real Native Americans and State Recognized Native Americans are not the real deal.

Many federally recognized 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 Tribe 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 Tribe

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 Tribe

 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 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 relatives and have nothing to do with the scientific 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's 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.

Home » Native American Articles » Native American Genealogy » What Is A Native American?

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).

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[…] What is a Native American? […]

[…] Native Americans are the people who consist one of the more than 500 distinguished tribes that still endure as sovereign states with the United States’ present geographical boundaries. […]

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)

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

Molly LaBadie

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

Thank you

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