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 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.
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.
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 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.
Home » Native American Articles » Native American Genealogy »
Explore Native Culture