I am an American Indian. Like many others in our community, I use the term interchangeably with Native American and Indigenous. My DNA analysis shows I have substantially more than one-quarter Indian blood. I have identified repeatedly as such on the U.S. Decennial Census. It is important to note that nearly two thirds of American Indians counted on the last decennial census were not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. I am aware of Indians enrolled in federally recognized tribes who refuse to submit to DNA analysis because they suspect that they may not, in fact, have the required blood quantum to be enrolled in their respective tribes.
According to the U.S. Department of Interior Indian Affairs, Native American is defined “as an American Indian or Alaska Native person who has blood degree from and is recognized as such by a federally recognized tribe or village (as an enrolled tribal member) and/or the United States.” Of course, blood quantum (the degree of American Indian or Alaska Native blood from a federally recognized tribe or village that a person possesses) is not the only means by which a person is considered to be an American Indian or Alaska Native.
I’d like to address the issue of Indian identity itself, by referring you to a recent law review article written by one of my former professors, Milo Colton, at St. Mary’s University. The article is titled Texas Indian Holocaust and Survival: McAllen Grace Brethren Church. In the article, six different definitions of American Indian that serve different purposes are presented, and, depending on which one is used, can dramatically decrease or increase the American Indian population. They are:
1. Legal Definition: A law made by a political entity that describes who is Indian according to specific criteria. The political entity may be federal, state, local or tribal.
2. Self-Declaration: A person self-identifies as American Indian. The U.S. Census Bureau relies on this definition, which makes it possible to classify and count American Indians with the same precision and honesty that it employs for counting other minorities. Thornton stated it best: “Allowing self-definition and the differences it encompasses is simply to allow American Indians to be American Indians, something done all too infrequently in the short history of the United States.”
3. Community Recognition: The individual is recognized as American Indian by other American Indians.
4. Recognition by Non-Indians: People outside the Indian community treat the individual as an Indian, using any criteria that the non-Indians wish to employ. It may be due to self-declaration. It may be through descent from an enrolled member of a tribe or through secondary evidence, such as birth certificates, death certificates, historical records, the census, family Bibles, adoption records, name changes or other legal documents, indicating that the individual is American Indian or progeny thereof, or other criteria.
5. Biological Criteria: The traditional method of a specified percentage of Indian blood. Considering the advent of publicly available genetic testing, there are now those who may claim American Indian ancestry through DNA analysis. In Vermont, the Western Mohegans lobbied their legislature to recognize a DNA test for a tribal status determination because they lacked adequate genealogical documentation.
6. Cultural Criteria: A person behaves in a fashion to demonstrate their Indian heritage through participation in Indian cultural practices, traditions and ceremonies, such as powwows, sweats, rites or religious services like those in the Native American Church that involve the use of peyote.
Colton presents a definition that was used by the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas (a tribe without federal recognition) to win a federal court case that held more than 400 Texas Indians not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe had the same rights as those in federally recognized tribes to practice their Indian religion and culture without intervention or harassment by the federal government. It means Indians not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe cannot be treated as a “class apart” from those enrolled Indians. The Indians in McAllen Grace Brethren Church asserted that, when it comes to the free exercise of religion, the broadest definition of American Indian shall be used in order to protect all those who wish to engage in the exercise of their American Indian religion without interference.
Other examples of Texas tribes that are not federally recognized but exist as recognized American Indians in the community are the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe and Tap Pilam Coahuiltecans (a tribe who at one point were considered extinct by the Catholic Church).
During our interview Deneteclaw never asked for my blood quantum or DNA. Had she done so, I would have willingly produced it. As we’ve established, blood quantum is not the only factor by which an individual is defined as Native American, it is also an individual’s knowledge, customs practices and oral history. Growing up my mother identified as a Native American. While at St. Mary’s University, I was president of the Native American Students Association. Since graduating, I have been active in the San Antonio Indigenous community for years, even currently serving on the Board of Directors for the American Indian Movement of Central Texas. I hold my Native American religion as my chosen religion.
I believe those who argue that only persons enrolled, associated with or recognized by a federally recognized tribe are the “real” Indians are not only ignorant but classist and exhibit internalized racism. Moreover, it’s important to note that people who identify as American Indians are the only minorities likely to be challenged about their race or ethnicity in our political contests and asked to produce a pedigree based on a federal government list. No other minority running is asked to produce such a pedigree.
The fact is, there is no single federal or tribal criterion or standard that establishes a person's identity as American Indian or Alaska Native. There are numerous stories about Native Americans working through past trauma and reconnecting with their culture, traditions and heritage as they navigate the changing political landscape. We also know that history is replete with stories of how Native Americans’, Latinos’ and African Americans’ ancestral records were never kept, carelessly stored or lost for one reason or another. That alone should not make anyone less of a person. We are all of mixed ancestry and Deneteclaw failed to ask the right questions. Anyone can cherry pick a source, but a good reporter does complete research and looks at all the facts. Deneteclaw and the Texas Observer’s Indigenous Affairs reporting desk should be ashamed of themselves for attempting to steal my identity. Their attempt in doing so says more about the narrowness of their perspective in reporting than it does about my, in their opinion, “questionable identity.” The only identity crisis here, is the one being experienced at the Texas Observer, a touted “progressive” paper displaying antiquated forms of cultural self-identification.
This is dedicated to all who are “not recognized” by an official source. You do not need to be. Live your identity the way you see fit and never let another person attempt to steal your identity.Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.
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