Federal Recognition: What Is an Indian?

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Federal Recognition: What Is an Indian?






Three different perspectives are most common for considering the question, What is an Indian? The first perspective is from the viewpoint of Native peoples themselves, who can offer as many diverse answers to this question as there are tribal nations in the Americas—more than 1,000 cultural entities. The second perspective is from university scholars, who over the last 400 years have created a rather unified and consistent “outsider”view of Native American culture and history, presented mostly in published books and articles. Last is the perspective, in the United States and Canada, of the governments of the dominant Anglo societies—a perspective consisting largely of ethnocentric and self-serving fabrications, and full of legal myths about native peoples and their relations with colonial powers and with the Euro-American governments that succeeded them.

Perhaps no colonized group in the world has been so mislabeled by European colonistsasthe“AmericanIndians.”The historians of Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago began the problem in nomenclature by referring to the peoples of the Indus River region of the South Asian subcontinent, conquered by Alexander and comprising most of modern Pakistan, as Indians, a term that later came to mean any peoples south of China and east of Africa. In ancient and medieval times, the entire South Asian subcontinent became known as “India”and the large islands of present-day Indonesia were labeled “the Indies.”It was the value of trade goods from this area, procured at first by lengthy and exhaustive coastal and overland transport, that led Columbus and others to seek a direct westerly route across the Atlantic to the Indies in the fifteenth century.

After explorers and mapmakers had determined in the sixteenth century that the Caribbean islands they had found were not part of Indonesia, they differentiated the two by calling the Pacific location the “East Indies”and the Caribbean location the “West Indies,”even though they were about 10,000 miles apart. To differentiate between the respective native peoples, the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands and subsequently the adjacent continents were first referred to as “West Indians”and then simply “Indians.”After mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci formalized the nomenclature and immodestly named the two continents after himself in 1502, the inhabitants became known as “American Indians.”In Britain, to differentiate South Asian Indians from American Indians, both of whom had a place in British culture and history, the racial term “Red Indians”was used for the Americans, a term picked up by scientific racists in the nineteenth century when they characterized the skin colors of the world as fourfold—black, white, yellow, and red, making a complete chromatic set. This was perhaps aesthetically pleasing but biologically gibberish, because all human beings occur simply in various shades of brown. So the native peoples of the Americas were forced to live with a three-layered insult—named after a river in Asia they had never seen, bearing the personal name of a European who had barely set foot in “America,”and characterized as contrasting with Europeans by being “red”in color.


A standing complaint among Native Americans is being asked by tourists to “speak Indian,”as if all native people spoke the same language, presumably the abbreviated Pamunkey trade language spoken in Virginia in colonial times, used by James Fenimore Cooper in writing his Leatherstocking Tales and made more famous by Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s television sidekick. But in fact, the linguistic situation in aboriginal America was and is much richer and more complex than that of Europe. In all of Europe, only three language families are represented. A language family is defined as a group of languages that are historically related—all derived from a single parent language spoken perhaps thousands of years ago, but which historical linguists can reconstruct. Most Europeans speak an Indo-European language, such as those of the Romance group derived from Latin, or the Germanic languages, including English. Hungarians and Finns each speak a Finno-Ugric language, and the Basques (or more properly, Euzkadis) of Spain and France speak an “isolated”language, perhaps representing languages spoken in Europe before the Roman expansion.

But in the Americas, there are altogether about nineteen language families comprising nearly a thousand separate and mutually unintelligible languages, some of which are as different in their phonetic and grammatical structure as English and Chinese, or Bantu and Samoan. In North America alone, there are about ten language families and 216 separate languages (scholars differ in their estimates and classifications; see Ruhlen 1986, and Goddard 1996).

Native Americans are as diverse in their culture, religious beliefs, and traditional histories as they are in their languages, although tribal nations with related languages often share certain beliefs about creation and cosmology. Many of the traditionalist Native peoples of eastern North America, for example, have shared the cosmological view that the earth rests on the back of a turtle, and that the firmament was created from mud brought to the surface of the ocean by a crawfish. A few, but not all, of these groups have the traditional belief that at the time of creation humans were surrounded by a dense fog, and organized themselves with other non-human creatures as clans. They did not realize that they had become the comrades of certain non-human animals, plants, and other phenomena until the Master of Breath blew away the fog. The people of the Kiowa Nation of the Great Plains believe traditionally that they were uniquely created and placed on earth through the agency of a sacred hollow log situated in the Wichita Mountains. Their neighbors the Cheyenne believe that they too are unique, born with a layer of waxy yellow vernix from the high God, Maheo, as a symbol of their special status among humans. Similarly, some Nakota groups believe that their children uniquely bear a dark spot on their lower back, which biologists call the “Mongoloid Spot,”a characterization that the Nakota forcefully reject. Height, body build, beards, and skin color have also been used as indices of humanness among Native American peoples, as well as between natives and colonists. In addition, Native people invoke the physical characteristics of freckles and moles, body hair, pattern baldness, and eye color to differentiate themselves racially from “Whites”and from “Mixed Bloods.”

In their diverse beliefs, Native Americans have been sometimes more and sometimes less generous in bestowing human status on their neighbors, depending on history and circumstance. At the extreme, some nations did not bestow completely human status on traditional enemies, using words equivalent to savage or primitive to describe them, or insulting their enemies as cannibals, carrion-eaters, or incestuous persons. European colonists exploited this racism and chauvinism to enact a “divide and conquer”strategy against Native peoples in the New England and Virginia colonies. Later, to get the cooperation of Native people such as the Yamasees of Georgia in recovering escaped slaves, they imparted their own notions of African inferiority as well.

Soon after the European invasion, Native Americans recognized that they must eschew previous hostilities among themselves, and the accompanying racism and chauvinism, to present a united front against the European invaders. The Iroquois Indians were precocious in this regard, confronting the Europeans with the League of the Hodenosaunee or Iroquois, a confederacy of nations who spoke several different languages within the same Iroquoian language family. They invented political protocols emphasizing the political power of women that overcame parochial divisions, allowing the Iroquois League to dominate frontier politics in the eastern Great Lakes area during the eighteenth century.

Farther south, the Mvskoke Creeks went even farther in creating a pan-Indian, international confederacy, inviting the remnants and refugees of disintegrating coastal groups to join them by town as full citizens of their confederacy, which was called the Etelaketa. At first the Confederacy included only Yuchis, Hitchitis, Apalachees, and a few Cherokees and Natchez, but later it comprised larger populations of Shawnee, Alabama, and Koasati towns, representing altogether four language families and twelve distinct languages. In addition, as escaped indentured servants of European ancestry began to arrive in Creek territory in the late seventeenth century, they were assigned to three new towns, if they were not married into existing towns. A bit later, escaped African slaves were welcomed, forming five of their own towns, mostly as clients to Indian towns. An even broader confederacy was planned by the legendary Tecumseh toward the end of the eighteenth century, who proposed a grand alliance of all tribes south of the Great Lakes and north of the Ohio River. He failed, but the remainder of his movement went south to join the Seminoles in Florida at the end of the eighteenth century, forming a society that created a formal equality among its citizens of African, European, and Native American ancestry, a feat not accomplished in the American colonies or the United States until the twentieth century.

Pan-Indianism began to supercede nativism among Native Americans in North America with the emergence of the so-called Ghost Dance religion after the Civil War. Founded by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, the movement— in which nearly all Plains Indians participated—anticipated the creation of a new Earth west of the horizon, over which Jesus was sovereign, and which in the form of a hemispherical shell would move east over the globe, soon covering over a despoiled earth and the white people and their destructive and sinful ways. The buffalo would return to the new earth, dead ancestors would be resurrected, and Native people would be well fed and happy. The movement was notable not only for its Christian elements, but also its pan-Indian character. It was emphatically not a tribal religion. The Peyote religion, or Native American Church, is similar in being explicitly Christian and panIndian, although it is not a mass movement but is organized into small local groups. At the turn of the twentieth century, organized pow-wows and ubiquitous sweat lodges in the Unites States and Canada also gained recognition as pan-Indian institutions. Intellectually, the twentieth century saw the development of pan-Indian literature and poetry, and pan-Indian political ideas from native writers such as Vine Deloria and Ward Churchill, and pan-Indian groups such as the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund.


If Native American intellectuals have historically been skeptical of Anglo-American scholarship concerning Indian origins and identity, they have good reasons. The first wave of Europeans, including Anglican priests, Puritan ministers, and French Jesuits, believed that Native Americans were worshippers of Satan, if they were not indeed the actual children of the Devil. English explorer Martin Frobisher, later hero of the battle with the Spanish Armada, previously served the Crown as explorer of the North American continent. While coasting Labrador and Baffin Island in 1560 looking for a Northwest Passage to the East Indies, he took the opportunity to go ashore, seize an Indian woman and hike up her skirts to see if she had cloven hooves instead of feet, thereby marking her as one of the Devil’s brood. Such early observers as John Smith and Jonathan Edwards, after questioning native people of New England and Virginia, confirmed to their British readers that they were all worshippers of the Devil (see Sayre 1997). An alternative view was that they had no religion at all, and the consensus was that they were savages who lived in “promiscuous hordes”in the forests, as described by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, thereby justifying the theft of their land.

In Central and South America, among the first philosophical and theological questions the Spanish and Portuguese colonists formally faced were whether Indians constituted any kind of human at all, and if they had souls. If they were defined as animals, then they could be killed at will, worked to death in the mines, and did not have to be converted to Christianity (the “colonialist”position). If they were humans, then they had to be converted, could not be murdered legally, and could share communion in the Church (the “indigenist”position). In an historic debate in Valladolid, Spain in 1550–1551, Juan Genés de Sepúlveda defended the colonialist position, while Bartolomé de las Casas defended the human status of Native Americans. After lengthy deliberations, the judges in the case could not reach a decision, but the indigenist position ultimately prevailed by means of a series of royal decrees leading to the Basic Law of 1573 (Hanke 1959).

Having determined in the colonial period that Indians were something less than human, or at least something less than civilized, Western scholars then had to account for the rise of the civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas, and for the magnificent mounds and pyramids that were found when colonists penetrated the interior of North America. Having already demonized, literally, the “savage”occupants of North America, they could only hypothesize that somebody else must have built these impressive monuments. The hypothesized builders included well-known figures from Classical European history and mythology—refugees from the lost continent of Atlantis, Ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians, and the lost tribes of Israel. Isolated from Spanish sources by their ignorance of the language, British prehistorians did not concern themselves very much with Latin America, but parallel theories grew in Mexico and South America that the Aztec culture was inspired by immigrants from the African medieval empires, and that the Incas were inspired by Chinese or Japanese cultures. In 1968, Erich von Daniken, in his book Chariots of the Gods, even hypothesized that the pyramids and other structures had been built or at least designed by space travelers from another solar system. All such theories have served to denigrate the intellect of Native Americans, while ignoring the continuity of 10,000 years of archeological evidence indicating a slow and steady development, not a sudden appearance of high cultures in the Americas.

Among the pioneers in careful description of Native American culture—scientific ethnography—are John Smith of Jamestown, who despite his racism and religious bigotry provided accurate descriptions of Pamunkey economics and politics, while John White made accompanying sketches illustrating native life in North Carolina and Virginia. Father Joseph François Lafitau, who unlike most of his Jesuit confreres understood the complex structures of Indian kinship and politics, published a two volume description of Indian cultures in 1724 criticizing the views of his ethnocentric brethren, entitled Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times. The best of these early ethnographers, however, was Lewis Henry Morgan, who in the next century helped to found the science of comparative kinship, or ethnology, was adopted by the Iroquois, and visited Native peoples up and down the Missouri River from 1859 to 1862, taking notes of differences in language and culture. His 1851 book League of the Hodenosaunee or Iroquois was perhaps the first full ethnography of any tribal society, anywhere. His magnum opus, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871), is still consulted by ethnologists. Morgan’s Iroquois friend and sponsor, Ely S. Parker, was Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant during the Civil War, and was the first Indian person appointed as head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), beginning his term in 1869.

In the nineteenth century, scholarly studies of Native American culture and societies were largely generated by government agencies, beginning with the publications of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian Agent for the Chippewas (or Ojibwas), who received Congressional support to publish the six volumes of his Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the Indian Tribes of the United States, from 1851 to 1857. Following the Civil War, the government organized its own research institution for studying Indians, the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), under the premise that Indian culture, and Indian people themselves, had to be studied immediately because they would soon disappear, killed by diseases and their inability to adapt to a new situation. The BAE was merged with the Smithsonian Institution in 1965. The Smithsonian preserves its special status as providing the official scholarly perspective on Indians in its new edition of the Handbook of North American Indians, projected to comprise twenty volumes. The authors’ guide for scholars writing articles for the Handbook recognizes the original premise of the BAE by requiring authors to refer to Indians and their cultural activities in the past tense.


In the British part of colonial North America, settlement had originally proceeded on the basis of charters issued to companies or groups of settlers to enter a particular area for purposes stated in their charter. It was up to the colonists to entreat with aboriginal residents and set boundaries and terms of interaction. Later in the seventeenth century, however, the Crown began to recognize the dangers of this arrangement, and forbade colonies from signing treaties with Indian polities on their own, and insisted that all treaties must be ratified by the Crown. The form of the treaties with Indians was the same as protocols followed by the Crown with other European governments or those of Africa or the Middle East. That is, the individual Native American groups were each treated as a sovereign nation. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the American Revolution, the United States promised to honor all treaties written between former British colonies and Indian nations, which had mostly been ratified by the Crown. The reservations of land made for Indians under these treaties became known as “state reservations,”comprising such entities as the Mohegans, Pequot, Pamunkey, and Catawba tribes in the eastern United States. The Iroquois groups also had treaties and titles for large tracts in upstate New York.

As the American frontier moved west of the Appalachian Mountains after independence, the former method of treaty-making was maintained. Typically, a meeting was called between U.S. and Native leaders, an agreement was worked out concerning such matters as land, boundaries, trade, and travel, then signed and ratified by both groups inter pares, “between equals.”As the frontier reached the Mississippi River, however, federal policy changed dramatically. Land was becoming scarce in the east, and so a policy of Indian Removal was implemented in 1828, stating that all Indians east of the Mississippi had to move to reservations in the far west, across the Mississippi. The Cherokees, with a large educated elite and many friends in Washington, refused to move and sued, so that the case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, was ultimately heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Cherokees were confident of victory. If the Court decided that they were citizens of the United States, then they could go to court and defend their rights like any other citizen. If the Court decided that they were a sovereign nation, then the United States had to respect their treaties. Either way, they figured, they had the legal power to maintain control of their lands in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. But they were wrong.

In an unprecedented and self-contradictory ruling in 1831, Chief Justice John Marshall invented the concept of the “domestic dependent nation.”Even though, up to then, the word nation legally and semantically meant that the group was sovereign or free and independent of any other government, Marshall redefined it to mean the opposite in the case of American Indians. He rewrote the dictionary. Indians east of the Mississippi were ordered to go west, and populist President Andrew Jackson was very willing to start them moving to please his constituency. Some Indian people on state reservations pleaded exception to the decision, because they had treaties that antedated the formation of the United States, and some of them won their cases. The Iroquois pleaded a special exception—their treaty with the United States was approved in that interim period after U.S. independence but before there was a Constitution, which was not completed until 1787. Therefore, they argued, the constitutionality of their treaty was irrelevant. Caught in a legal contradiction, the U.S. side capitulated and the Iroquois stayed in New York. Elsewhere, the Indian Removal Act was enforced unevenly, depending on local situations. In one odd case, the Catholic Potawatomies of Indiana were removed to Indian Territory, while the Methodist Potawatomies were allowed to stay, reflecting the anti-Catholic sentiments of the day. Perhaps in retribution, the Catholic Potawatomies sold their land to the Catholic Church, which promptly distributed it to Irish immigrants and built Notre Dame University on the site of the former reservation.

The U.S. government continued to write treaties in the same mode as before, first with nations of the Northwest Territory, and increasingly with Plains Indians and those in California and Oregon Territory. They neglected to tell the Indian signers about the Marshall decision, which had determined that even in signing a treaty recognizing them as a sovereign nation, the government had reduced their status to that of a dependent nation. These treaties were meaningless, because they could be overridden by Congress or even by an executive order of the president. Between 1831 and 1871, when treaty writing was abandoned entirely by act of Congress, Indian nations were moved around and their reservation boundaries and memberships revised and redetermined at the whim of the federal government.


As Indians were pacified, missionized, and sent to prisons and boarding schools intensively after 1890, the federal government had time to organize them and their reservations as it liked. They either did not realize or did not care that their perspective on Indians was quite different from the perspectives of scholars or the Native peoples themselves, in many ways. First of all, there was the question of what to call these entities they had collected onto bounded, exclusive reservations. The government was careful to use the term tribe for these people, because that implied a lesser political status than nation. Native leaders were just as careful to use the word nation in their discourse with government officials, constantly reminding them of their claims to sovereignty. Then there was the question of the proper and polite names for the different “tribes.”Some of the official names selected over the years were at least informal or colloquial, some were incorrect, and some downright insulting. The “Sioux,”for example, had been given the name used by the Chippewas to degrade them as “snakes,”Nadouessioux. They called themselves Dakota, Nakota, or Lakota, depending on their language, history, and location. The “Delawares,”a conglomeration of Algonquian-speaking tribes living around Chesapeake Bay, had been named after an English nobleman, Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, without their knowledge or consent. They called themselves Lenape (Original people). The “Gros Ventres”(Big bellies) were burdened with a nickname bestowed by French traders; they called themselves A’ananin. In the same spirit, the Nimi’ipuu (Real People) had been labeled the Nez Percé (Pierced Noses), another French traders’ nickname. Yet another group, which will not be identified, bears a native version of the name “Those Who Drink Our Urine,”bestowed by a hostile neighboring group and transcribed by some trader or bureaucrat who did not speak the language. There are many other examples of misnaming, which are in the process of correction as traditional groups become more forceful in asserting their identity and naming themselves. They are also overcoming the objections of Anglo administrators that their names are difficult to spell or to pronounce. And so the Papago have officially become the Tohono O’odham, and the Sarcee of Canada have become the Tsuu T’ina.

Next there is the issue of whether an official tribal label applied by the government to a bounded reservation group accurately reflects the membership of the group. The Mvskoke Creeks, the officially recognized confederacy mentioned above, who were enrolled as one “tribe,”notably includes several towns of Yuchis, whose language and history are distinct from the Mvskokes. The modern Creeks of Oklahoma also include a community of Shawnees, living at the edge of their Oklahoma reservation near the official Shawnees. Other unofficial Shawnees live with the Cherokees, and others are divided between the Shawnees proper, who were present at a treaty signing, and the Absentee Shawnees, who were assigned that name because they boycotted the treaty meeting. Some Delawares reside with the Cherokees, whereas others are with the Caddoes, from Texas. Some entire ethnic Cherokee communities are enrolled as Creeks in eastern Oklahoma, and some Creek communities as Cherokees, occupying part of the Cherokee Reservation. In the last several decades, such immersed tribes have been denied the right to organize themselves as separate entities because, according to the BIA, they already have an identity. In fact, one of the present rules of federal recognition is that a group cannot be separately recognized if the members are already members of a recognized group. So the Yuchis are destined by Anglo law and policy to remain Creeks, no matter what their cultural and linguistic differences might be, and no matter what their desires might be.

The Seminoles are another striking example of the differences between a native perspective, a scholarly perspective, and the perspective of a national government. Originally, the Seminoles were a group of Hitchitis, members of the Mvskoke Creek Confederacy, who moved from Georgia into north Florida to avoid hostilities with Anglo settlers. They were soon joined by the militants of Tecumseh’s time and moved farther into Florida, accompanied by Black Seminoles, who formed their own towns. Other Hitchitis went to Indian Territory with the Creeks between 1830 and 1835. The Seminole Hitchitis began to call themselves Mikasukis. So there were and remain two groups of Seminoles in Florida, the Hitchiti-speakers in the Everglades, and the Mvskoke-speakers near Lake Okeechobee. The so-called Creeks of Indian Territory have comprised a multitude of language and cultural group-ings—Mvskokes, Hitchitis, Shawnees, Alabamas, Koasatis, Cherokees, Yuchis, and Natchez—as well as comprising three towns descended from white indentured servants and five more comprising the descendants of escaped black slaves. As in other venues, the BIA has continued to use ethnic and “racial”differences to promote dissension and thus control tribal politics, especially between people characterized in racial terms as red, white, and black, the title of an influential book on the subject by Gary B. Nash (2000). Oddly, in view of its policy with its own citizens, the federal government did not discriminate legally among different kinds of Indians. Whether red, white, or black, they were all enrolled as Indians and given a tribal label.

In sum, the BIA created its “standard brands”of Indians by ignoring the real social, cultural, historical, and even “racial”differences among them, which were well known to scholars and of course to Indian people themselves. The existence of these standard brands was reinforced by treaties, confinement to reservations, enrollment procedures, and the organization of “tribal”governments after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. But during the twentieth century, demographic forces were developing that would make the BIA’s job of accounting for Indians much more difficult. First of all, the process of tribal intermarriage continued apace despite the segregation of Indians on reservations and their removal to isolated places, as attested by data collected by anthropologist Franz Boas from the 1900 U.S. Census (see Moore and Campbell 1995). Roughly 15 percent of tribal members were found to be marrying outside their ethnic group every generation. Secondly, as the different entities intermarried, their portion of blood in their natal tribe constantly diminished, confounding the racist system of “blood quantum”invented by the BIA. In this system, Indian people could apply for enrollment as a tribal member only by submitting documents to an enrollment office that certified their extent of “Indian blood”by tribe. If their documents were approved, they were issued a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB), which allowed them to enroll in a tribe if they had the required fraction of ancestry there. People with CDIBs fulfill one requirement of being a “legal Indian.”

Intermarriage among Indians progressed until, by 1980, some people with ancestry in several tribes found that they did not have enough blood quantum in any one tribe to be accepted for enrollment. Even some “full blood”Indians could not enroll anywhere. The system was further confounded by the practice within many tribes of considering ancestry to be only through the male line or the female line. Therefore, if one had a father from a matrilineal tribe and a mother from a patrilineal tribe, one could not enroll in either tribe. Scholars since the days of Lafitau and Morgan had recognized this situation, as of course had Indians since time immemorial, but the Bureau had made no accommodation to this cultural convention. In the 1880s, the BIA did not expect that there would be any Indians at all by 1980, and they frequently said so. But when it appeared by 1928 that Indians were here to stay, and in fact increasing in population, the BIA accommodated some of their own rules of citizenship in tribal nations under the Indian Reorganization Act.

A new problem in recognizing Indians and placing them in a tribe occurred with the reappearance in the twentieth century of tribes that had been neglected, or who were thought to be extinct. As early as colonial times, some Indian people had fled to the hinterlands to escape the genocidal attacks of the whites; William Christie McLeod (1928) and Helen Hunt Jackson (1881) catalogued some of these cases. To avoid hostilities, some groups denied their Indianness and called themselves names like “Portuguese Colored”or “Jackson Whites.”When Indian Removal was enacted in the 1830s, large numbers of Cherokees and Choctaws especially, but also other smaller tribes, found refuge in mountain valleys, swamps, or on land that whites did not covet, while their brethren were being forcibly marched to Indian Territory. Some Indian people, even whole communities, had “opted out”of being official Indians, and diffused into their home communities among whites and blacks, and made their own way. Prominent among these were the Lumbees of North and South Carolina and the Keetowah Cherokees. Others used their own resources to emigrate independently to Indian Territory, refusing to be enrolled as Indians, and refusing to take land when it was offered under allotment in severalty, most notably some Cherokees, as well as some groups of Choctaws, Delawares, and Mvskoke Creeks.

By the 1970s, the political climate had changed to the extent that many submerged groups wanted to come out of hiding. Spurred by the example of Black Power among African Americans, Indian people began talking about Red Power. This was the period when the American Indian Movement (AIM), the International Indian Treaty Council, and many similar groups were founded. In the 1970s and 1980s, many previously little-known or unknown Indian communities began to identify themselves and seek some kind of recognition as Native people. They were encouraged in these efforts by a series of federal judicial decisions that emphasized that as the federal government had encroached on Indian lands and resources through the assignment of people to reservations and allotment in severalty in 1888, they had thereby accumulated an increasing fiduciary responsibility to uphold the interests of these tribes. In fact, the federal government was forced to take the Indian side in disputes concerning state reservations.

More importantly, it became clear that the federal government had to create a mechanism to officially recognize newly emerging groupings of Indian people. Many of them merely wanted to be admitted as a group to an existing tribe, some wanted federal recognition for tribes recognized only by states, perhaps living on state reservations, while others wanted an entirely new reservation established for them by federal authority. The most dramatic of these groups was a band of Shoshones who had somehow been overlooked in their homeland in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada. Never enrolled, they wandered into Las Vegas during a drought in the 1960s, asking for help. To accommodate such demands, the U.S. Congress, through the BIA, established a new procedure for recognizing previously unrecognized groups in 1978. The criteria for recognition changed over the following three decades, but the criteria in the early twenty-first century emphasize the documentation of continuity of a petitioning group with an historically known Indian entity, the continued existence of the group as a community, and the genealogical connections and Indian blood quanta of the petitioners. In 2007 more than 300 petitioning groups were at some stage in the process of petitioning for federal recognition. The criteria are available at the website of the Federal Register and the BIA, as well as several other locations as 25 CFR Part 83, Procedures for Establishing that an American Indian Group Exists as an Indian Tribe.

The criteria for federal recognition of a tribe are distinct from the criteria used for recognition as an individual Indian. For personal recognition, as opposed to group recognition, several levels of Indian identity have been defined. In the last several decades of the twentieth century, softer or looser criteria were developed for the private sector as well as government institutions, to fulfill the requirements of affirmative action. Currently, many different standards are applied to determine “what is an Indian?”At the bottom of the identity hierarchy are self-identified Indians. They rank among other levels of identity as follows, from least rigid to most rigid:

  1. Self-Identified Indian. This is merely a person who claims to have Indian ancestry.
  2. Documented Indian. Someone who has documents tracing ancestry to someone noted in government records as an Indian, for example on a U.S. Decennial Census.
  3. Legal Indian. Someone who has submitted documents resulting in the award of a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, issued by the federal government.
  4. Enrolled Indian. Someone with a CDIB who has been accepted for membership by a federally recognized “tribe.”

Only enrolled Indians can receive federal services provided through tribes. For some purposes, for example for federal employment and education benefits, some preference is shown for legal Indians, even if they are not enrolled in a tribe, but the federal government has been tightening up these benefits for unenrolled Indians as more and more Indian groups have been granted federal recognition.

Because of these differences in status and location, the total number of “Indians”in the United States is difficult to determine. Most do not live on reservations, and many do not bother to enroll unless they are resident on a reservation or if some special situation arises, such as a special election or the settlement of an outstanding legal claim. But according to the BIA and the Bureau of the Census, on their respective Web sites, there are about five million self-identified Indians on current U.S. censuses, about half of whom are affiliated in some manner with a particular reservation or tribal nation. There are many people of Indian ancestry who are qualified to receive a CDIB or to enroll with a tribe, who for various reasons, including their disgust at the process, have failed to do so. Those who have struggled over the years to collect documents to receive a CDIB, to be enrolled in an existing tribe, or to participate in a federal recognition petition, often become very angry and frustrated at the process. One often hears the complaint: “White people don’t have to carry an ID card proving that they’re white, so why do I have to carry a card proving that I’m an Indian?”A very good question.

The relations between the First Nations of Canada and their federal government are somewhat different from the United States. In the historically British or Anglophone area of Canada, from Ontario and the Great Lakes westward, the historical pattern of treaty writing and the establishment of reservations was similar to that of the United States, except that the areas set aside for Indians are called Reserves, and the occupants called Bands, further demoting native groups from the status of nation. In Quebec and other areas formerly under French control until the 1763 French-British treaty ended the Seven Years War, Indian claims to land and status have been complicated by the existence of prior French-Indian treaties, and British-French agreements. These treaties had provisions for Native people with consequences for Canadian law. Also, the status of some lands historically awarded by the French government to missionaries and traders seemed ambiguous under British law.

Between 1871 and 1922, the Canadian government undertook to write a series of numbered treaties (1–11) with tribal nations in the Canadian West, which was still sparsely populated and where the government could claim no “right of conquest”over native groups. In many cases, because of the complications of intermarriage and ethnic identity, people of Indian ancestry were given the choice of becoming a member of a band, a “status”or legal Indian, or a regular citizen of Canada, with consequences that are still being worked out in Canadian courts. In addition to comprising about two million Indians, Canada is also the home of about 300,000 Metis, of mixed Indian-French ancestry, many of whom speak their own original mixed language, Michif. The Canadian government regards them as an aboriginal people. In the same spirit, the United States regards native Hawaiians as Native Americans, but not as Indians. In Latin America, relations between Indians and Europeans have been extremely complicated and have varied dramatically from country to country. Ethnogenesis has generated hundreds of hybrid and mixed populations who have different political and cultural statuses in different countries (Hill 1996).

SEE ALSO Blood Quantum.


Asch, Michael, ed. 1997. Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Brown, Dee. 1970. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Churchill, Ward. 2003. Perversions of Justice: Indigenous Peoples and Angloamerican Law. San Francisco: City Lights.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins. New York: Macmillan.

Goddard, Ives, ed. 1996. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 17: Languages. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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John H. Moore

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Federal Recognition: What Is an Indian?

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Federal Recognition: What Is an Indian?