Who Is Indian And Who Decides?

Wilma Mankiller

So far in this series, we’ve discussed Native American origin theories and the proper way to address them. Today we’ll look at who is an Indian, and who has the right to make that determination. The question almost seems silly, but that’s far from the truth. As you can see by the quote on the picture above, the late Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee, thinks an Indian is an Indian. An individual should know, right? Not in America.

In an attempt to unravel “Indianness,” we need to go back before the European invasion, when most tribes traced their heritage through women. This practice is called matrilineal lineage. It didn’t matter who the father was, your membership into the tribe came through your mother. Whether she bore a child naturally or adopted one, that child was a tribal member. For example, John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee during the failed battle for their land in Georgia, was only 1/8th Cherokee by today’s blood count. His mother, who married a European, was one quarter Cherokee because her father was a Scotsman, and her mother was one half Cherokee because her father was European as well. To the tribe, though, he was Cherokee because of the mother’s kinship lines.

Another example is Quanah Parker, last Chief of the Comanche. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white girl captured by the Comanche from her father’s ranch in Texas. She was adopted into the tribe and married Peta Nocona. Because she was adopted by a Comanche woman, she was considered Comanche, as was her son. No Native ever spoke in terms of blood quantum until the Europeans (Americans) got involved.

How did it become so confusing that today there are multiple law suits challenging tribal affiliation? That’s a very long story and can be covered another time, but it stems from our intent to “Americanize” Indians. The two main characters in this story are Alice Fletcher, an anthropologist, and Henry L. Dawes, a Senator. Both were ardent supporters of American Indians and were committed to improving their lot in the mid-19th century.

Fletcher worked with the Omaha Tribe and misinterpreted a conversation with one of the Chiefs who indicated he wanted to go back home. He meant return to the way things were, and she believed he was asking for a “home.” She became convinced the answer to the Indian problem was to turn them into farmers so that they could share in the American society.

Her idea caught on in Washington, and Senator Dawes became the father of the Allotment Act which passed in 1887. The Act provided that every member of various tribes would be allotted a certain amount of land in his name and the implements necessary to farm. We’ll talk much more on the impact of the Act later, but suffice it to say, it required tribes to list their membership. The resulting “Dawes Rolls,” became the definitive answer as to whether or not someone is Indian. It didn’t matter that many tribal members didn’t list themselves, or that many errors were made in recording the list, it became the rule.

Since then, of course, most tribes have created their own governments and constitutions and all have set up the standards by which one can be considered a member. Today, one must apply to the tribe and be vetted by the membership committee for acceptance. It is also possible for a tribe to dis-enroll someone if it believes that person does not meet all the criteria. If you do become a member, you are awarded a membership card, a blood quantum card, which states your percentage.

So, I’m sorry, Miss Mankiller, today, you can’t be an Indian unless you can prove it by having a card. In fact, those with Native American heritage who do not have cards refer to themselves as “undocumented.”

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