Skip to main content

Authenticity: Ethnic Indians, non-Indians and Reservation Indians

Authenticity is a puzzling feature of contemporary Indian life. Growing up on an Indian reservation, I rarely encountered challenges to one’s identity as an Indian person. People within the reservation community knew most of the families. If they didn’t know the family connections of a specific person they could learn with a few inquiries to elders or their own family members.

One grows up on reservation community where there is an old and somewhat fixed family and kinship structure. There is very little doubt about who belongs and who does not, at least from a lineal descendent point of view. Tribal membership, because of blood quantum and other rules, may be more complicated and legalistic. A person whose family has lived within a tribal reservation community for as long as people can remember and who are legally tribal members usually do not encounter challenges to tribal identity from tribal community members.

This is not so say, in the contemporary world, that every member of a reservation community has strong commitments to traditional culture and identity. Many tribal and reservation communities are composed of mixed cultural heritages. The Navajo are often recognized for retaining their language and culture. However, about one-third of the Navajo population is traditional, while one-third are Christians, and another third are Mormons.

Living within most contemporary reservation communities often implies that an Indian person is living within a multi-cultural community. That is not to say that most reservation Indians do not share a commitment to community and Indian identity, they in fact do. Many contemporary tribal reservation members adhere to non-Indian worldviews, but at the same time have political and kinship ties to reservation communities and indigenous issues. While cultural views may differ among tribal members, they often share commitments to political and economic continuity of the indigenous nation. This contemporary pattern of American Indian reservation identity reflects contemporary U.S. practices of multiculturalism. While cultural views and identities may vary, there is often general agreement about national identity, purpose, and political ground rules.

The cultural complexities of contemporary Indian communities tend to confuse non-Indians who are expecting and often demand traditional cultural expression and personas from contemporary Indian people. If a person does not look and act like an Indian—usually a stereotypical image of a Plains Sioux Indian—then many non-Indians doubt the Indian authenticity of tribal member.

Reservation Indians usually have very secure identities, and so when non-Indians or ethnic Indians doubt their authenticity, reservation Indians often find these circumstances amusing. Ethnic Indians can be defined as persons of Indian descent who are not members of a tribal community and often their families have not have had contact with a home community for generations. For reservation Indians, authenticity is confirmed within the local reservation community. While for many ethnic Indians and non-Indians, Indian authenticity is determined by stereotypes and images that are common within American society.

There are more non-Indians in the U.S. than reservation Indians, and generally the views of non-Indians prevail. Non-Indian views of Indian authenticity drowned out reservation understandings of Indian authenticity. Before the 1980s, some times Indians often conformed to U.S. images of authenticity by dressing in Plains Indian clothes and headdresses, partly because otherwise they could not be recognized as Indians. Southern California Indians, for example, do not traditionally have powwow dances, but have dances and songs based on their tribal creation teachings that narrate an epic migration of ancestral birds who end by establishing the homeland of the people. Unfortunately, much contemporary discussion about Indian authenticity focuses more on U.S. definitions of authenticity than tribal understandings, which are less well known and understood by the U.S. public and many ethnic Indians.