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Dwanna L. Robertson: Indian Identity Still Controversial

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If she’d planned to tackle some of the most contentious issues in Indian country, a Mvskoke (Creek) sociologist couldn’t have done a better job.

Blood quantum, lineal descent, tribal membership, federal recognition, sovereignty—all came under the scrutiny of Dwanna L. Robertson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts and contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network, who spoke at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) annual meeting August 17-20 in Denver that drew some 6,000 members.

Robertson addressed the Indigenous Peoples session of the ASA meeting on the topic “A Necessary Evil: Framing an American Indian Legal Identity.” She described interviews with 30 Natives, only half of whom had legal identities in terms of tribal enrollment or other federal validation.

“Native American people is the only race in America that has to prove that they’re Indian,” she quoted one study participant. “If you’re black and you say, ‘I’m black,’ and nobody will question it. If you’re white, you say, ‘I’m white” and nobody questions it, but if you’re Indian they want to see your CDIB card. ‘Well, you say you’re Indian (but) let’s see your card.”

She pointed out that of 4.7 million who identified as American Indian in the 2009 census, only 1.9 million are enrolled members of federally recognized tribes and the numbers indicate there are 2.8 million who identify ethnically as American Indian but who are not citizens of federally recognized tribes.

Some American Indians live outside ethnic/cultural or racial identity and occupy a “unique political status,” she said, describing legal identification through tribal citizenship, lineal descent, blood quantum and parents’ tribal affiliation, all of which can contribute to access to Native services in housing, education, health and other areas.

Two other categories of Native identification are ethnic identification, which includes relational, social and tribal connections, ceremonies and historical belonging; and biological, racial identification, including phenotype, genetics, and other measures, she said.

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Claiming “Indianness” is complex, involving criteria that “serve to confuse our ability to define and identify who qualifies to be an Indian,” she said, observing that because Native people commonly believe that “real Indians” are enrolled and have federally-issued cards, people who cannot prove racial heritage, yet identify ethnically/culturally, may be excluded.

Most of her study members expressed concern about requiring only lineal descent and relaxing blood quantum criteria and talked generally about blood quantum as a “necessary evil” in the service of preserving tribal sovereignty, she said. “Tribal enrollment is framed as necessary for the preservation of sovereignty.”

Robertson said a Cheyenne in the study believed that “what is left of sovereignty is in the hands of those left on the land,” which might not be true but which echoed the views of nearly all the study members who mentioned sovereignty as a reason for the blood quantum requirement even though it perpetuates infighting and even though “race” is an artificial construct.

On a personal note, Robertson said the ASA offers a minority fellowship program and, in her application, she filled out questions about racial and ethnic identity, halting only at the request for her “enrollment number.” She gave up the opportunity to attend a major university because of the underlying issue: ‘If I was black, would I need a card [that included the number]?”

Another presenter, Michelle M. Jacob, Yakama, associate professor in the University of San Diego’s department of Ethnic Studies, targeted language revitalization efforts as a form of indigenous resistance, as a “way for people to heal from the effects of colonization,” including historical trauma from language loss in the boarding schools.

Others who spoke were Sarah Dodge Warren, Lewis & Clark College, whose topic was “Indigenous Rights and Naming Regulations in Argentina;” Jan C. Lin, Occidental College, “Native Voices of Los Angeles from the Spanish Pueblo to the World City” and Erin A. Cech, Stanford University, “Unsupported and Uncertain: Communal Goal Incongruence and the Experience of Native American Students in STEM Majors.”

Panelists and attendees offered such closing suggestions as “embrace diversity,” “it’s important to move away from the blood issue,” “it’s really a colonial thing,” “I think it’s troublemaking,” “some tribes privilege blood over culture,” and “this whole field is growing.”