For most American Indians, contemporary indigenous identity is tied to their membership or enrollment in a tribal community and whether they have ties to that community, engage in its culture and ceremonies, are considered part of the community, and have relatives living there. Indigenous people maintain that their tribal communities have rights to self-government from time immemorial and which precede the formation of the United States. One main difference between ethnic identity and tribal or indigenous identity is that tribal people belong to a community with specific culture and territory, and exercise certain sovereignty. Ethnic groups may identify with a certain culture or history, but do not claim rights to self-government.
There are several million people in the United States who might be described as “ethnic” Indians. They are people who identify as an Indian person, but do not have direct connection to a specific Indian community or do not have communication with or even know their ancestral Native community. Ethnic identity is one way in which people have adapted to the cultural and human diversity of the contemporary world.
We need to confront the world not by changing our beliefs, but by finding ways to preserve our cultural identities and beliefs while creatively facing contemporary challenges.
One can argue, though, that an interpretation of the world that addresses ethnic identity but does not conceptualize tribal or indigenous identity does a disservice to tribal communities and indigenous identity. The problem here is not that ethnic identities are wrong or undesirable, but rather that ethnic and indigenous identities need to understand and respect each other. Unfortunately, ethnic identities tend to overlook indigenous identities by not recognizing indigenous land, self-government, and sovereignty issues. In this way, ethnic and indigenous identities currently are not entirely compatible, often leading to misunderstandings and conflict between the two points of view. Most likely, indigenous and ethnic identities will continue to struggle, and many indigenous peoples will likely feel oppressed by a point of view that many people believe is a progressive movement.
While there is much cultural diversity among Indian nations, tribal membership is increasingly based on fundamentally racial or ethnic criteria. These policies are, for the most part, devoid of indigenous cultural content. This may be the trend of the future, but it raises issues that should be openly discussed and considered in developing the future strategies of indigenous communities.
The more ethnic identities and nationalities supplant indigenous points of view, the greater the probability that indigenous peoples will lose their rationale for defending their rights to land, language, and self-determination. We need to confront the world not by changing our beliefs, but by finding ways to preserve our cultural identities and beliefs while creatively facing contemporary challenges. We need to preserve indigenous nations in ways that empower us, supports economic sustainability, preserves and upholds culture, and protects tribal self-government.