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Native Americans Are Americans, Too

Last month, a few of my close girlfriends and I decided to have a girls night. We thought salsa dancing sounded like fun, so we braced the cold weather and ventured into DC, where we ended up at a small salsa dancing club located in Adams Morgan. The bouncer quickly looked at my Virginia license and let me pass. My friend Victoria then pulled out her tribal ID and handed it to the bouncer. Victoria Humphreys, age 23, is a member of the Akimel O’Ohdam and Hopi Native American tribes, registered with the Gila River Indian Community. Tribal ID's are identification cards for Native Americans similar to state issued licenses and identification cards that validate their identity and membership to a particular tribe. After analyzing the ID, the bouncer passed the card back to Victoria explaining that "they don't accept those kinds of ID's." Victoria tried to explain that she was Native American, and that her ID was a federally recognized form of identification, but the bouncer did not want to hear it.

At this point, I was freezing cold—and irate. What did he mean by not accepting that "kind" of ID? The federally recognized kind? The legal kind? I immediately asked to speak with the manager, who was very understanding and eventually let her inside. Over the next few days, I thought about the incident a lot. This wasn't the first time this had happened to us, but I couldn't figure out exactly why the exchange had made me so angry. In the bouncer's defense, maybe he'd never seen a tribal ID before. After all, I've only seen one for the first time recently. Maybe he didn't know the ID was a federally recognized form of identification, but if he had only let us explain the situation, he would have understood.

And then it hit me. I wasn't angry because he didn't accept the ID, I was angry because he didn't care. He didn't care about her background, he didn't care about who she was, or why her ID looked different from everyone else's. He didn't care about the Homestead Act that stole land from countless Native Americans, the broken treaties and promises that were made, and all of the suffering they endured as a result. I've seen bouncers accept ID's from Sweden, France, Africa, and Jamaica without hesitation, but when it comes to Native Americans, who are arguably more "American" than any of us, bouncers and bar managers feel the need to take extra precautions. 

The ignorance concerning Native American culture and history in this country is inexcusable. I remember being told by a Native American professor in college that her students often assumed Native Americans were "extinct." We live in an environment that is culturally insensitive, where we think it is socially acceptable to dress up like Native Americans on Halloween, make mock tribal noises, and cheer on sports teams with offensive names like the "Redskins." We pride ourselves on being a cultural melting pot, yet know very little about our own indigenous people. 

Our lack of knowledge concerning Native American culture is demonstrated by our treatment of tribal identification cards. Although the federal government recognizes tribal ID’s as legal forms of identification, there is no federal law mandating the equal treatment of tribal identification cards by the states. Some states, such as Montana and South Dakota, have passed laws requiring tribal ID’s to be treated the same as state identification cards for identification purposes. Other states, however, choose not to recognize them as valid forms of identification. Similar to the requirements for a state license, each tribe is responsible for defining the criteria for obtaining a tribal ID card. Proving membership to a particular tribe can require anything from birth certificates and blood tests to genealogical research and documented ancestry. As a result of the strict requirements for membership in many tribes, tribal ID cards are arguably more reliable than state issued licenses or identification cards. 

In addition to the state recognition of tribal ID’s, many groups are currently advocating for the international recognition of tribal ID cards. Historically, tribal members have been able to travel domestically and return from international destinations using their tribal ID cards. However, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 required border patrol officials at land and sea entry points to accept only internationally approved forms of identification, such as US passports or passport cards. The National Congress of American Indians has advocated that when travel documentation meets State Department standards, tribally issued ID cards should be recognized for passport purposes by the United States government, and the United States should request that other nations also respect tribal ID’s as valid forms of identification for international travel.

Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, captured the frustration of many Natives on a popular Native American website who have been discriminated against for using their tribal ID’s. People shared stories about being laughed at and ridiculed at hotels, banks, and convenient stores for attempting to use their tribal ID cards. One native voiced his frustration about the willingness of so many places to accept IDs from American states and foreign nations, but not from Native American tribes. “I was told at the DMV that [the tribal ID] was not proof of ‘legal’ presence! Overcoming indignation, I had to chuckle… How much more ‘legally present’ can you get than to have a line of ancestors going back a thousand years or so ‘present’ on this continent.” 

In addition to a lack of legislation enforcing the state recognition of tribal ID’s, there are over 400 Native American tribes who are not yet federally recognized. For these tribes, their tribal ID’s have virtually no utility in this country. “Recognition is existence,” expressed Zotigh. “If the federal government won’t recognize you, do you really exist?”