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Native status may be affected by diversity issues

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DENVER – With the advent of an increasingly urban, multiracial country, it’s possible that Indian America will slowly be transformed as well, perhaps following a controversial trajectory toward inclusion in an ethnic American identity.

Or, as some speculate, there may be a return to and reinvigoration of tribal communities and lands, where green energy, state-of-the-art minerals extraction, or other social and economic changes could enhance Native nations far from the diversity of urban centers.

Either way, issues of enrollment and blood quantum will be around, like familiar but sometimes tiresome relatives who nonetheless play a key role in a family’s survival.

In fact, Census figures show that nearly 70 percent of today’s Native population lives off-reservation, primarily in cities, and both on- and off-reservation it is a young population with a median age of 28. Whether rural or urban, it is disproportionately beset with high rates of alcohol- and drug-related crime, diabetes, heart disease, family violence, and youth gangs and suicide.

Yet already-limited federal dollars for American Indians in crime prevention, housing, social programs, and health care go primarily to reservations, where Native identity has clear historical roots and federal trust responsibility may be more firmly cemented.

Otherwise, attitudes toward Natives may be influenced by the fact that we may be U.S. citizens and also citizens of separate nations, subjects of federal trust responsibility, and members of a federally defined ethnic minority group all at the same time, giving rise to confusion.

At times, it seems to come down to a conflict between racialized and political identities.

For example, the last administration unsuccessfully tried twice to eliminate the entire Urban Indian Health Program for off-reservation Natives based on a rationale that serving urban Indians would be primarily race-based, giving them preference over other ethnic groups or running the risk that Indians who were not from federally recognized tribes might be served. The proposal ignored existing federal regulations and court rulings concerning Indian health care and other services that don’t require living on or near a reservation and that define “Indian” more broadly.

A more recent issue, discarded because of its threat to tribal sovereignty, would have stressed blood quantum in an indirect – though misguided – attempt to narrow tribal membership and subsequent access to IHS services. One Indian health spokesperson noted that “Using blood quantum is part of a conservative ideology to limit the federal government’s responsibility regarding Indian people. It’s not just an ‘Indian issue’ – it’s about that trust responsibility.”

Groups like One Nation United, which claims 500,000 members in 39 states, decry tribal sovereignty and federal trust responsibility, praise anti-sovereignty court rulings and deplore such actions as the Environmental Protection Agency’s giving tribes control over air and water quality standards in tribal areas. The group’s newsletter cites an article contending that if one is of greater than 50 percent non-Indian ancestry, one should not be considered “Indian” for legal purposes.

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In Colorado, a reporter wondered, “How much Indian blood do you have to have to get the free tuition?” during a dispute involving a college’s reimbursement for Native out-of-state tuition.

The answer was that in this case free tuition for Native students of federally recognized tribes stems from a century-old, federal-state agreement concerning land acquisition, and that the tribal nations themselves determine membership based on varying degrees of lineal descent or, in some cases, simply descent from proven ancestry.

Conversely, some ethnic studies departments are blurring the lines between Native, Asian, African, and Latino/a groups, despite dissent from the students involved. “They’ve tried this before, but with the economy as it is, they’ll probably succeed this time,” said a University of Colorado Denver staffer of the possible consolidation of departments there.

The policies of at least one federal agency in recent years underscored the sometimes confusing nature of political and ethnic considerations.

A Department of the Interior agency analyzed the effects of its major actions on Indian trust assets – lands, hunting rights, cultural resources, and others – but also placed those considerations within the framework of a general discussion of possible disproportionate impacts on poor and/or ethnic populations that had no inherent government-to-government relationship with the U.S.

Although sovereignty and anti-discrimination concerns are sometimes lumped together, a 1974 Supreme Court ruling said the relationship of the U.S. to tribal nations and their citizens is a political, government-to-government one, not one based in anti-discrimination policies directed at ethnic groups’ interests.

If there is an inexorable pull toward urbanization and ethnicity, cultural continuity and revitalization may have a key role to play even off-reservation.

For example, about two-thirds of Chickasaw Nation tribal members live outside tribal lands in south-central Oklahoma, but there has been a conscious effort by the tribe to create a citizenship that transcends borders, in part by drawing members back to various cultural events, but also by sending culture to outlying councils.

At one meeting of an out-of-state citizens’ council, a Chickasaw ethnobotanist displayed slides of plants on tribal lands that had various medicinal and other properties, but the underlying theme was, as he said, “We are just as much Chickasaw as we always were – we just express it in a different way.”

“Say, ‘I am Chickasaw,’” he told attendees.

“Chikasha saya,” they replied.