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Tribal citizenship in crisis

Several serious issues concerning tribal citizenship threaten the future of American Indian nations. Few non-Indians understand the complex definition of citizenship for American Indians as U.S. citizens or the citizenship powers tribes have over their own members.

American Indians have an undefined dual citizenship in the United States and within their tribes. Since the 1970s, Indian tribes regained the power to make and enforce their own definitions of citizenship. For many decades, most Indian governments did not struggle with tribal citizenship issues. Many tribes simply adopted blood quantum requirements from BIA procedures.

Tribes face the increasing loss of tribal citizenry, and a trend toward entirely legalistic criteria for determining membership based on blood quantum.

Indian tribal citizenship more recently has garnered a considerable amount of negative attention among the American public. One reason for this has been the issue of tribal disenrollment. Over the years, several gaming tribes have received plenty of bad publicity for excluding tribal members. The affected families have waged constant public campaigns to turn public opinion against the tribes. The American public perceives tribal governments are disenrolling members to monopolize gaming revenues for themselves. This sort of interpretation fits very well with American worldviews, where material motivations are assumed. The bad publicity from the tribal citizen exclusions fosters support for anti-Indian legislation.

Similarly, the Freedmen issue is long and complicated. Many descendants of Freedmen sought tribal citizenship and benefits, and waged extensive public, legal and academic campaigns. Publicity in recent years has created a negative view toward Indian management of the Freedmen issues and has resulted in many black and minority legislators willing to consider congressional acts that will force citizenship criteria on tribal nations, or worse, threaten the government-to-government relationship.

If the exclusion issues were not enough, the blood quantum criteria for tribal citizenship affect nearly all tribal communities. Blood quantum criteria is a racial classification carried over from BIA rules and regulations designed to curtail benefits to those individuals with less than one-quarter blood. Under this system, tribal membership is not based on family or kinship ties, or cultural knowledge, or community participation. Tribes face the increasing loss of tribal citizenry, and a trend toward entirely legalistic criteria for determining membership based on blood quantum. If the tribal citizenry wastes away over the next century, how many Indian nations will exist in the next century, and what will the United States public think about Indian identity?

One suggested solution, already adopted by a few nations, is to turn to membership based on lineal descent. This approach minimizes the racialization of tribal citizenship, but does not necessarily guarantee a commitment to tribal culture, participation, and often doesn’t require tribal citizens to live on or near their tribe’s reservation.

A major difficulty with lineal descent is many individuals – many very Americanized and with little knowledge of their tribal culture – tend to dominate and form the majority of the community. This is a trend toward development of “ethnic” Indian nations, where most members don’t know their culture or traditions, and don’t participate in the tribal society. If the lineal descent route is taken, there must be strong efforts to recover and maintain Indian identity and community.

There are many threats to the future of Indian nations as we know them. Citizenship issues are yet another potential magnet for negative public perception, which often leads to unfavorable policy.