Skip to main content

University of Kansas Tribal Law Conference

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Attorney Christine Zuni Cruz has seen the complexity of Indian identity first-hand in her personal and professional life. She’s seen the look of devastation on clients’ faces when told they are not members of the tribe. “It cuts to the core of their soul.”

Zuni Cruz, professor of law at the University of New Mexico, spoke on the complexity of Indian identity in the 21st century at the 13th Annual Tribal Law and Government Center Conference at the University of Kansas Feb. 13.

A member of the Isleta Pueblo, Zuni Cruz described ongoing internal conflicts about who is a member as “membership wars” akin to civil war. “There are casualties.”

Some of those casualties may be people who have been subject to changes in membership laws, or those whose identity may be further complicated by adoption or by tribal and racial intermarriage.

“For some people it’s about gaming, but it’s more nuanced. It’s not new, and it really didn’t begin with gaming.”

She also spoke of the inadequacies of tribal identity based on blood quantum. “It can’t capture completely who we are.”

Zuni Cruz said those with multi-Indian ancestry can be denied tribal status, while those with remote ancestry can be granted tribal status. She also said tribes with very broad membership laws run the risk of losing their identity. Conversely, tribes with very narrow laws run the risk of extinction.

People over-claim, under-claim and make false claims of Indian ancestry for multiple reasons, she said. Some of the reasons people make false claims may be to gain access to resources, obtain a job or to have a voice. “False claims are harmful because they allow the stealing of voice.”

The title of her presentation, “’Who are you?’ Indigenous Identity and the Lines of Tribe,” was partly inspired by a line in Barack Obama’s inaugural address: “…the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve. …”

The words captured her attention. “I’m not sure that I like that,” she said. “It troubled me.”

Zuni Cruz rejects the idea that tribal existence is a primitive state. “That, in fact, has been disproved.”

“Tribes are ancient,” she said. “They’ve always been there, and they continue today.”

Zuni Cruz came to the UNM Law School in 1993 to establish the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, which provides students with a hands-on opportunity to practice Indian law. She is the first Pueblo woman to earn tenure as a law professor and currently serves as an associate justice on the Isleta Appellate Court.

She advocates incorporating the values and precepts of traditional law as the foundation for tribal law. In her 2001 article, “Tribal Law as Indigenous Social Reality and Separate Consciousness” published in the Tribal Law Journal, Zuni Cruz writes that traditional law refers to the internal, living law of a tribe and is oral in nature, while tribal law refers to written law, such as the codes, ordinances and resolutions adopted by tribes under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

She told the KU audience that origin stories offer a place for tribes to begin developing membership laws. According to her, origin stories can reveal insights into the relationships, roles and responsibilities that come with belonging to a place. “One of the most important roles is to take care of that place.”

Incorporating traditional law into tribal law won’t always be an easy task given that some traditional laws have fallen into disuse or been altered by external forces. But for Zuni Cruz, Indian development of tribal law is fundamental to self-determination.

“To give our written law over entirely to western influence is a mistake,” she writes. “Our traditional law sets forth who we are as ‘the People.’”

She further writes that self-determination should not mean a tribe adopts any law it pleases – especially if that law undermines who they are as a people.

“Traditional law embodies the values and norms of our own indigenous societies. If we can adopt any law we choose, including Western law, why not choose the law that reinforces our own values and norms?”

Zuni Cruz is editor-in-chief of The Tribal Law Journal, launched at the University of New Mexico to promote the development of tribal law based on indigenous concepts.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at