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Who Decides Who's an Indian?

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Who decides who is Indian? In pre-colonial times, it was obvious. Indigenous individuals were part of a whole tribal society. They were simply one of the People. They lived in the village, performed daily work, spoke the language, participated in ceremonies, hunted and gathered with the rest, intermarried, and had children within that group.

Enter the federal government, wielding it's militarily enforced termination and assimilation policies against Natives. From a western legal standpoint, the government now says who is Indian. Suits in D.C. decide whether or not to federally recognize Tribes, and then delegate Tribal enrollment authority to those Tribes. Blood quantum was invented and utilized in the first Tribal rolls. Whether or not you're ‘Indian’ became a matter of paperwork. One could completely assimilate—cut their hair, convert to Christianity (or any other religion), move away from the Reservation and their people, never speak a word of their language, and know absolutely nothing about their tribal heritage, lineage, or culture, and still be deemed ‘Indian’, with enough blood quantum.

Post-boarding school era, we now find ourselves in the midst of a Native awakening. Lucky for us, traditional holdouts kept Native languages, ceremonies, and cultural teachings alive. They passed them onto us, and others who returned to the ways. There is no doubt in my mind that these individuals, ones who keep the language and the ways, are Native; enrollment records be damned.

So what of the rest? I see academics, bloggers and keyboard philosophers, both Native and non-Native, attempting to design Litmus Tests for who is ‘Indian’. While we can argue about intention, the results are still the same.

An individual may meet the test of one, and not another. Here: let me use myself as an example. I was born and raised on the rez, and I still live here. I'm enrolled in a federally recognized Tribe. I go to ceremony, know my heritage, and do my best to keep our sacred ways. I've dedicated my life to the service of the Oyate (the People). Heck, I even make bomb taniga and frybread and I've never dated a non-Native man in my life. But…I am not fluent in my Native language (although I'm trying). I have degrees from western institutions of higher education. I wear western clothes most of the time and have a penchant for designer shoes and handbags (like ones that will set off my Russell Means T-shirt, dentalium and beadwork nicely). Also, my mother is white (despite her thick Rez accent) and in the middle of winter, wow, I'm pale. Despite identifying as Native and having many witnesses testifying to such, there are a few who would say I don't meet the test.

Today, Natives lie all along this continuum, positioned at various levels on the 'Indian-ness' scale.

What of those who don’t meet particular litmus tests of what someone has deemed a true Indian? If someone has blonde highlights, watches Bad Girls Club, or shops at Victoria’s Secret, are we supposed to pull their card? Some Natives have lost their way through no fault of their own. Assimilation swept through Indian country like a plague. Urban relocation programs and military service moved entire Native family groups away from their homelands. Others were adopted out to non-Native homes. Do we reject the survivors who only want to come home?

If someone identifies as Native and has ties to prove it, what purpose does alienating them serve? So we can say we're "better" via "more Indian-er than you" contests? Is that what our ancestors would want? Just because someone doesn’t look like, talk like, or act like the stereotypical Hollywood ‘Indian’ standard we’ve all been spoon-fed doesn’t mean they aren’t necessarily Native, nor does it mean they don’t have a place within Native society and an ability to contribute to our causes. Sure, there are fakes (pretendians) and it’s our way to call them out, but real recognizes real (and Rez cred is another matter). Look to their words and actions.

I don't decide who is Indian. I am not the Creator. All I’m saying is perhaps instead of focusing on exclusion, we should work on changing hearts and minds. Decolonize the world, starting with you. Let people’s spirits remind them of who they are. We’ve all got some unlearning to do, even yours truly.

If someone comes to me in a good way with sincere questions about my culture, I will do my best, in a humble way, to answer. Sometimes our hands are clenched fists, fighting against the system- but other times our hands should be open, willing to offer assistance, and teach. This is our responsibility, as the seventh generation. The sacred fire is still there, beneath the haze of mainstream society. Seek and ye shall find. This is how we will remain strong and keep our ways alive for the next millennia.

Remember, if we go back far enough, we are all Indigenous. If we want to save Mother Earth, we need support. No man is an island, and we cannot complete these tasks alone. This is how we make the world over, Indigenous style.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton, Mdewakanton, Hunkpapa) is a writer, blogger, administrator, and the Chief Judge of the Spirit Lake Nation. She's a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, a founding writer for, and a contributor to,,, and Her work has been featured in dozens of other places online and in print. She's also a published horror author.