Identity Confusion, Mixed Blessings: What does it mean to be “Native American”?

This post is our response to a comment brandondguitierez  made on an earlier post HERE


For me, being “Indian” was simply a fact of my birth and my mother’s ancestry and experiences.  In New Jersey, it set me apart. To my father’s Anglo-American family, I was a lovely “dark child.”  To my mother, I was the “one bright star in her life,” although she wasn’t able to express that because of my father’s jealously and my brother’s emotional needs.  But I really didn’t give a lot of thought to what being Ojibwe meant until later years.

It was something that actually didn’t become a conscious focus of my thinking until I was researching child welfare from the perspective of an Ojibwe community. In my work with tribes, I had often encountered the intra-community divides over who was “really Indian.”

Then with the advent of gaming, this became a huge issue.  But it was important to many long before.  Past colonial policies have left a legacy of “identity confusion.”


I might add many of us (the mixed group of American Indians) had suffered through Eugenics and the ONE-DROP RULE when you were either white or colored.  This literally erased Eastern and southern tribes on paper; many are struggling for recognition as sovereign nations today.  There was a period where they were measuring “Indianness” by skull size and skin color.  It’s not a thing of the past when you have Indians now acting as the identity police.

In my own experience as an adoptee with more than one ancestry, proof, as in paper, was not what the government gave us adoptees.  We get amended birth certificates, no medical information and no clue about our ancestry.  I was supposed to accept a new fake identity and live my life based on a paper lie.  I have made reunion (20 years now) and went full circle and reconnected to my first families. In September 2015 I even went to the Harlow powwow family reunion in Illinois.


For centuries, U.S. policies have focused on assimilation and integration through child removal, federal and public education, relocation to urban areas, and the sterilization of Indian women into the late 1970s.  Although federally-recognized tribes have limited authority to decide who their members are, they do so within a framework imposed through federal law.

And tribes do so within a complex context of defending their political existence and the remnants of sovereignty granted by the colonial power of the federal government.  Tribes are required to use “blood quantum” as the defining factor for membership, and each tribe has adopted its own definition.  Some add current residence on the reservation as a requirement.  To prove one is “Indian enough” means relying on records kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs – and sometimes they “lose” key records and claim they never existed.


Here is something profound about kinship to consider from Gabriel S. Galanda who co-authored, “Curing the Tribal Disenrollment Epidemic: In Search of a Remedy.” He is a descendant of the Nomlaki and Concow Tribes, belonging to the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Northern California.

“More specifically, disenrollment—especially when tribal-wealth or per-capita driven—creates or widens classes of:

“As to the latter categories of Indians, while disenrollment legally renders them non-Indian—in countless ways—that does not mean that they are any less Indian than those with enrollment cards.  That is because being Indian isn’t about enrollment or “membership,” federal rolls or censuses, or blood quantum or “mixed-blood” racism, at least traditionally; it is about kinship.  And as President Cladoosby alludes, kinship is—or was, before membership, per capita and disenrollment—our utopia.”

Disenrollment is predominately about race, and money, and an “individualistic, materialistic attitude” that is not indigenous to tribal communities.

Because many tribes have maintained the IRA’s paternalistic and antiquated definition of “Indian” vis-a-vis blood quantum (as discussed in “An Essay on the Federal Origins of Disenrollment“), tribal membership has largely become “an explicitly racial conception of Indian identity.” Suzianne D. Painter-Thorne, If You Build It, They Will Come: Preserving Tribal Sovereignty in the Face of Indian Casinos and the New Premium on Tribal Membership, 14 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 311 (2010).

The racial construct has worked well for disenrollment as “American Indians have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage in the U.S.”  Gosia Wozniacka, Disenrollment leaves Native feeling ‘culturally homeless’, Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2014. LINK


While “blood quantum” may be a reliable way to identify the ancestry of “champion” dogs, does it really measure who is Indian enough? And why should this matter?

This simple question is really quite complex.  History has proven that the continued existence of tribes as political entities is always being threatened.  Congress has the plenary power to simply legislate them out of existence as happened in the 1950s with disastrous consequences for some tribes during the Eisenhower years.  (It was called termination.)

There are also serious consequences for many individuals, particularly those who were removed from their families and communities as a result of boarding schools, out-placement by child welfare (adoption and foster care) and juvenile justice systems, and urban-relocation.  Some children are not even told about their heritage. Others are.  It may not be important for some, some may feel shame, and for others heritage may become the thing that provides a source of inspiration and resilience as they survive trauma and abuse.

Romantic notions of what it means to be “Indian,” or a member of a specific tribe, give some a reason to hope. They imagine returning one day and being welcomed by a mythical community where people reach out and include them lovingly.


More than ever, it’s time Indians (including adoptees called lost birds) learn the entire truth, what truly happened in history, including mixing, relocations and intermarriages, even how their minds have been brain washed.

“There is a hierarchy of Indian-ness …There is a real battle going on in Indian country and it is the battle of identity. We are battling among ourselves as to who is an Indian. Can’t really blame us for being in that predicament. The governments of both countries, the United States and Canada, tried to eliminate the Indian. They attempted to get rid of the Indian by many different means; genocide, persecution, prosecution, sterilization, and assimilation. Governmental Policy has always been a tool to get rid of the Indian. The latest policies have Indian being killed off by categories.” – Steven Julian

Indeed, Indians of any quantum (defined as “portion”) of Indian blood are by federal design, multi-racial. In addition, “many Native Americans don’t live on reservations, speak Native languages or ‘look’ Indian, making others question their bloodline claims.” In those illustrative ways, Indian conceptions of both race and class converge, with tribal classism are also catalyzing disenrollment. – Gabriel S. Galanda

We have a long way to go, Carol. This discussion is far from over…


Federal policies have always encouraged or forced mixing to reduce blood quantum as a way to finally get rid of the Indian problem.  If there are no “full-bloods,” no traditional language speakers, is there really still a tribe?  If tribes distribute gaming or other business profits to individuals rather than investing them in collectively-owned projects, is there really a viable culture that should be preserved?

So the issue of identity is important not only on a personal level but also on a policy level.  Stephen Cornell (1988) warns about the danger of adopting dominant values and institutions on a daily basis. It makes it harder for tribes to maintain “distinctive communities of culture” (p. 111).

“The protection of sovereignty and treaty rights depends to some extent on public, non-Indian support. If Indian nations come to be viewed not as carriers of distinct ways of life, involuntarily put to risk by the larger society, but simply anachronistic legal residues of an unfortunate past, that support may disappear. In a peculiar way, distinctiveness is a form of security,” (Cornell, 1988, p. 212).

If you identify your heritage as a member of an Indigenous Nation (or Nations), whether enrolled or not, from the rez or not, I hope you realize that the struggle to preserve sovereignty, languages and distinctive culture is yours, too.  There is no more effective way to build a stronger sense of your foundation regardless of how others see you.  And on another important level, mixing is a mixed blessing.  While it may dilute blood quantum and Tribal distinctions, it also can help us understand we are all part of the larger human family.  The survival of tribal peoples, like the survival of the earth itself, is dependent on the actions we take to live in peace.

Works Cited:

Stephen Cornell (1988). The return of the native: American Indian political resurgence. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

source: Hub Pages



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7 thoughts on “Identity Confusion, Mixed Blessings: What does it mean to be “Native American”?

  1. Carol A. Hand December 30, 2015 / 1:27 pm

    I appreciate you thoughtful comments, Rosaliene. The paradox of identity – to know one’s roots in order to see and embrace our shared humanity – is not simple or easy to negotiate. It’s something I know you have written about with great depth and eloquence.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Crystal Dawn Draffen January 7, 2016 / 9:06 pm

    Dear Lara, So honored that you chose the photo of me with my siblings for this article. I would like to more information about the next book and if you have room for an entry from me if I can pull it together by the end of the month? What is the word count guideline? I am in California trying to start over…. Life is crazy as usual here. Sending love and best wishes for the new year. xo Crystal


  3. Bernadette January 28, 2016 / 7:28 am

    Carol, Thanks for sharing this with everyone. I think our generation, or at least me, has a lot of catching up to do on the learning curve of this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carol A. Hand January 28, 2016 / 11:11 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Bernadette, and for creating a space to share. Trace Hentz, the creator of The MIX, was excited when she saw what you have created with the Senior Salon and posted this dialogue we had about identity. Neither of us claims to know all of the answers. We’re all together on the steep learning curve of life. Thank you for creating a space to share different views. 🙂


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