Publick Occurrences 2.0

May 22, 2012

Stephanie Gamble, “What Does It Mean to be an Indian?”

Filed under: 2012 Elections,American Indians,Democrats,Guest posts,Political culture — Guest_bloggers @ 7:27 am

Today we have a guest post from Stephanie Gamble, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation is entitled, “Capital Negotiations: Native Diplomats in the American Capital from George Washington to Andrew Jackson.”

In the Massachusetts race for U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren’s (D) opponent, Scott Brown (R), recently brought attention to Warren having listing herself as a minority in professional directories from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, citing her claims to Native American ancestry. Other times, when provided the option, Warren has self-identified only as white. Recent investigations into her heritage suggest Warren may be 1/32 Cherokee through a great-great-great-grandmother.

Whatever her motive in asserting her native ancestry, Elizabeth Warren is certainly not alone. Americans have long been fascinated with tracing their rumored (and real) Indian heritage. In recent decades, an increasing number of non-tribal members have been asserting their Indian-ness.

Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

There is nothing especially new about American interest in native ancestry. Back in 1887, a genealogy of Pocahontas was published for all those looking for the iconic Indian princess on their family tree. In his 1969 book, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Vine Deloria, Jr. noted of his time as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, “it was a rare day when some white didn’t visit my office and proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian descent. Cherokee was the most popular tribe of their choice … all but one person I met who claimed Indian blood claimed it on their grandmother’s side.” (2-3)

Recently however, more people are moved to claim their ancestry on official documents. Today, websites abound, telling interested searchers how to find Indian ancestors and enroll in tribes. Facilitated by such sites as and the digitization of archives, Americans interested in their personal history can assemble the branches of their family trees from home. This has likely helped more people access and engage their ancestry in new ways.

On government documents such as the U.S. Census, race and ethnicity are self-identified. Beginning with the 2000 census, Americans could even check off multiple racial categories in order to more accurately capture their heritage.

Though Americans can self-identify in many situations, including selecting themselves as “American Indian or Alaska Native,” there are 566 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States that have their own rules for tribal citizenship. Citizens of federal tribes are legally Indian and their tribal citizenship is controlled by their individual nations.

Recent censuses reveal that the population of native people in the United States is growing dramatically. When Americans filling out their census decide to check the box labeled “American Indian or Alaska Native,” they may do so for several reasons: they are tribal citizens; they are members of state-recognized or unrecognized tribes; or they self-identify due to family lore, distant heritage, or possess some other form of emotional connection. Much of the recent growth in the “American Indian or Alaska Native” population derives from the third category: people self-identifying as Native American.

What seems to run through the possibilities that self-identifiers claim for themselves is an underlying assumption that Indians can be what you want them to be, a population out of space and time. That, perhaps, is the danger of self-identifiers. These legal and documentary markers of identity obscure or complicate the cultural processes of identification. Native people are more than their tribal enrollment cards. At local, tribal, or pan-American levels, native people possess and articulate shared cultures, histories, languages, lineages, experiences, living conditions, and relationships.

The proliferation of self-identifiers threatens to dilute the meanings of being Indian to tribal citizens. To return to Deloria: “At times I became quite defensive about being a Sioux when these white people had a pedigree that was so much more respectable than mine.” (3)  While self-identifiers like Warren may value their claim to Indian ancestry in a wide array of ways, there are around 2 million native people living in the U.S. today. Their identities as American Indians are important to them, too.


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