THE BLOG
01/28/2008 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Claiming Indian Heritage Becomes Popular

There is a recurring problem in Indian country that has been a bother for many years. I hear Native Americans discussing it oftentimes with a lot of anger. It's a very touchy issue and some would even find it offensive, but it is not a problem that should not be addressed.

The problem involves those people claiming to be Native American although they are not enrolled with any particular tribe. Every Indian nation in America has definite criteria for tribal membership. The tribes have set these limits for a reason. Tribal members can vote, they can run for elective office, and their numbers are included when the tribe plans its annual budget. And for those tribes with successful casinos that make per capita payments to tribal members, proof of membership is critical.

Certain services are allowed for tribal members, services such as health care, scholarships, and housing. And in order to avail themselves of these services each individual must show proof of tribal enrollment. There are also jobs available that entail priority hiring for tribal members. Tribal enrollment is highly valued in Indian country because it establishes the individual's ties to his or her Native nation.

But, in these days of the burgeoning success of some Indian casinos there is also the problem of disenrollment. Some tribes have been accused of removing members from their tribal rolls either for political or economic reasons. Those that have been removed accuse the tribal leadership of reducing the rolls so that fewer members can draw larger per capita payments. California seems to be leading Indian country in this regard.

The problem that seems to be the biggest in Indian country is that of individuals claiming tribal status in order to secure highly desirable jobs. Ward Churchill, a man who held key job positions at the University of Colorado, has never been able to prove tribal membership and yet he was given jobs that could have, and probably should have, gone to legitimate members of a state or federally recognized tribe.

Indian educators have come across this problem frequently. A man or woman is given a key job position at a major university based upon their claim to Indian blood, but they cannot submit proof of that claim. Some Indians blame the university for not having firm guidelines in their hiring of Native Americans. For example, if one applies for a job with a federally recognized Indian tribe where Indian preference is the rule, that individual must submit proof of tribal enrollment.

A recent article in the journalism blog of Richard Prince about a gay Native American that had just been named editor and vice president of the Arizona Republic newspaper brought immediate questions to my mind.

The man named Randy Lovely said, "I don't want to overstate or understate my Native American heritage. Both of my parents are of Cherokee origins and my family comes from East Tennessee. I am not a member of the tribe." If not, why should it be announced that he is openly gay and a Native American? Whether he is gay or not is not the question. The question is that at some time in his application for the job he must have listed himself as Native American. If he admits that he is not enrolled as a Cherokee, why would he do that?

There are many reasons why an individual may claim Indian heritage and yet not be enrolled. Maybe they do not meet the criteria demanded by the tribe, or maybe they just have not bothered to find out how one can become enrolled in the tribe in which they claim membership. But surely most people can see that it is extremely important to all legally enrolled members of tribes that there be a distinction.

I have heard some people claiming Indian heritage say that they did not want to be insulted by going through the Bureau of Indian Affair's criteria for tribal membership and it just goes to show their lack of knowledge about the process. It is the Indian nations that determine membership, not the BIA.

If one has a legitimate reason to claim membership in an Indian nation there is a procedure to prove that claim. Every tribe sets its own rules and regulations and I would advise anyone with a legitimate claim to find out about this criteria.

The surest proof of membership, and most tribal members know this without a doubt, is one's relationship to the tribe. Everyone one of us that is enrolled with a tribe can name our family members usually for a couple of generations. And more than that, our family lineage is known by the elders of the tribe. They can name many of your family members, maybe even some that you do not know about.

As I said, it really doesn't matter if Mr. Lovely is gay or not, but it does matter whether his claim of Native American heritage is true or not. Anyone can claim Indian blood but as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com