THE BLOG

Claiming Indian Heritage Does Not Make It So

09/18/2012 02:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2012

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 problem that needs to 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. And to put a rumor to rest, Natives do pay taxes.

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 biggest problem 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.

The hubbub over recent articles accusing senate candidate Elizabeth Warren falsely claiming that her grandmother had Cherokee blood is not an uncommon occurrence. My research leads me to the conclusion that Warren never used this claim for her own benefit in any way as did Churchill. She has a smidgen of Cherokee blood and is apparently proud of it. Native Americans have all heard non-Natives claim Cherokee blood. It is not unusual to hear these individuals claim their grandmother was a Cherokee princess. They almost never claim their ancestor was a Cherokee warrior.

There are many reasons why an undocumented individual may claim Indian heritage. 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.

There are some people claiming Indian heritage who 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 individual Indian tribes that determine membership, not the BIA. The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by Congress to protect Indian children from being whisked away from their homes. Prior to the Act, Native children were taken by church groups, especially the Mormons, and other adoption agencies without protection from what amounted to the stealing of Indian children. Many of these stolen children have had a very difficult time trying to reclaim their heritage because they do not have adequate proof of birth and family ties. They are the lost generation that has fallen through the cracks.

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 criteria 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 several 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. Family ties run deep in Indian country.

As I said, it really doesn't matter if Ms. Warren is Indian or not, but it does matter whether her 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 or in the membership application.

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 and founder and publisher of Indian Country Today. He is president of Unity South Dakota Foundation and can be reached at Unitysodak1@knology.net