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Being an Indian in America



Updated May 20, 2005
For many US citizens, Tonto is the prototypical American Indian: stalwart, steady, silent. Given that there are only 2.5 million American Indians in a population of 280-some million, most of us don't have a reason (or a way) to shake the stereotype. When a high profile case comes along (Red Lake School shooting, Ward Churchill's professorial battles), we don't have a way to put the events into context, especially if we live outside of the American west, where most tribal members live.

This article addresses how to trace Indian ancestry, what are the benefits of ancestry, and what agencies are involved in tribal matters.

How to Trace Indian Ancestry
The question of ancestry is at the center of the controversy surrounding University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. He claims membership in the Oklahoma-based United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. The tribe says he has only an honorary or associate membership and no Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB). The CDIB is a "seal of approval" from the US government that certifies someone has a minimum specified degree of Indian blood; this allows membership into a federally-recognized tribe.

To be an official member of the Cherokee nation:
    [Y]ou must formally apply for [a CDIB] and provide acceptable legal documents which connect you to an ancestor, who is listed with a roll number and a blood degree from the FINAL ROLLS OF CITIZENS AND FREEDMEN OF THE FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES, Cherokee Nation, (commonly called the Dawes Commission of Final Rolls ). These rolls were compiled between the years of 1899-1906. Quantum of Indian Blood is computed from the nearest paternal and/or maternal direct ancestor(s) of Indian blood listed on the Final Rolls.
However, the BIA website suggests that everything surrounding tribal membership is determined at the tribal level:
    Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. The criterion varies from tribe to tribe, so uniform membership requirements do not exist.

    Two common requirements for membership are lineal decendency from someone named on the tribe's base roll or relationship to a tribal member who descended from someone named on the base roll. (A "base roll" is the original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria.) Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe are common...

    Rarely is the BIA involved in enrollment and membership. Each tribe determines whether an individual is eligible for membership. Each tribe maintains it's [sic] own enrollment records and records about past members.
There is merit in the BIA description of the process, because each tribe determines the minimum "quantum" (measure of direct ancestry) required to join the tribe. There are no measurements of culture - just a mathematical calculation based on geneology. Some critics reject this cold-blooded, scientific determination.

In 2000, the BIA proposed a rule that establishes "requirements and standards for filing, processing, and issuing a Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood (CDIB)."

According to California Indian Legal Services, the proposed rule appears to be a "means of limiting access to federal Indian programs and services to only those Indians who possess the blood of federally recognized tribes where some degree of Indian blood is either a stated or implied requirement of program eligibility."

A GPO search of the federal register does not indicate that the rule was ever finalized.
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