November 06, 2008

"Actual Indian" defined

In Jocks Aren't Good Role Models, a correspondent questioned my use of the term “actual Indian.” She thought I was referring mainly to “full-blooded” Indians. No, I wasn’t—not even close.

In this blog I’m usually inclusive about whom I label an Indian. The short version of who’s an “actual Indian” is “anyone whom Indians accept as an Indian.”

More precisely, when Indians talk about who’s an Indian, here’s what I think they’re talking about—and therefore what I’m talking about. I’d say anyone who meets one or more of these criteria qualifies as an Indian.

1) Anyone who’s an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe.

2) Anyone who has the genetic markers (i.e., “blood”) of an Indian based on objective evidence—for instance, a DNA test, CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood) card, or genealogical records. How much “blood” is enough is an arbitrary and changing standard that only Indians themselves can decide. The CDIB card requires 1/4th Indian blood and many Indians would agree that that’s enough.

Note that this standard doesn’t require people to know about or participate in their traditional cultures. Although being part of the culture is certainly a major factor in how “Indian” a person is, it’s not an absolute requirement.

3) Anyone who is recognized by a Native community or a group of Natives as an Indian.

I believe these were roughly the standards laid out when the Ward Churchill controversy arose. Three of the four standards, anyway. The fourth standard is one that many Indians and I don’t necessarily buy. That standard is declaring oneself an Indian, as Churchill did.

Many wannabes declare themselves Indians after finding a “Cherokee princess” in their family tree. Perhaps they’re even correct that they have one or more Indian ancestors buried in their past. But as I’ve said before, a few drops of Indian blood isn’t enough to make one an Indian.

Who qualifies

How do these standards play out in the real world? Considers several people whom we know to have Indian ancestry:

Elvis Presley
Burt Reynolds
Wayne Newton
John Herrington
Johnny Depp
Sam Bradford

In the case of Presley, Reynolds, and Depp, I’ve never heard that they declared themselves to be primarily Indians. Nor have I heard that Indians declared them to be primarily Indians. If they’re not recognized by the Native community as being primarily Indians, then I don’t consider them primarily Indians either. They’re simply white men who are part Indian.

In the case of Newton and Harrington, I believe they do consider themselves Indians. And the Native community also recognizes them as Indians. Therefore, they are Indians by my inclusive definition.

Growing up, Bradford apparently didn't consider himself an Indian. And he doesn't have more Indian blood than the others. But since he's an enrolled Cherokee, he counts as an "actual Indian" too.


So to address my correspondent’s concern, “actual Indian” does not exclude most mixed-blood Indians. I’d say mixed-blood Indians are actual Indians if they meet one of the criteria listed above. Again, the only people I’d exclude are those who aren’t enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe, have only a tiny amount of Indian blood, and aren’t acknowledged or accepted by their Native peers.

All clear?

For some of our previous debates on the subject, see Educating Russ on Who's an Indian.


Anonymous said...


I fully agree with your criteria as to what constitutes an "actual Indian" - and I firmly believe that the "actual Indian" community would also agree wholeheartedly.

I have a somewhat weird blood quantum: 21/32's Oglala Sioux. I do not know what the odd number over the even number connotes. A few assholes have cracked wise about it over the years, but I still find it a little puzzling.

dmarks said...

@rob "3) Anyone who is recognized by a Native community or a group of Natives as an Indian."

Remember that white New Ager guy who claimed he was Indian due to past life souls/spirits, etc? Who was apparently welcomed some by a tribe? I guess this rule makes him an Indian.

Joseph Ford said...

I'm a 1/4 blackfeet by blood, and can prove it with genealogy. I've only recently been able to consider myself "Indian", as I was raised white (which I've always despised being). I'm learning about my heritage, and practicing it as much as possible @ home (central Indiana).
If I were to move to my rez, would I be rejected out of hand?? I know I have a lot of learning to do and trust has to be built. Or am I just another wannabe who should shut up sit down and stay white? Am I insulting the people by calling myself one of them??

Rob said...

I don't know about your case, Joseph. I'd say it's on the borderline. You have enough Indian "blood" to be accepted in some tribes but not others. But you were raised white and have no connection to your Blackfeet heritage (other than what you've learned on your own).

According to Blackfeet law

you might be eligible for tribal membership. If you were enrolled, I'm guessing people would accept you as a long-lost relative. If you weren't enrolled, I'm guessing they wouldn't accept you until you proved yourself over many years.

2GreyCats said...


Perhaps you can help me with something--or maybe not. I'm not Native, not a little bit, not at all, and don't claim to be. My husband, however, has some Native ancestry. Here's the trouble -- his grandmother was 1/4; her father was 1/2 Indian, and was born somewhere in Indian Territory in the late 1800's. He never spoke about it to the children and said it was for their safety and protection, and it was better they didn't know. If he didn't tell his own kids what tribe he was born to, the odds of him telling a census taker in 1900, 1910, 1920, etc. are slim to none.

In other words, we don't know any more than that, and barring some miracle we will never be able to find out--the only person who knew was my husband's great grandfather who has been dead for the last 70 years or so.

My husband has always valued his Indian heritage (as did his mother) and spends a lot of time researching language and culture, and to me it seems sad that someone in his situation should be put down and denigrated as a 'wannabe' when he had nothing to say about the decisions his ancestors made a hundred years ago. It isn't his fault that he doesn't know what tribe could claim him. He's doing the best he can with the information that he has.

It hurts me, on his behalf, that he would be put down and rejected for circumstances beyond his control. What about "people who know little or nothing about their Indian heritage" through no fault of their own, who would remedy it in a heartbeat if they could?

Amber Eule-Nashoba said...

Maybe I'm a bit angry over the use of a numerical value to define who my family is or is not. It is not a piece of paper nor a nahollo idea like a blood quantum that make me who I am.
Chata ohoyo sia. Ich bin ein Deutsch. That is who I am.
I am heartened that some can see that is possible.

Anonymous said...

Omg. You crack me up. Thanks for putting a smile on this Native American film-maker's face. Keep those passive-aggressive comments coming. I usually agree with you but not always. You're still a wasicu. Thx, Damon Runnignhorse-Buckley.

just passin thru said...

Native Indian is not a blood level, it is a calling deep in your soul. The Indians spent their time in the present but asking for guidence from the past. If you are any part Native Indian you know this to be true. Our past calls out to us and the question is are you going to answer that call?
Survival took many forms and for some of us it means never being able to look back into the lives of our Greats (grandparents), Indian is a way of being, in your very soul, our ancestors passed this on, they know us, now we need to know them or suffer the anguish of never feeling whole. Do not find your tribe to get, find your tribe to give.

Rob said...

I didn't denigrate anybody except people who claim to have a Cherokee princess in their family tree. Which doesn't apply to anyone in this thread.

Your husband could partially prove his Native ancestry with a DNA test, 2GreyCats. Which is one of the criteria I listed. Indians might accept him based on his study of Native cultures and languages plus his test results.

Only one of my criteria refers to "blood level," Just Passin Thru. But few Indians would accept you based on "a calling deep in your soul." That's the kind of rhetoric spouted by wannabes who have no link to Indians except their overwrought fantasies.

If you're referring to me, Damon, I don't know which "passive-aggressive comments" you mean. Try to be more specific next time.

Jenmayzing said...

I don't understand why you think you have the right to categorize anyone as to who or what they are. For most of what I have read in your blog I have enjoyed but for the several times that you have tried to define one's "Indian-ness", I am appalled and disgusted. As if the barbarous system of Blood Quantum wasn't enough you have fallen upon methods of internalized oppression. Enrollment and federal recognition apply to the matters of legal recognition and acquisition of tribal and federal benefits, programs and aids. In no way does non-recognition make any person of Native American decent less or prohibit them from being actively involved in their spirituality, community and heritage. I understand the "wannabe debacle" but there are also many Native Americans who are open to Non-Natives participating in many community and ceremonial events as long as it is done with respect.

Anonymous said...

Interesting definition. I am not native by blood but grew up on reserve, my spirituality is that of my community and the traditions I teach my children are as well. I don't think that makes me native, or a wanna-be. It makes me a caucasian woman who is deeply rooted in her community, has a love for her people and the ways in which she was raised, and who values passing that on to her children as well. Each individual she determine who they identify as. That is not someone else's call.

Nathaniel Edwards said...

My Great,Great Grandmother was raped by a Cherokee Indian near Old Fort, North Carolina and as a result, we have unknown Cherokee blood in our family line while not having any heritage, culture or stories coming from the past in which to color that aspect of the line. My Great Grandmother had a hard time and was called a "Squaw" by her mother in law, not happy with her son's choice for marriage. Seems many people celebrate their Native American identity but my family tried to hide it.

Because of the way genetics work, I got a heavy dose of Cherokee DNA and look Indian to the point that I get asked if I am in fact an Indian. I look somewhat different from the rest of my family. I am not a Native American Indian. By all accounts I am only 1/16 Cherokee and throughout my adult life never personally identified with being Cherokee, even with people's assumptions and listening to my Grandmother making light of my features and comparison with my great grandmother when I was younger.

In other words, I agree with this article. While you may have some native DNA, if you don't have the natural culture, heritage or mindset in which to identify with the Cherokee peoples and a good portion of DNA, you are simply sharing a link with such people and as such, it wouldn't make sense to make that one's primary identity, considering that there are other ancestry which makes up the majority of who you are. Embrace all of you and use proportionality for the sake of common sense. By all means, learn about the past through having a link and unique lens to Cherokee and enjoy history as a means to have a deeper awareness of the soil from which you emerged but documents, papers, citizenships and so forth shouldn't be a necessary thing to make personal identity.

Authentic Cherokee groups and organizations hves resources in which to learn about the Cherokee without seeking something that is going to take advantage of you because you want to turn fantasy into reality. To somehow take on an identity which isn't a part of who you actually are.

I believe some have incorrectly gauged the points made in this article but be true to oneself and celebrate all aspects of your being instead of cherrypicking and trying to be something you aren't seems the appropriate path. It's about moderation and balance, not joining some fake online tribe so you can live out your fantasy and incorrectly represent actual Cherokee Indians who wouldn't be able to defend themselves from your actions and falsehoods. Be healthy in one's own skin and try not to "totem pole" races, groups or people in some exclusive order based on status or how exotic but find what's best about you where you are and celebrate those links but don't lose your head in the process. History is a grand thing so respect it.

Because people have thought that I was Native American, in some cases just assuming without asking, I have been in situations that felt exploitative. Women wanting to date because of some fantasy...(Usually those who grew up riding horses) and being disappointed when I tell them the facts about myself or people telling me how they are Native American because of some long lost ancestor and the depth of their passion in wanting to identify with Native Americans through dreamcatchers, art and in some cases joining some made up internet tribe...

I've seen a lot of such things and found it strange and uncomfortable. If I was a Native American, I'd be disturbed, because it felt exploitative. It could appear that "You took my land and now you want my identity"...Feels like exploitation and only harms the Cherokee or other Native American tribes who are fighting just to retain their own culture and language, let alone being coopted and misrepresented by people who think that they should be able to take on an entirely new identity of a historically defeated and exploited people.