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.
How do these standards play out in the real world? Considers several people whom we know to have Indian ancestry:
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.
For some of our previous debates on the subject, see Educating Russ on Who's an Indian.