Who gets to be Native American?

“Inhumane.” “Dishonorable.” “Genocide.” These were just a few of the dozens of Sharpied comments written on the hands of indigenous activists recently, as they launched a grassroots, social-media movement against tribal disenrollment, which is when a tribal government throws out its own members. The campaign, #StopDisenrollment, is aimed at, well, stopping disenrollment, by gathering people’s stories and asking activists to post pictures of what disenrollment means to them.

In recent years, tribal disenrollment has become increasingly routine. An Indian may be thrown out due to a clan rivalry or political in-fighting, or when a tribe trims members to consolidate casino revenues. Losing one’s tribal enrollment often means losing jobs, housing, educational benefits, and social services. It also means grappling with the identity mindfuck of being told: “You’re no longer an Indian in the eyes of the federal government.”

Meanwhile, people like Andrea Smith and Rachel Dolezal have claimed a Native identity as their own, echoing generations of white people before them. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren has claimed a Native identity because of “family stories” about her Cherokee roots. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that fully half of all U.S. adults who claimed a multiracial identity said they were white and American Indian. That’s 8.5 million people.

Why are so many white Americans claiming to be part Indian, even as Native people are telling each other they’re not Indian enough? Does having cultural pride matter when one is steeped in privilege and the power and access that come with it? The questions of what it means to be Native American in 2016, who gets to decide what “counts” as Native, and how one goes about proving it are enormously complex.

The question is also deeply personal—I’m half-white and half-Native, but I look white. (I tan about as well as an aspirin.) In the rare instances someone guesses I have a non-white ethnicity, I often get Asian or “Bjork.” My mother, however, is Tewa, a tribe that is not one of the 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States (there are 400 to 500 tribes that aren’t recognized), and our family has never lived on a reservation. My mother has worked on several reservations throughout Arizona, but because our family has never been on the tribal rolls, she was often not considered “Indian enough” to live on the reservations where she worked. As a child when I would visit the “rez,” the grandmothers called me “little white girl” in Spanish, which was hard to argue with.

“I would love those 8.5 million people to be Native American. But there’s another step to that—that you participate fully in the community you’re claiming.”

Taté Walker, editor of Native Peoples magazine and writer/speaker for the online magazine Everyday Feminism, delineated how shockingly common it is for white people to claim to be Indian—and not in the way I do.

“Natives must have been getting it on with EVERYBODY for this to even remotely make sense,” she wrote, referring to the Pew Research Center study. “[B]ecause of the total U.S. population, about 2.6 million people identified as American Indian/Alaska Native alone, according to 2013 Census estimates.”

The problem with doing this, Walker told me, goes far beyond the seemingly harmless action of checking a box on a form, with or without “family stories.”

“I would love those 8.5 million people to be Native American,” she said. “But there’s another step to that—that you participate fully in the community that you’re claiming.”

One of the biggest reasons it’s been acceptable for white people to posture as Native is due to a certain romanticism about Native culture and people. “If you go back to the journals of Christopher Columbus,” Walker said, “it references [Natives as] these free-spirited nature sprites who dance naked in the moonlight and their kids are running wild, and it just sounds so savage, but savage was a term for free.” As colonialism spread across the continent, so did that idea of freedom, and “the idea that ‘Natives have it great, so let’s take it’ has become ‘Natives have it great, so let’s take it as an identity,’” Walker said.

Tiya Miles, an African-American scholar of Native American Studies at the University of Michigan, agreed that Americans romanticize Indian-ness more than other groups. “Native people were the first ones on this land,” she said. “And in that standing, they possess an authenticity, an elevated symbolic status, and even a little bit of perceived magic, that the people who came later wish they could have for themselves. Take it from Disney.”

One reason white people claim to be Native is that no one wants to be on the side of the oppressor.

People who claim a Native identity often have not been asked to back it up or validate it in any way. Perhaps this is why many non-indigenous people historically have claimed to be indigenous in order to stake a claim in (i.e. steal) tribal land or resources. This kind of blatant ethnic fraud is changing with the rise of social media and other public outing mechanisms. Walker pointed out that in the last three or four decades, more than a dozen such white people who have staked their careers on being Native have been publicly called out for it, and in some cases—such as with academic and activist Andrea Smith, who attracted national attention for claiming a Cherokee identity—a lot of her work, on violence against Native women, for instance, has been (sadly) invalidated.

Part of claiming an identity is being claimed in return. “Humans are who we are in large part because of the relationships that we shape and share, and because of how our lives unfold interdependently within families and communities,” Miles told me. “If I stand in front of a mirror all by my lonesome claiming that I am such-and-such and no one around me who is such-and-such embraces me in that claim, what meaning can I really ascribe to that identity?”

My mother remembers being on the Yaqui reservation one day and an older man asking if she was someone’s daughter, and if she was Yaqui. “I gave a long explanation about not belonging to any recognized tribes,” she said. “He smiled sweetly at me and said, ‘I recognize you. So if anybody ever asks you, tell them you are my daughter. That should be enough.’”

great-great grandma

The author's great-great grandmother

Of course, the idea of proving one’s Native-ness is often far more complicated than that, especially because “proof” often involves documentation like tribal enrollment and CDIB (Certificate or Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood) cards. CDIB cards and “rolls” were introduced to indigenous people by the federal government to break up Indian land (so that settlers could use it) and force tribal communities to assimilate into “American” culture. It’s difficult to imagine, say, an Italian American being asked to prove his or her identity through blood quantum or in any of the other relentless ways indigenous people have been asked to prove who they are for the last hundreds of years.

Ultimately, disenrollment is a spurious issue because the reasons for doing so often go against the traditional ways Native people have determined community, kinship, and belonging. The #StopDisenrollment campaign attempts to bring awareness to the sad irony of Natives imposing the government’s racial categories, which were created to oppress them, and using those same systems to disenfranchise their own people.

Another reason white people claim to be Native is that no one wants to be on the side of the oppressor. Ethnically aligning oneself with a historically oppressed people makes one feel less guilty for the terrible actions perpetrated by the U.S. government. But, as Walker pointed out:

[E]thnic frauds take away opportunities from legit Native people. That academic post? That job? That conference keynote? That college entrance slot? Someone who deserved it more—in a fair and equitable sense—didn’t get it because of someone like Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren [who listed herself as Native American in the Association of American Law School directories from 1986 to 1995], or Rachel Dolezal. And the thing is, all these folks could have done super-powerful ally work just being their awesome white selves.

“It’s the most colonial mindset I can grasp,” Walker continued. “This idea that Native identity can be taken or put on a certificate, almost like a dog breed.”

Unlike identity, skin is something we all understand. The right shade gives you ease and power and visibility.

White Americans, particularly those of European ancestry, often fall into a weird cultural gap, struggling to form a collective identity made up of the places and cultures they left behind and the worlds they live in today. White Americans who ascribe to Native identities take on a “symbolic ethnicity,” a term coined by sociologist Herbert Gans in 1979, which allows people to claim an ethnicity without changing any behaviors or having real social costs.

Witness, for instance, the amount of white people who become proudly Irish for one day out of the year on March 17. These people typically do not belong to Irish-American organizations, participate in Irish causes, or marry Irish folks. It might seem contradictory to think of ethnicity as something that’s not biologically fixed, but as Harvard sociologist Mary Waters has noted, ethnicity is a social phenomenon.

Complicating the idea of optional or symbolic ethnicity are things like intermarriage, “passing,” and changing social or political allegiances throughout one’s life. The most demonstrable difference is that for white Americans, as the majority group, it is a choice, whereas minorities often don’t have that luxury. A white-looking person like me can check a box on a form that says “Native American” without having to worry about the racial or social injustices faced by those who don’t “pass” as white, such as my mother.

For white Americans, ethnicity has become voluntary, something we can put on or take off at will, rather than something fixed. Unlike identity, skin is something we all understand. The right shade gives you ease and power and visibility. I would never deny that looking like a white girl has shaped the laws of the world in my favor and my place within it. But I am also my mother, shaped by her love and acceptance and belonging.

When I was in preschool, my peers and I were cutting up construction paper for our Thanksgiving costumes. “The boys will dress as Indians and the girls will be pilgrims,” my teacher said. Together we would eat soup in our paper hats and headbands, and genocide would in no way be discussed.

I started to cut out my crude, four-year-old approximation of a feather when my teacher stopped me. “You are a pilgrim,” she said.

“I want to be an Indian,” I said, holding up my tiny feather.

“But you’re a girl,” she said. “So you’re a pilgrim.” She picked up a gold piece of paper and started fashioning a buckle for my pilgrim hat.

I didn’t argue with her, but after she left, I took my solitary feather and glued it to the back of my pilgrim hat. No blood tests or ID cards required.

Lead image: The author with her mother