I recently received an email letting me know some good people at the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board are reading my book, Yakama Rising. They sent me some questions, including one that asked about identity, terminology, and enrollment of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. This is a common question and I’ll share some thoughts here.
There are many ways Indigenous people may identify. In the U.S., one might hear or see a particular definition such as “member of x, a federally recognized Tribe” and such an identity lets you know the person holds enrolled membership in a sovereign Indigenous Nation that exists within the boundaries of what we now call the U.S., and that their Indigenous Nation has a legal nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. There are currently 574 such sovereign Indigenous Nations in the U.S. When one looks at federal resources or documents, this is the identity that is most commonly used. However, there are other identities, such as state-recognized Indigenous Nations and Indigenous communities who have no political status in the U.S.; that is, they are legally unrecognized as holding sovereign status in the U.S. All of these identities are shaped and complicated by the historical and ongoing settler colonialism of the U.S. nation state.
Traditionally, our Indigenous communities would not require a process in which paperwork was filed with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to state who belonged to a community. Yet enrollment is one way Tribal Nations may define their membership, governing bodies, and criteria for resource allocation. For example, only enrolled Tribal members may apply for scholarship funds from my Tribe, the Yakama Nation. However, who counts as Indigenous can differ by policy and program. For example, I serve as the Director of the Sapsik’ʷałá Program at the University of Oregon and our federal grant from the U.S. Office of Indian Education allows for second degree descendants (student has a parent or grandparent enrolled) from a state or federally recognized Tribe to apply for funding to help support their education in becoming a teacher. These are just brief examples to show that definitions of Indigenous identity can vary and be complicated.
I’d like to conclude by taking a step back from the details of definitions and bureaucratic notions of identity and pause and remember that Indigenous identity also means being in good relation with community and place. As Indigenous people, we are connected to, and responsible for, our Indigenous homelands. We also sometimes live other places for school or work or family reasons; we are called to uphold our cultural values and be in respectful relation in every place. Thank you to everyone reading this post who is respecting Mother Earth, and all our human and more than human relations.
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