Who is a Native American?

There are certain individuals in the US who can claim Native American. In some cases, this designation can ensure certain rights and privileges within a tribe, so deciding who is Native American and who is not is important. However, it is not always clear who can claim such a designation. Recently, congressional candidate Elizabeth Warren has made headlines because her claims for having Native American ancestry have been questioned.

According to experts, Native American ancestry is largely determined by specific tribes. Tribes determine who is and is not a Native American. While most people can claim to be descended from Native American ancestry, in order to be “legitimately” Native American a tribe must recognize that claim. It is very similar to citizenship, according to Professor Julia Good Fox of Haskell Indian Nations University. While many people may claim to have Irish ancestry, for example, one must follow the laws of Irish citizenship to be considered a citizen.

Tribes have very different rules about membership and this can mean that determining Native American membership can be challenging. In many tribes, “blood quantum” is used to determine citizenship. This refers to the amount of so-called “pure blood” linked to the specific tribe. For example, if a person has one parent belonging to the tribe, that person would be seen as having one half blood quantum. Some tribes require one half blood quantum while others require a mere one-thirty-second. This may mean that a person can be recognized as Native American by one tribe but not another.

As well, determining blood quantum can be challenging. It requires having specific information about the Native American ancestry of one’s family, and this information is not always available. The issue of “blood purity” is also a very controversial one for many people. According to some experts, blood quantum is also not traditionally how membership in tribes was determined. In the past, many tribes relied on cultural knowledge and language knowledge to determine who was or was not part of the tribe and members from other tribes could therefore be assimilated into a tribe as long as they could meet language and cultural requirements.