Who Gets to Decide Who I Am? On Native Identity, Tribal Enrollment, and Federal RecognitionIn DepthIn Depth
Illustration: Angelica Alzona
“You’re Lumbee because your daddy’s Lumbee,” my grandma said to me last week. We were talking about my recent re-enrollment in the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi. “Now, your momma’s white,” she explained in a drawl particular to the southern tip of North Carolina, “but your daddy’s Indian. That makes you half-and-half,” she said, laughing (this was a coffee pun—my grams and I drink a lot of coffee together).
My grandma never says American Indian, and she never uses the word Indigenous. She calls herself what she was called growing up in segregated North Carolina under the calloused thumb of Jim Crow—just Indian.
Native American identity is not quite as simple as my grams’ terminology makes it out to be. It is complex, nuanced, and particular to nations within nations. Even the “constitutions” Native American tribes have penned for themselves are, largely, ways to negotiate their own sovereignty in terms dictated by a government that they predate. “[…] What is required of each individual… to be considered a bona fide participant, citizen, or—for lack of a better term—member of a given Native nation,” is “arguably the most important question that Native nations have ever faced,” David Wilkins and Shelly Hulse Wilkins wrote in Dismembered: Native Disenrollment and the Battle for Human Rights.
In October, after Elizabeth Warren released a five-minute video “confirming” her claims of “Native American heritage” (she used a DNA test to prove that she has “Native American ancestry in [her] pedigree”), I watched heated discussions about “who’s in and who’s out” circulating through my social media feeds. “Warren violated the sanctity of enrollment as an element of tribal sovereignty,” Malinda Maynor Lowery, Lumbee scholar and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of Chapel Hill, said in an interview with Jezebel. Native identity is often understood in terms of tribal enrollment, the most codified way to answer the question of what it means to be Native American and who gets to decide, and the easiest way to determine “belonging” during this odd moment when non-Native people making claims of Native identity are ubiquitous.
In the days after the Warren story broke, I stumbled across (and cried my way through) a Twitter thread by Elissa Washuta, a Cowlitz writer and professor, warning against taking a reductionist stance when discussing Native American identity. “We should not be trying to simplify this to the point of erasing Native people whose tribes have failed to include them or whose tribes have not fit the colonial criteria for existence,” she wrote. “That erasure has been at the heart of the colonial project, and I’m not taking up their work.”
Native identity is often understood in terms of tribal enrollment, the most codified way to answer the question of what it means to be Native American and who gets to decide
Washuta’s words touched a nerve for me. The uncomfortable truth that led to my conversation with my grandmother is this: Although I am an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe, I was a few “wrong answers” shy of failing out of the re-enrollment process earlier this year.
The underpinnings of this violation of sovereignty are complex. While it is integral to tribal sanctity and self-governance, enrollment itself, according to Lowery, is “a colonial construct; it’s not a self-determining process.” More broadly, federal recognition is a colonial construct. It is the end result of the process of proving our tribal identity and cultural heritage (both of which predate the federal government) to the federal government, and in terms that the federal government has established.
To start unraveling this knotty ball of yarn, here are a few things we know with certainty: Some tribes are federally recognized; some are not. Each tribe has a particular enrollment process, most require proof of lineal descendancy, some require proof of “acceptable” blood quantum, and many require proof of kinship—connection to a particular land, a particular people. There are, of course, Native Americans who meet some of these standards but not all of them. Whether or not this is sufficient for enrollment depends on the tribe or nation.
This is the beating heart of the problem of American Indian identity.
Federal recognition is a formally established, government-to-government relationship between two nations. But the relationship is far from lateral. Federal recognition has been granted to some tribes. The Lumbee people attained state recognition during Reconstruction in 1885. In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed The Lumbee Act, which formally recognized Lumbees as “Indian,” but still withheld full recognition and denied them eligibility for “any services performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians.” A relationship exists between some Native nations and the federal government, but only once the federal government has determined them valid enough to be worthy of such an agreement.
“Our standards for enrollment are necessary,” said Lowery, “because we are a sovereign nation responsible for determining our own citizenship criteria.” But even this citizenship criteria is fundamentally shaped by colonialism—the identity markers we use are not of our own making.
Native conversations about “belonging” to non-white communities in the United States are inevitably shot through with colonial markers and settler standards. This is because the very notion of a “Native American” only exists because of colonialism. Once whiteness arrived in the Americas, non-whiteness was established. When it comes to non-white communities—to the “other”—there is no such thing as purity. That binary is a myth. “Definitions of race are inseparable from unrealistic notions of purity and the corrupt enslavement of people’s bodies,” Lowery wrote in The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle.
When we formalize something as malleable as identity, it stiffens and shrinks like sun-baked clay. Between the criteria established for tribal membership and those established by the United States government for federal recognition, there is a doubly formalized Native American identity. Cracks are forming, and there are people who are slipping through.
Disenrollment (or, specifically, decertification) is the crack splitting beneath my feet, and while it is a remarkably new one in its current iteration, it has been a century in the making. It is the culmination of a slow story of internalized oppression, of people turning settler-sharpened blades towards themselves. Wilkins and Hulse Wilkins explained that, until the 1930s, the federal government waffled between granting Congress and the executive branch “power over Native nations’ right to decide who belonged in their communities,” and allowing tribes to exercise self-determination.
During the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, “any Indian tribe, or tribes, residing on the same reservation” were formally granted the right to “devise a constitution and bylaws to operate under that would be recognized by the federal government.” Patrick Wolfe, an Australian anthropologist and ethnographer, calls the Indian Reorganization Act “a policy of admitting the tribe itself into the U.S. polity, only on condition that its constitution be rewritten into structural harmony with its U.S. civic environment.” The IRA, along with introducing the idea of “blood quantum” as a legitimate identity marker, prompted an unprecedented wave of constitution development in Native American communities which, for many tribes, meant formally outlining specific criteria for membership for the first time.
At precisely this moment in history, statements like: “You’re Lumbee because your daddy’s Lumbee” officially stop holding water in many communities. But this was an important means to an end—specifically, self-determination validated by the United States government.
In short, when it comes to tribal enrollment, the federal government maintains the right to interfere, but it usually does not. In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court heard Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez. Julia Martinez filed suit against her tribe, the Santa Clara Pueblo, because its constitution extended membership to the children of men who’d married outside the tribe, but not to the children of women who’d married outside the tribe. She claimed the law violated the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, which says of Native American tribes that “any person within its jurisdiction [is afforded] the equal protection of its laws.” The court ultimately decided not to intervene.
“Native governments reveled in [the case’s] affirmation of tribal sovereignty,” wrote Wilkins and Wilkins. In the wake of Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, tribes began to modify their own constitutions to more proactively control their membership. Once Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, disenrollment, banishment, and stricter criteria for enrollment were suddenly incentivized. Where it is constitutionally allowed, we see disenrollment happening at much higher rates in communities that are earning gaming revenue (particularly those with “per capita” plans, where revenue is divided and distributed to individuals).
Of the at least 80 tribes who are actively disenrolling members, the Lumbee tribe, according to David Wilkins, has disenrolled more citizens than any nation except for one. As Native people, we have to negotiate the fact that colonialism has informed the ways we understand and define ourselves—these definitions determine who is in and who is out. Lowery suggests that “we look very closely at the ways in which our own self-government practices reinforce colonial standards.”
The Lumbee constitution lays out two basic standards for tribal enrollment. The first is lineal descent, which requires direct ancestry from someone on our base rolls (we use Federal Indian census records from 1900 and/or 1910), and, as my grandmother explained, my dad’s a Lum.
Lineal descent, as Lowery put it, “legitimizes the imperfect science of base rolls.” We’re tracing our ancestry back to men and women deemed “Indian enough” by the federal government. According to Jodi Byrd, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation whose research focuses on Critical Indigenous studies and governance, base rolls “transformed community identity into an individualistic self-traced through a paper trail.”
The second standard, one that minors don’t have to meet on their own, is formalized kinship. Our constitution states that “no person’s application for enrollment shall be accepted if the applicant has not historically or does not presently maintain contact with the tribe.” This is determined by an in-person interview with a Lumbee genealogist, and “contact with the tribe” means, in our case, contact with (and social ties to) people currently living in Robeson County or the counties it touches.
In fact, measuring “blood” has historically been a tool of oppression and disenfranchisement in the United States.
My grandfather’s father moved from Robeson County to Lee County—which is an hour outside of Lumbee territory as defined by our constitution—ostensibly to “tend to somebody’s farm,” according to my grams. The roots that bind me to my Lumbee heritage grow out of Lee County first, although we “have plenty of cousins in Robeson County.” She then proceeded to list all the “most successful ones; you can write about them in your paper”—doctors, lawyers, folks affiliated with the university, none of whom I know well.
The questions in the genealogical interview, questions about specific churches, communities, and landmarks, among other things, center around Robeson County and adjacent counties—Lumbee territory. The answers could not come from Lee County. I know the name of my grandmother’s church, but I do not know the name of her grandmother’s church. All of this to say: I nearly failed.
And that proximity to failure haunts me.
Again, the most common terms of tribal enrollment across the country are blood quantum, lineal descent, and kinship. Robert A. Williams Jr., fellow Lumbee and professor of law and American Indian studies, explained in a 2015 interview that blood quantum, a metaphorical account of how much “Indian blood” any given Native person has, “comes from some of the worst stereotypes that western civilization has perpetuated about Indians.” Traced back to the 17th century, blood quantum is intrinsically connected to the notion that Native people are in need of paternal guardianship. A “full-blooded” Indian would have lacked the civilization needed to own his or her own land.
In fact, Williams pointed out, measuring “blood” has historically been a tool of oppression and disenfranchisement in the United States. The legal formalization of the idea of blood quantum (during the IRA), was coterminous with the “one drop rule” used to disenfranchise African Americans under Jim Crow, which relegated children of mixed race with the socioeconomic status of the “lesser” race. “Under the blood quantum regime,” Wolfe wrote, “one’s Indianness progressively declines in accordance with a ‘biological’ calculus that is a construct of Euroamerican culture.”
According to Williams, “Tribes [whose constitutions still require a particular blood quantum for enrollment] have internalized the colonizers most racist views of Indians,” and have become, in David Wilkins’s words, “exquisite practitioners of the colonizing they endured.” Even kinship, arguably the most Indigenous (or least colonial) identity marker, can be a leaky ship. Individuals and families can fall out. Some are pushed out, and some step out without the economic means to step back in. Some move an hour too far down the road. Physical and sexual abuse occur both inside and outside of Native American communities. People have legitimate reasons for disconnecting from their families for a generation or two. And what then?
Last year, I asked my partner to marry me. When I spread the word to a few cousins that I’d be bringing her to our annual Lumbee family reunion, I was gently warned that it might not be as painless as I’d initially imagined. Lumbees are historically Southern Baptist and Methodist. My nuclear family is Southern Baptist; my great-grandfather, the farmer, was also a minister.
“As Indians rode the wave of land loss and poverty [at the turn of the 20th century],” Lowery wrote in her book, they “built institutions like schools and churches to counteract it.” These church walls have served as generations-old buffers between my kin and a state violently opposed to their existence, and they are sturdy and difficult to penetrate by design. However beautiful, however necessary, the sanctuaries of my family’s family were not built with folks like me in mind.
Ultimately, we didn’t go to the reunion. And while this is an anecdote about my family, not the Lumbee people as a whole
, these are cousins and aunts and uncles who I listed as kin during my genealogical exam. They are my connection to my people. This year’s reunion is next month, and my grandma told me to “just come.” We will probably go.
But this entire experience was a reminder that kinship ties are fragile. They can be severed, and what this means (particularly in terms of enrollment) for Lumbees who find themselves on the margins of a tribe on the margins is unsettling.
“Colonialism does not give us the leeway to express the intersectional nature of our identities,” Lowery said. “With federal recognition as a proxy, we are limited in our ability to be both Lumbee and queer, Lumbee and from Lee County, and so on.” This obligation to prove ourselves worthy of membership in our own communities is a powerful burden to bear. And we bear it as individuals and as nations—contorting to fit inside the strictures of colonially-mandated personhood and nationhood in exchange for what? Sovereignty?
The work of complicating the conversations we’re having about who is in, who is out, and who is deciding, is vital. While our own self-determined markers of identity bear the scars of colonialism and assimilation, they are (for better or for worse) indispensable. They are all we have in “a time when American Indian identity is available and consumable for anybody that can get on Ancestry.com,” says Lowery. An imperfect tool is still a tool.
As Native people, though, we are allowed to ask ourselves the question: By whose terms are we abiding?
And perhaps it’s time we stop pretending the answers are simple.
Laura Bullard is a queer, Lumbee writer and editor based in North Carolina. Her work focuses on the interplay between identity and power structures with a focus on gender, sexuality, race, and mental illness. She is the nonfiction co-editor at Nat.Brut magazine. You can find more of her work at laurabullard.com, and she tweets (sometimes) @LumbeeLaura.