Native Identities: Cards, Culture and Community
Dartmouth’s 1769 charter created a college “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land ... and also of English Youth and any others.” It would be many years before the college actually recommitted itself to that mission by trying to make up for historical lack of opportunities in higher education for indigenous people.
Fulfillment of that promise involves answering a question that’s been at issue legally and culturally since colonization: Who gets to identify as Native?
Tribes use a variety of methods to determine membership, including lineal descent based on historical documents and blood quantum — the fraction of someone’s ancestors who are documented as full-blooded Native Americans.
For Native American Studies professor Maurice Crandall, methods of establishing tribal membership that rely on blood quantum are both a limiting remnant of colonialism and a necessary way to establish legal standing.
“Historically, way back, your membership in a community was based on who your parents were or who you descended from,” Crandall said. “The idea of things like blood quantum is completely un-indigenous.”
Formal systems of determining tribal membership, according to Crandall, came along with colonization, when legal rights were different for people of different races and, as the federal government made treaties with tribes, as a way to determine who was entitled to the results of those agreements.
To Samantha Maltais ’18, who is Aquinnah Wampanoag, the legal dimension of tribal enrollment is still an important reality.
“A big part of being native is that special political relationship you have with the United States government based in treaty rights and political sovereignty,” she said.
Maltais said she tries to be cognizant of the privilege and sense of belonging that comes with being an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, relative to those who don’t meet enrollment standards or are members of groups not recognized on the federal level.
“For me, having that privilege as a political body that is identified, I know what makes me native, and it’s that little card that I carry,” Maltais said. “These tribal communities are no longer based on their geographical isolation, and it’s not just about culture or race — it’s a very political structure, and that’s just one of the legacies of colonialism we have to deal with today. It’s a struggle to reclaim that culture.”
Crandall emphasized that, even if the specific methods are a holdover from colonial thought, the act of determining standards for membership is an important exercise in tribal sovereignty.
“Tribal nations in the U.S. are sovereign, indigenous nations, and they get to decide their own enrollment, and as much as we may not like it, on the other hand it’s a good thing because tribes get to decide — it’s not mandated by an outside force,” he said.
While stringent requirements for tribal enrollment can to some extent preserve a group’s culture and allow members to benefit from more tribal resources, there are also drawbacks.
To be an enrolled member of Crandall’s tribe, the Yavapai-Apache, people must have one-fourth blood quantum as well as be a direct descendent of someone on the Indian Reorganization Act roll, created in the 1930s. For groups with blood quantum requirements, members marrying outside the community means enrollment numbers can shrink over time.
“My kids don’t qualify,” Crandall said. “Most Indian people, you grow up knowing your blood quantum. It’s something that’s ingrained in you. I know that mine is three-eighths. That means my kids are three-sixteenths, so they miss that quarter cut-off by a sixteenth.”
But for Crandall, native identities go beyond formal enrollment.
“I tell my kids, ‘You know who you are, you know where you come from. Having that card isn’t the most important thing,’” he said.
For Kalei Akau ’18, a Native Hawaiian, cultural fluency and community involvement held the utmost importance in claiming her native identity.
Native Hawaiians aren’t federally recognized in the same way many Native American tribes are, and their membership is harder to define.
“Thinking back to how I became the way I am and why I identify so strongly as being Native Hawaiian, it’s through the Hawaiian values that I’ve learned, through the family that have raised me to do the hula,” she said. “It’s hard to explain how Hawaiians define themselves, because it’s just how you live.”
Proof of ancestry does carry some importance for native Hawaiians, however. It’s required to receive land allotments and services intended for native Hawaiians, including the Kamehameha Schools.
Another native Hawaiian at Dartmouth, Elizabeth Coleman ’21, attended this school. Coleman is Native Hawaiian and Cherokee, though she is not formally enrolled. Coleman is light-skinned, with fair hair. Growing up in Hawaii, her native identity wasn’t readily recognizable.
“I don’t look Hawaiian, so people would always call me ‘haole,’ which has become a derogatory term for white people,” she said. “It was hard growing up, but I think that pushed me more to go towards learning about my culture and language.”
For Coleman, having a card that verifies her Hawaiian ancestry reaffirms her identity.
“It makes me feel good to know that I have that, and if anybody’s questioning me I can just pull out my card,” she said. “It’s empowering to have this and, hopefully, someday to have my Cherokee card. I know who I am, and I’ve come to terms like that, but it’s nice to have the proof.”
Though she has heard stories about her Cherokee ancestry on her mother’s side, Coleman isn’t an enrolled member. After years of working to learn more about Cherokee culture, she is hoping to take a blood quantum test soon and take steps toward formal enrollment.
“I feel like it’s wrong to claim to be something you’re not, and I don’t want to be that person,” she said. “It would be nice to know, and to have that peace of mind that I am actually Cherokee, and I think it would push me more to be more connected with that culture and that side of me.”