Who Are the Native Americans?

Native American
Native Americans participate in the inter tribal dance during the 7th Annual Indiana Traditional Powwow, April 7, 2018 at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Jeremy Hogan/Getty Images

Ask most people who they think Indigenous peoples are and they will most likely say something like "they are natives who lived in America." But who are they, and how is that determination made? These are questions with no simple or easy answers and the source of ongoing conflict in Indigenous communities, as well as in the halls of Congress and other American government institutions.

The Definition of Indigenous

Dictionary.com defines indigenous as:

"Originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country; native."

It pertains to plants, animals, and people. A person (or animal or plant) can be born in a region or country, but not be indigenous to it if his or her ancestors did not originate there.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues refers to Indigenous peoples as groups who:

  • Self-identify as Indigenous at the individual level and are accepted by the community as their member.
  • Have historical continuity with pre-colonial or pre-settler societies.
  • Have a strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources.
  • Exhibit distinct social, economic or political systems.
  • Have a distinct language, culture, and beliefs.
  • Form non-dominant groups of society.
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

The term "Indigenous" is often referred to in an international and political sense, but more and more people who self-identify as Native American are adopting the term to describe their "native-ness," sometimes called their "indigeneity." While the United Nations recognizes self-identity as one marker of indigeneity, in the United States this alone is not enough to be considered Native American for official political recognition.

Federal Recognition

When the first European settlers came to the shores of what local tribes called "Turtle Island" there were thousands of communities and bands of Indigenous peoples. Their numbers were dramatically reduced due to foreign diseases, wars and other policies of the United States government; many of them that remained formed official relationships with the U.S. through treaties and other mechanisms.

Others continued to exist, but the U.S. refused to recognize them. Today the United States unilaterally decides who (what tribes) it forms official relationships with through the process of federal recognition. There are currently approximately 566 federally recognized tribes; there are some tribes who have state recognition but no federal recognition, and at any given time there are hundreds of tribes still vying for federal recognition.

Tribal Membership

Federal law affirms that tribes have the authority to determine their membership. They can use whatever means they like to decide who to grant membership to. According to Indigenous scholar Eva Marie Garroutte in her book "Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America," approximately two-thirds of tribes rely on the blood quantum system, which determines belonging based on the concept of race by measuring how close one is to a "full-blood" Indigenous ancestor. For example, many have a minimum requirement of ¼ or ½ degree of Indigenous blood for tribal membership. Other tribes rely on a system of proof of lineal descent.

Increasingly, the blood quantum system is criticized as being an inadequate and problematic way of determining tribal membership (and thus Indigenous identity). Because Indigenous peoples out-marry more than any other group of Americans, the determination of who is Indigenous based on racial standards will result in what some scholars call "statistical genocide." They argue that being Indigenous is about more than racial measurements; it is more about identity-based on kinship systems and cultural competence. They also argue that blood quantum was a system imposed on them by the American government and not a method Indigenous peoples themselves used to determine belonging, so abandoning blood quantum would represent a return to traditional ways of inclusion.

Even with tribes' ability to determine their membership, determining who is legally defined as an Indigenous person is still not clear cut. Garroutte notes that there are no less than 33 different legal definitions. This means that a person can be defined as Indigenous for one purpose but not another.

Indigenous Hawaiians

In the legal sense, Indigenous Hawaiians are not considered Native Americans, but they are nonetheless Indigenous peoples in the United States (their name for themselves is Kanaka Maoli). The illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 left in its wake considerable conflict among the Indigenous Hawaiian population, and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which began in the 1970s, is less than cohesive in terms of what it considers the best approach to justice. The Akaka Bill (which has experienced several incarnations in Congress for over 10 years) proposes to give Indigenous people of Hawaiian descent the same standing as Native Americans, effectively turning them into Native Americans in a legal sense by subjecting them to the same system of law.

However, activists and scholars who study Hawaiian indigeneity argue that this is an inappropriate approach for Indigenous Hawaiians because their histories differ significantly from those who identify as Native Americans. They also argue that the bill failed to consult Indigenous Hawaiians about their wishes adequately.