What It Means to Be an American Indian (Legally Speaking)
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) came into existence on March 11, 1824, but was then known as the Office of Indian Affairs. The general purpose of the BIA is to manage Indian affairs throughout the United States. It also controls, legally speaking, what it means to “be an Indian.”
What it takes to be a Indian tribe
In the United States, a tribe is not a tribe unless the BIA says so. Sure, there are countless Indian tribes in America that are, in fact, tribal nations, but in order to receive benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a tribe must be officially decreed a tribe.
The criteria for being federally recognized as an Indian tribe consist of seven requirements found in Federal Regulation 25 CFR Part 83:
- The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.
- A predominant portion of the petitioning group composes a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times to the present.
- The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.
- A copy of the group’s present governing documents including its membership criteria.
- The petitioner’s membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes which combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.
- The membership of the petitioning group is composed primarily of persons who are not already members of an acknowledged North American Indian tribe.
- Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal relationship.
What it takes to be officially designated an Indian
The BIA not only decides what’s a tribe, it also decides who’s an Indian. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in order to be officially defined as an American Indian, a person must meet all of the following criteria:
- He must be listed as a member of a federally recognized tribe.
- He must be able to definitively trace his Indian ancestry back at least three generations.
- He must be formally approved by BIA officials.
- His blood quantum must be at least 1/4 American Indian.
These criteria can be problematic. The blood quantum criterion in particular has angered some. Blood quantum is the percentage of Indian blood in a person. This isn’t arrived at by a blood test, but solely through an analysis of a person’s ancestry.
Some anti–blood quantum activists have compared the BIA’s fixation on blood ratios with the Nazi obsession with blood purity. Other Native American people believe that without requirements for blood quantum or tribal rights to restrict membership, tribes would be inundated with people who have no Indian ancestry or culture at all wishing to receive tribal benefits.