Five Surprising Answers to Five Common Questions About American Indians

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With the release of The Seven Paths, we celebrate the wisdom and teachings of several American Indian nations. American Indian culture has been appropriated by a number of individuals and groups who have lent their own interpretations to it. In some cases, those interpretations are incorrect, even if well-meaning. In other cases, they lead to complete misinformation.

Based on reports from the American Indian Movement, Assembly of First Nations, and the American Indian Library Association, the following five questions are those that are most often asked of their membership:

1. What percentage of American Indian lineage do I need to prove to call myself a Native American?

There exists no universally accepted rule for establishing a person's identity as an Indian. The criteria for tribal membership differs from one tribe to the next. To determine a particular tribe's criteria, one must contact that tribe directly. For its own purposes, the Bureau of the Census counts anyone an Indian who declares to be such. By recent counts, there are over 2.4 million Native Americans.

2. Isn't it offensive or not politically correct to call Native Americans as Indians?

The term "Native Americans" came into usage in the 60s -- mostly by outsiders who wanted to convey respect to the indigenous peoples. That said, the term "American Indian" is not offensive to most self-identified American Indians for two reasons:

+ The languages of the treaties and of government organizations as well as tribal rights and support groups all use the word "Indian." It is a legitimate term.

+ The term "Native American" also refers to Hawaiians and Samoans, so it is often inaccurate in terms of who is specifically being identified.

3. What criteria does the government use to "federally recognize" a tribe? What stops any native group from demanding tribal status?

A group has to contain people bound together by blood ties who are socially, politically, and religiously organized, who lived together in a defined territory, and who speak a common language or dialect. Given how challenging it can be to prove such things, the process of gaining recognition is lengthy and tedious. There are currently more than 550 recognized tribes in the United States.

4. What exactly does having "Tribal Sovereignty" mean? Are you truly a different nation?

Tribal sovereignty describes the right of federally recognized tribes to govern themselves and the existence of a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Thus a tribe is not a ward of the government, but an independent nation with the right to form its own government, adjudicate legal cases within its borders, levy taxes within its borders, establish its membership, and decide its own future fate. The federal government has a trust responsibility to protect tribal lands, assets, resources and treaty rights.

5.  How is it that American Indians can claim to be independent entities living on sovereign land but still receive payments from the federal government?

This is one of the most popular myths but it remains (unfortunately for Indians) quite untrue. Indians do not receive payments from the federal government simply because they have Indian blood. Funds distributed to a person of Indian descent may represent mineral lease income on property that is held in trust by the United States or compensation for lands taken in connection with governmental projects. Some Indian tribes receive benefits from the federal government in fulfillment of treaty obligations or for the extraction of tribal natural resources - a percentage of which may be distributed as per capita among the tribes membership.

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