What's an American Indian? Warren case stirs query
Native Americans have a high rate of intermarriage with other groups. Many are not identifiable by appearance, which has made it possible for almost anyone to assume a Native persona. That seems to have been the case with US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
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There are 566 federally recognized Native American tribes, each with its own rules for membership, according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA. Some tribes require a "blood quantum" measurement of as much as one-half or one-quarter Indian ancestry; others require a certain place of birth or residence.Skip to next paragraph
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Wilkins, the professor, is married to a Navajo with many siblings. "I've asked them what defines a Navajo," he said. "One said you have to speak the language. Another said you have to live within our sacred mountains. Another said no, you have to take part in ceremonial life. All this in one family!"
According to census figures provided by the BIA, an estimated 4.5 million people identify themselves as American Indians or Alaska Natives, including those who say they are more than one race. But in a 2005 report, the most recent available, the BIA counted just 2 million enrolled tribal members – which means that fewer than half of all people claiming Indian heritage are recognized by a tribe.
"There's an old joke in this corner of Indian Country that if you meet someone who doesn't know anything about tribal affairs but claims they're Indian, they'll say they're Cherokee," Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton, a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, said by e-mail.
Warren grew up in Oklahoma, home of the 310,000-member Cherokee Nation, the largest Indian tribe. Warren does not claim official Cherokee membership, which is based on the "Dawes Rolls," a federal list of Cherokees in Oklahoma from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many people have legitimate Cherokee ancestry but are not eligible for membership because their ancestors were not among those counted, Krehbiel-Burton said.
But "some people falsely claim Native heritage simply out of ignorance," Krehbiel-Burton said. "They've been told for years that they had a great-grandmother (or something similar) who was a Cherokee princess and assume that it's true."
Warren spoke of a similar oral tradition when she mentioned an heirloom photo of her grandfather: "My Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times (and) remarked that he – her father, my papaw – had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do."
Even President Barack Obama has an Indian story, about his maternal grandmother, who was nicknamed "Toot."
"If asked, Toot would turn her head in profile to show off her beaked nose, which, along with a pair of jet-black eyes, was offered as proof of Cherokee blood," Obama wrote in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
"If you're going to claim it, you have to help your people out," says LeValdo. She had seen no evidence of such involvement by Warren, but said she didn't know enough details to judge Warren's claim.