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Proving Native American Ancestry Can Be Tricky


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren continues to face criticism over undocumented claims she made that for several years she was Native American. Warren acknowledged that she told officials at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania that she was of Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage, but she insists that played no role in her hiring.

According to the census, almost five million Americans identify themselves as Native Americans. The Bureau of Indian Affairs put the number enrolled in federally registered tribes at just under two million.

There are lots of reasons for that discrepancy, but some of them include family legends, identity shopping and ethnic fraud, where someone adopts an Indian identity to qualify as a minority or because they think it's cool.

If you've seen this happen, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website, at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the Massachusetts teen in the fatal texting-while-driving incident will spend a year in prison. What will it take for you to stop using a cell phone while driving? Email us now, that address again is

But first proving you're Native American. David Treuer joins us from member station KNBJ in Bemidji, Minnesota. He's an Ojibwe Indian from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, the author of "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life," and nice to have you back on the program.

DAVID TREUER: It's great to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And one of the columns you wrote was about literary frauds who perpetrated, passed themselves off as Indians.

TREUER: Yes, I wrote a piece about Margaret B. Jones. It was a few years ago, but it was a pretty shocking case of ethnic fraud.

CONAN: Ethnic fraud. Did I get it right, those are the reasons why people do it, do you think?

TREUER: Well, I don't know. Her reasons seemed to be pretty cynical. I mean, she wrote a memoir about growing up half-Irish, half-Native American, raised by an African-American foster mother in South Central Los Angeles and talks about her family members dealing drugs and being shot as a really hard-luck story with a hopeful, happy ending.

It turns out none of it was true. She was raised in Sherman Oaks. She had no Native American heritage whatsoever, and it seemed pretty cynical. She seemed to think that she didn't have a good story to tell unless she - about herself unless she made up a self.

CONAN: And there are other examples, as well.

TREUER: Oh, history is littered with examples, some of them really fascinating, some of them really sad. The case of Nasdeesh(ph), a man who fabricated a Navajo identity for himself, he's not at all Navajo, is both fascinating and sad. There's the case of Buffalo Child Long Lance, whose real name was Sylvester Long, listed in the registry in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as African-American, who cast that off and assumed an Indian identity in the early part of the century. It goes way back.

CONAN: Do Indian tribes know who's a member and who isn't?

TREUER: Of course. You know, an identity is not the same thing as an ethnicity, and it's not the same thing as a culture, and none of those are the same thing as being an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. Tribes have enrollment criteria, and they have processes in place, and they're on the lookout for people with fraudulent claims. But all these things are different, sometimes overlapping phenomena.

CONAN: In California there has been examples of tribes purging the rolls, if you will, saying no, you don't qualify.

TREUER: Indeed. You know, throughout history, there have been instances where tribes will include or exclude members, and sometimes the reasons for that are no more noble than the reasons why Margaret B. Jones made up an identity for herself and might have - and sometimes, I have to say, it's cynical and unfortunate because I don't think, despite census claims, that there are so many of us who are American Indian that we can afford to alienate people with a legitimate claim.

CONAN: What's - then you get into the question: What's a legitimate claim?

TREUER: True. Like in the case of Warren, I understand the furor, and it touches a nerve, and that nerve is tied to affirmative action, but her claims were pretty modest. She didn't claim that she was an enrolled member. She hasn't tried to become enrolled, that I know of, by the way.

She doesn't claim to be a member of a tribe in any kind of larger cultural sense. She doesn't even claim an American Indian identity. She only claimed American Indian ancestry, and that is, from what I can tell, true.

CONAN: One-thirty-second, I think, yes.

TREUER: Yeah, well.

CONAN: But there it is. We get into questions of blood, and blood gets to be, well, it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

TREUER: It sure does, but blood is the primary criteria to be an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe. And it's, you know, it's partly that blood quantum requirement was instituted at the urging of the federal government, and it was cynical. It was believed that we would then soon breed ourselves out of at least official existence by intermarrying with non-Natives.

But it also had a positive benefit in that you could be somewhat certain, if you use blood as a criteria, that the descendants of the people who signed the treaties that really shaped the future of tribes across the country would receive the benefits that devolve from those treaties.

But in this day and age, you know, I wonder if, you know, some harder thinking is necessary to rethink our enrollment criteria because I think maybe we should take into account citizenship tests, perhaps, or language requirements, some ways that strengthen our Native communities, which I think we all agree could use strengthening.

CONAN: Joining us now is Mary Annette Pember, a freelance journalist who focuses on Native issues and culture. She's also a member of the Red Cliff Band of the Wisconsin Ojibwe. Nice to have you with us.

MARY ANNETTE PEMBER: Hi, nice to be here.

CONAN: And as different organizations use different methods to verify one's Native American identity, how do you define ethnic fraud?

PEMBER: Ethnic fraud?

CONAN: Yeah.

PEMBER: Well, I think, you know, there are so many that have, you know, these stories in their family. And, you know, I see those as relatively innocuous. I think people who may be, you know, knowingly, you know, would make a fraudulent claim and then use it to further their career in some way. And I think particularly objectionable are those then that would hold themselves as arbiters of Native culture, either teachers or arbiters. I mean, that is, I think, you know, particularly objectionable.

CONAN: And there are people who have claimed some Native blood and then gone on - claimed themselves, identified themselves without documentation as Native American and go on to form classes about spiritual beliefs.

PEMBER: Yeah, yes, and that again, I think especially objectionable and really flies in the face of what, you know, most Native peoples are about. As you probably know, we've very diverse peoples. There's kind of like no general Native American spirituality or, you know, or practice. But as a rule, we don't proselytize, and we don't advertise a church or spirituality or ask people to pay to participate. It's just really not how we roll.

And so that - putting it in this sort of consumerist framework is, well, it's distasteful.

CONAN: And because there are some advantages, particularly in the academic setting, if a school is looking to bring diversity in, and you check that box, it can help.

PEMBER: You know, there's - you know, I wrote a piece a few years ago for the magazine Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and it was a really interesting journey. I did - you know, I spoke to a couple of provosts at universities that said there's really - there is no standard means for a measure of race or ethnicity of anybody, or African-American or Latina or Latino or Hispanic.

I mean, pretty much, you know, they rely on self-identity, and anything else would set up the institution for, you know, potential litigation.

CONAN: Potential litigation because of claims of discrimination then.

PEMBER: Exactly. So I mean, how does one prove? I mean, how does one prove that one has African-American ancestry or racial identity? I mean, how do we prove these things? So it's really interesting, a very provocative topic.

CONAN: And given the treatment of Indians in this country for the past, what, 400 years or so, why do you think people claim?

PEMBER: You know, there's, you know, the million-dollar question. I think it's a really interesting question. It certainly bears looking into it. As a journalist, I find it really intriguing. You know, I think the interest or the amount of claims sort of rise the further away you get from actual Indian country, particularly from border towns.

I think there's less interest and motivation, perhaps, to lay claim to Native American ancestry if you live close to, you know, a place in which Native Americans make up, you know, the bottom of the economic and social rung. There's not as much cachet associated with it.

However, if you live in an area, such as I do here now, and I'm a transplant from Wisconsin, I live in Southern Ohio, and there are no reservations in Ohio or Kentucky or Indiana, it's sort of - you know, there's so many misconceptions about Native American cultures that people perhaps, you know, project some sort of Hollywood-influenced, you know, popular-culture-influenced notions into something they want to create for themselves.

They kind of, you know, create their own identities. I think, isn't that the consummate sort of American way to, you know, to reinvent oneself?

CONAN: Yeah, but David Treuer, that suggests a rejection of everything that went before in your actual bloodlines.

PEMBER: I'm sorry?

CONAN: I was switching back to David Treuer for a moment.

TREUER: Oh, what was the question? My apologies.

CONAN: I was saying that to adopt someone else's identity fraudulently, you know, consciously suggests you're rejecting your own.

TREUER: You know, that's true, and I think that we're in a particularly, you know - a moment that's particularly rich in irony that, you know, I think as America grew as a country, and it did its best to dispose of American Indian tribes and populations, as soon as America felt that we were, you know, safely in the past, then sort of evoked us as a set of ideals or virtues.

And so I think one reason why people, you know, claim Indian identity is when those claims and cultures and understandings, when those claims are tenuous at best, as a way of, beyond the economics, of claiming some sort of unassailable moral high ground.

I mean, there is a kind of moral superiority which is attached to, you know, perceptions of victimization and victimhood.

CONAN: Tragedy, yeah, yeah. We're talking about claims of Native American ancestry and how you can prove that heritage. More of your calls in just a moment, we'll get to your calls in just a moment, forgive me. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about claims of Native American ancestry, something that can trigger deep feelings and anxieties about identity, personal history and culture. Tribes and institutions have any number of ways to verify that heritage. In some cases, though, those claims prove untrue.

If you've seen that happen, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation also at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We got this email from a listener: I know of a young man who applied to a prestigious state university in North Carolina and was denied. He applied again as a Native American and was accepted. He is not Native American.

Our guests are David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. He wrote the book "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life" - and Mary Annette Pember, a member of the Red Cliff Band of the Wisconsin Ojibwe Tribe, a freelance journalist who focuses on Native issues and culture.

And let's see if we can get a caller in. This is Kim, and Kim's with us from Waterford in Connecticut.

KIM: Hi. How are you?


KIM: I am a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina. However, my oldest brother is not an enrolled member. So he did go through the process, but was not eligible for enrollment.

CONAN: How come?

KIM: Well, because he didn't meet all the criteria. So it's lineage, which we could prove. But then in addition to lineage, you have to have some connection to the tribe. So do you identify yourself as Native American? Do you go to - because we live in - the tribe is in North Carolina - so do you go to North Carolina and participate?

And so there's a series of questions that you have to answer, and if you can't answer those questions, then the understanding is you don't just - it's not just a blood connection. It's a social and identity connection, as well.

CONAN: So would these questions be the equivalent of the citizenship test to become a citizen of the United States?

KIM: Yeah, I guess you could say that. You know, it's asking - because in our tribe, religion plays a very strong part. So, can you name traditional Native churches or traditional Lumbee churches? So that's a question, and then asking about who your family is and how many times do you come home, as we say.

So there's a series of questions that you need to answer. And my mother is from England, and my brother always very strongly identified with that culture, not so much with the Native culture. So he never went to powwows. He really wasn't as affiliated, and so he was not offered membership.

CONAN: And when, then, did he want to become enrolled?

KIM: I think, you know, towards the end of his life, he got to the point where he was thinking that might be a good thing, and also because we do live in between Mashantucket and Mohegan Tribes, if he were to be Native American, it would be easier for him to get a job there. That was also another sort of kind of thing to sort of propel him at the time.

But I also do believe that, you know, towards the end of his life, he started to think about that part of his culture, but really had not - had never been a part of his life at all.

CONAN: Didn't study for the test.

KIM: No, no. And again, really wasn't connected in that way.

CONAN: That's interesting, David Treuer, that was one of the things you suggested in one of the pieces you wrote: language requirements or cultural familiarity, being part of the tribe, actually.

TREUER: Yeah. And I'm really interested in what the caller is saying about how Lumbee do business. And it sounds like maybe an uncomfortable step, but a step in an interesting direction at least, where, you know, we were - we inherited a system, an enrollment system that we didn't devise, and it didn't really evolve out of tribal ways of thinking.

You know, it might vary from tribe to tribe to tribe, and it sounds like they're trying to develop criteria that arise out of their own values. That sounds to me, ultimately - as uncomfortable as it might have been in her family - a positive step.

CONAN: Was it, Kim, do you think?

KIM: It was a little uncomfortable, because my brother had difficulty understanding how I could be an enrolled member and he couldn't. And so we had had conservations, and he certainly could have applied again. Unfortunately, he passed away, so he wasn't able to do that.

And so - but it was a little uncomfortable when he came back to Connecticut, and he said, well, they wouldn't let me be a member. And I had to sit down and kind of talk to him some more about, you know, what my thoughts were as to why he was not a member and I was. So it was a little difficult. And my son is also an enrolled member.

But my nieces have not shown sort of any interest. I have young nieces, so they're a little too young, and my brother's daughter really not very interested in consideration for enrollment.

CONAN: Was your son automatically enrolled as your son, or did he have to go through the test, too?

KIM: He also - he went and had an interview. He just - we just did that recently, because he's now 18. Had I enrolled him when he was a minor, then he would not have had to do that. He could have been an enrolled member. And then, you know, I don't know if when he was an adult, whether he'd have to speak with them again because we don't live right in North Carolina, because we live in Connecticut.

CONAN: Well, Kim, thanks very much.

KIM: Oh, you're welcome.

CONAN: Here's an email from Roger in Little Rock: My family stories identified my paternal great-grandmother as Cherokee Indian. That would have been fairly common in rural Tennessee, where my father came from. The Trail of Tears went through there on the way to Oklahoma.

I met the old lady as a young child and remember she certainly looked like an Indian. My older sister recently confirmed that she also thought that was the situation. I recently sent a DNA sample to 23 and Me, and I just got back the results. There is no chance that I have an Indian ancestor within six generations. I am 100 percent European. Damn.

I appreciate Elizabeth Warren's situation. I am looking forward to hearing how her story works out. And as you pointed out in one of your pieces, Mary Annette Pember, one of the reasons people can get away with calling themselves Native American is Native Americans look like all kinds of people.

PEMBER: Yeah, and I'm now convinced that every third person in the three-state region here has a Cherokee great-great-grandmother.


CONAN: They were busy.

PEMBER: They were very busy. You know, a lot - there were more tribes than the Cherokees who went on the Trail of Tears. There were a bunch of other people, you know, the Muskogee and the Chickasaw. But for some reason, you know, the Cherokees get really laid claim to. They must be, like, the, probably, the most prolific group of people on the face of the Earth.


PEMBER: So, you know, I think maybe there have been films about the Trail of Tears, or - and I do think that the Cherokees were - you know, they did particularly suffer, you know, when they were marched from their homelands to the Indian Territories in Oklahoma. But it's just sort an interesting phenomenon that we find folks always - it's always - and it's always on the maternal side, which I think is interesting. It's always a grandmother, a great-great-grandmother, and she always has coal-black hair. That's always the thing I get when I have people approach me. So that's just very interesting.

CONAN: Let's go to Jocee(ph), Jocee with us from Suquamish in Washington.

JOCEE: How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JOCEE: Good.

CONAN: And was there an example where you saw someone claim Native American...

JOCEE: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I've seen it - I went to - I was fortunate enough to go to school - to a private university, and you see examples. You see, like the brother in Arkansas spoke about. I'm a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Montana, by the way. But I, you know, I - you see people, like the brother in Arkansas that just wants to affiliate.

You just want to be associated with something that's part of a larger group and possibly, as the young man said, a romanticized group, this image, this idea of Indian. But then also, you see people in the educational context and also in the work context that, you know, seriously want to gain, ascertain a substantive right as a result of that identity.

And that's where there gets to be a problem. There's nothing wrong - there's absolutely nothing wrong. All of us have notions. All of us have these ideas and self-romanticizations of our history, our lineage. All of us come from sort of sense of royalty. But then when it comes to, well, we want to gain something as a result of this identity - as happens in the educational context at the school that I went to and numerous other schools, as well - then there's a problem, because then it's coming at the exclusion of some, you know, more deserving native person that actually has paid part of the burden of being a native person, because there is a burden associated with it.

CONAN: And it's interesting - again, Mary Annette Pember, that's one of the things you write about, that there's - this appropriation is, well, it is taking something.

PEMBER: Yeah, it's sort of the - yeah, the final, you know, taking, you know, final appropriation. Yeah. I think there is an element of that, particularly, I think, when folks, they sort of cherry-pick, you know, various spiritual practices and sort of put it in a blender and then, you know, charge. And it's actually become kind of a cottage industry.

I mean, you can just do a real cursory search online, and there's, you know, a number of people who have set themselves up as healers and spiritual leaders who will, you know, present you with an Indian power animal or an Indian name for a fee.


PEMBER: There is a tribe that does - there is - it was an interesting case. There's a tribe on - that charges - you can do it online. They will spiritually adopt you for $250. And they also do this sort of what they call traditional healing. And there was a case that David probably remembers, as well, in Minnesota of a boy whose parents were - became part of this tribe.

And they didn't - he had Hodgkin's lymphoma, and they were refusing traditional medical treatment because they were healing with this online church tribe's means. And eventually, of course, the courts, you know, forced the parents to get him medical treatment. So, I mean, in that case, that's - you know, that's kind of dangerous.

CONAN: Jocee, thanks very much for the call.

JOCEE: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Here's an email from Veronica in Ann Arbor: I'd like to hear what David Treuer has to say about the importance of being recognized by other native people as native.

TREUER: Well, I think that's, you know, that's hugely important to a lot of different people. And maybe Veronica is asking me because, you know, I'm fairly light-skinned and, you know, I had reddish, and now I have brownish hair. And I think, you know, for - you know, in terms of how you identify yourself, it is always complicated, and it always feels good to be recognized by the groups that you feel you belong to. And they can be really complicated. It can eat people up. And, you know, it never really ate me up too much, but it was certainly something I had to deal with.

CONAN: Here is an email - excuse me, a tweet from Spencer: How is blood criteria not racism? The U.S. made contracts with slave owners, but those went out when society deemed it immoral.

TREUER: Is that a question for me?

CONAN: I think so, yeah.

TREUER: I don't know. I mean, that's an argument. That's a real argument, on one hand. On the other, blood quantum is - despite its complicated origins and its complicated execution - a criteria for membership to a tribe, which is to say it's a criteria for citizenship, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TREUER: All nations have the right to set their own citizenship requirements. Some of them - if you think globally, there are language requirements. There are residency requirements. There are birth requirements. There are compulsory military service requirements. There are all sorts of requirements, and it's up to each nation to decide that. No one's saying that you can't feel or be whoever you think you are or live your dream, no matter how fantastic.

We're talking about memberships to sovereign nations. And all sovereign nations are - have their capability to determine their own membership. I wish that - it's my hope that tribes get a lot more creative and a lot more thoughtful as they set their own criteria based on their own standards, with an eye towards strengthening their tribes. That's my hope.

CONAN: David Treuer's book is "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life." Also with us is Mary Annette Pember, a freelance journalist who focuses on native issues and culture. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go to Cody(ph), and Cody's on the line with us from Denver.

CODY: How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CODY: I grew up in a small town in Idaho, where we actually have a lot of Nez Perce, Lapwai Indian. And there was a kid that I went to school with that, as one of your guests mentioned earlier, arbitrarily in high school just claimed Cherokee heritage and wore what he imagined to be Cherokee clothing and practiced Cherokee spiritually.

And it seemed a little - to a lot of us who actually have friends who are members of various tribes - I've got a friend who's very involved in the Cayuse-Umatilla tribe. It didn't offend a lot of us, but it was just one of those things that we saw pop up once in a while. And it seems like - I actually study anthropology and ethnography, and you do see that a lot. And it isn't as harmful as a lot of the other guests have mentioned when it's just that.

But when it does, it can complicate things, like when - you know, you've got dividends and stuff from various tribes that come from gaming, or like in places - they - a documentary, I think, in Brazil, where you have membership to college based on ethnicity, and they had a lot of Afro-Brazilians all of a sudden pop up. That's when it does become complicated.

And it - now, where I live in Colorado, it isn't such an issue. But over - throughout Idaho, I saw that, you know, through the years of living, there are quite a bit - you know, and nobody ever seemed to want to, you know, spend time, let's say, on the Lapwai reservation and help them out. It just seemed like something they did as a chic thing, you know, to say that you're - it always, for some reason, seems to be Cherokee. I don't know why that is.


CONAN: As Mary Annette...

CODY: Very popular.

CONAN: And did you talk to him?

CODY: Yeah. I mean, he was, you know, he was a friend of a lot of ours and just, you know, all of a sudden, one day decided he was a Cherokee, and even went by the moniker of - I don't want to say his name, but Cherokee - let's say Cherokee Jim. And we were all sophomores in high school, and he got made fun of a lot for it.

And, I mean, as I said, to those of us who actually grew up around various members of different tribes, it didn't offend us. Some members of the town, it seemed like that it did offend them, because they had a legitimate claim to membership. And, again, they went through the trials and the tribulations associated with being a member of a sovereign nation like that. But as far as I know, he eventually grew out of it, but it was a big thing for a long time. And I think he even had a theme song.

CONAN: Oh, boy. A lot of us do stupid stuff in high school, don't we?

CODY: Yes.


CONAN: I think that covers all races. Anyway, thanks for the call, Cody. And there was - David Treuer, this is another irony, is that people can be 100 percent Native American, but because of intermarriages, not be on any individual tribe's enrolment roles.

TREUER: Oh, yeah, sure. That happens all the time. You know, a lot of tribes will base their criteria on, say, a quarter blood from that tribe. But, as you say, through intermarriages, their parents and grandparents and going back married native folk from other tribes. And so they could very well be, in fact, full-blooded, but not have any - enough blood from any one tribe to be enrolled. And it's very, very strange. But, you know, enrolment is one thing. It doesn't say anything about one's culture or one's values or language. Those are things we should think about, as well, not just what it says on the paper.

CONAN: David Treuer, thanks again for being with us.

TREUER: Thank you.

CONAN: David Treuer, author of "Rez Life," joined us from member station KNBJ in Bemidji, Minnesota, professor of English at the University of Southern California. Our thanks as well to Mary Annette Pember, a freelance journalist who focuses on native issues and culture. Coming up, one teen will spend a year in prison after a fatal car crash while he was texting. What would it take for you to stop? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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