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Who Is Native American, And Who Decides That?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today marks the start of Native American Heritage Month, and like all heritage months, it's a time when teachers, activists, journalists, including us, often like to use it to think more deeply about the history, contributions and sometimes even the conflicts involving a group of people.

And sometimes, that involves asking and answering questions that may come across as awkward and even offensive. Our next guest has taken on the challenge of answering just these kinds of questions. Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe history and language at Bemidji State University. He is the author of many books. His latest is "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask," and he has agreed, over the course of the month, to visit us from time to time to answer some of the questions that many people have.

So, with that being said, professor, thanks so much for joining us.

ANTON TREUER: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Would you start, if you don't mind, by telling us a little bit about your own native identity?

TREUER: Sure. I was born in Washington, D.C., actually. My father had taken a job out there at that point in time, but I've lived most of my life on and near the Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. There's a small village called Bena, which if you blink while you're driving down Highway 2, you would certainly miss it. There are a couple hundred people there and I'm related to just about every single one of them.

My grandparents or grandmother's still living there and most of my extended family, so we've spent a lot of time there. I currently live about a quarter-mile off the reservation, kind of in between Cass Lake and Bemidji, which is right in the center of Northern Minnesota.

And through the course of my own upbringing, I kind of lived in two worlds. Like a lot of native people, I went to school in a nearby town - Bemidji for me - with lots of native students and many more white students. And at the same time, my family, for example, has - you know, snared rabbits and harvested maple syrup and sugar every year and have done a lot of wild ricing and hunting and things like that. So I kind of grew up, on the one hand, with lots of experience with those sort of things and lots of experience with the big, broad world that everybody encounters in a traditional school environment.

MARTIN: So, if someone were to want to know how you describe yourself, how is that question asked?

TREUER: Oh, I've had it asked of me just about every way you could imagine. I guess, for me, too, you know, it's a little harder with radio to see this, but you know, I have dark brown skin and long black hair in a braid. I'm quite visibly native, but there are many native people who may not look quite so identifiably native. There has been lots of mixed marriages and so forth over the years.

In this part of Indian country, about a third of the people actually have French surnames and they include the tribal leadership at Red Lake and Leech Lake and many other places and so there's been a long history of intermarriage with other people, so...

MARTIN: Well, that leads to the question that I had, which I think a lot of people have, which is a question that you actually talk about in your book...

TREUER: Right.

MARTIN: ...which is just who gets to say that he or she is Native American and how is that decided.

TREUER: Yeah. It's a great question and this is an issue that's somewhat contested in Indian country. If you talk to 10 different people, you may even get 10 different answers. And it's one of the disclaimers that I should put on the air here, is that I only claim to represent my view, not the view of everybody in Indian country.

MARTIN: So let's just say, with that being said, that this is your personal take on it. Who is Native American? Who gets to decide that?

TREUER: Yeah. Well, there are a couple of layers. One is tribal citizenship. One thing that's really different for Native Americans as opposed to other racial and ethnic enclaves in the United States is that Native Americans in most places have tribes that function as distinct governments and tribal members are really citizens of those tribal nations. So an enrolled citizen of the Leech Lake Ojibwe is actually a citizen of the United States and a citizen of their tribal nation.

Deciding who gets to be a citizen is something that tribal governments decide. So for example, at a place like Leech Lake, you have to prove at least 25 percent Ojibwa blood and it has to be from Leech Lake or another of the six tribes that are shared membership in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. They will not count blood from Red Lake, which is another Ojibwa reservation. They will not count blood from another tribe. So you actually do find some people who are citizens of a native nation that have a 25 percent blood quantum, even though they might be 100 percent native.

MARTIN: OK. Well, explain that term, if you would, blood quantum. What is that? And talk more, if you would, about what role it can play in determining tribal identity.

TREUER: Well, most of the 571 federally recognized reservations in the United States use blood quantum as the primary criteria for determining who can be a citizen of that native nation. What it is is it's an old-fashioned term for a proven percentage of native blood.

MARTIN: From your book, you say that blood quantum is the percentage of a person's racial lineage that can be documented as Indian.

TREUER: Right.

MARTIN: Blood quantum was first used in Virginia in the 18th century to restrict the rights of people with half or more native ancestry. And by the 1930s, the federal government and many tribes were using blood quantum to determine who was eligible for tribal citizenship. So you can see where I think in the modern world this would be pretty controversial. Has anybody suggested that that's not appropriate anymore?

TREUER: Yes. And I'd be the first of the people to suggest that that is no longer appropriate. I don't think it ever really was. The system was designed in the late 1800s but further refined in the early 1900s, and this was the height of the eugenics movement and so forth. And really, the system was designed to kind of have native people breed themselves out of existence and it was really a highly flawed measure. Just to give you one example, the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota actually had all kinds of shenanigans going on over land speculation and fraud and a lot of native people lost their own private land parcels within the reservation borders. In the contest that ensued, there were scientists named Albert Jenks and Ales Hrdlicka who came to White Earth to determine who was actually native and who was not, who was a full blood, who was a mixed blood. It would scratch someone's skin and if it changed color, they were coded as a mixed blood. They measured craniums. They measured the height of cheekbones. And everybody from, you know, people on the street to scientists know that this was not real science. But believe it or not, the lists that they developed in the 19 teens are actually the basis for tribal enrollment at the White Earth today.


TREUER: As a result, they actually went from over 5,000 people at White Earth who said they were full-blooded Indians, and the scientists coded 126 of them as full bloods.

MARTIN: Well, you're saying now it seems to be working in some ways the other way. That there are people within the tribes who were using these same crazy rules to exclude other people who want to identify with the community.


MARTIN: Do you have a story about that - a personal story about that you could tell us?

TREUER: Sure. I'll give you the broad picture and then I'll share my own story with you. You know, broadly, tribes have reacted in different ways. So some like the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma have realized that there were so many people who should legitimately be members of their native nation who are being excluded, that they actually changed the criteria from blood quantum to proven lineal descent. And as a result, they're actually one of the most numerous tribes in the United States.

In other places, like at St. Croix in Wisconsin, they actually increased their blood quantum requirement to one half. And their big gaming tribe, individual citizens receive a payment every month from the tribal casino operation and they're worried about diluting their own benefits. And the politics of exclusion has become the economics of exclusion. So you'll find different tribes deal with this in different ways.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Anton Treuer. He is the author of "Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." He is our guest for a series of conversations during Native American Heritage Month.

You were saying that you have a personal story that you didn't mind sharing. Do you - about that...

TREUER: Sure. I have a number of them. You know, among the many hats that I wear, one is as a father, and I actually have nine children. And three of my children are enrolled members at Leech Lake. And I have a big blended family, so not all of them are actually enrolled there. And one year we went over to the tribe's Christmas party and they had toys, like a toy for each kid who had come to the party. And my kids lined up with everybody else, you know, for their little five-dollar toy, and my children, who were enrolled at Leech Lake all received a toy and everyone else was denied a toy.


TREUER: And I had a really hard time explaining to the kids why three of them were more special or more rewarded than the other six. And so, I mean it's a small, petty, little thing but it can affect, you know, and hurt people's feelings and so forth.

MARTIN: One aspect of identity, Professor, can sometimes be the way you're treated, right? Because of who you are, what you wear, what you look like. I think this is something that African-Americans will relate to. You know, African-Americans obviously come from all different places. You know, people trace their heritage to Africa, but maybe have come here via slavery or maybe came here via, you know, immigration or from the Caribbean. And yet, you find as part of that common experience the experience of being treated a certain way because of their appearance. And I wanted to ask, is that something that binds Native Americans, a certain treatment, if I can - can I put it that way?

TREUER: Sure. I guess I should back up even and say there's a lack of diversity in Indian country. You will find Native American people who really look visibly white, who look very black, or who look like they are the direct descendent of Sitting Bull. But I think at the same time that there is a shared experience in treatment by the general population and the government and so forth and all of this can serve to bind people together.

MARTIN: Do you know if I ask if you've had any personal experiences with racism or hostility or discrimination based on your - either your known identity or just your appearance as a person of native heritage?

TREUER: Oh, yes, I've had many. I remember going to first grade and I had, you know, long, dark hair. And my teacher really thought it would be really funny or interesting to dress me up like a girl in front of class. And so she put in barrettes in my hair and, you know, all this stuff and I was six years old, standing in front of my class, humiliated, not knowing what's going on. It just seems amazing...

MARTIN: And nobody intervened? Nobody said that's wrong? Nobody said stop it? She just - she just dressed you up like a girl for fun?

TREUER: No. It was a bunch of other six grade, you know, six-year-olds in the class so nobody else really, you know, got in her face about it.

MARTIN: Yeah. Right.

TREUER: And, you know, usually the most common things that happened to me in school were, you know, maybe a little bit later on, I'd say well, what about the Indians? And the teacher would say something like oh, that's who was here before and go right on with the lesson and I remember sitting there thinking, but I'm here now.


TREUER: But I had, you know, experiences with peers as well. I remember one time when I was in middle school, we had four of us who had to sit at a table and this was in actually an industrial tech shop class. And the other three kids just spent the whole time going off on Indians, you know, Indians are all drunks, they are leeches on the government, this and that. And I said that's not true. And then the kid would say yeah, that's what my dad said, you know, and you just think that because you're a dumb Indian. And it just - all year long. And there was no way out of it or around it. And, so I had, you know, many experiences like that and I guess some of that is what led me to think I'm just going to get out of here. You know, I'm going to go to some place that has a zip code that has a higher population density and people who are not predisposed to hate anyone, you know who is brown or looks like me. And then when I got out to Princeton University then I, of course, ran into the same existent attitudes even amongst the best educated people in the United States, and that's part of what inspired me to, you know, write and teach about this stuff. And I think we all have a...

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Do you think that that's in part why you decided to become a teacher, and also to really go straight at these questions? Do you think that's part of the motivation?

TREUER: Oh, sure. I just came to the realization that there was no way around or away from the borderland. It would follow me everywhere I went. There was only a way through it. And I also came to the realization that anyone of any race going to school in this country has usually gotten, you know, a sugarcoated version of Christopher Columbus and the first Thanksgiving and few other opportunities to learn more and more deeply about the first people of the land. And that through no fault of their own, even people who are really goodhearted might be so afraid of sounding ignorant or offending somebody that it ends up being safer not to ask questions or not to teach about, you know, Native Americans. And so we need to make, you know, more entry points, more accessible information, you know, and I guess a book or a radio show, these are just different ways to leverage your connection and communication with a broader group of people.


TREUER: We're so often imagined but so infrequently well understood. You know, we all have a lot of work to do.

MARTIN: Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwa language and history at Bemidji State University. He's the author of a number of books, including "Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." He was kind enough to join us from Northern Community Radio in Bemidji, Minnesota. And he has agreed to join us throughout Native American Heritage month to explore different, you know, different themes and issues in Indian country and Native American heritage.

And next week we plan to talk about politics. Thanks so much for joining us, Professor Treuer.

TREUER: Thanks for having me on.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The handle is @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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