Identities

Who are the “real” Indians? In the 2000 U. S. Census, 2.5 million Americans self-identified as American Indians and about 1.6 million as “part” Indian. Self-identification does not necessarily mean that a person is an acknowledged member of an Indian community or legally recognized as “Indian.” One way to think about this is to differentiate between cultural and legal identity. Also, individual Indian identity is different from group identity, that is, identity as an Indian tribe.

Cultural identity refers to a sense of belonging to a particular group by way of sharing the values of that group and participating in its community life. Indian communities accept individuals as legitimate members, depending on their behavior and usually a biological or social connection with other members of the group. In the Midwest, there are many Native communities culturally defined by ethnicity, that is, a shared understanding of the past and community-held values of at least a general nature.

Cultural identity is not necessarily the same as legal identity. To be legally Indian, one must meet federal criteria, and to be a member of an Indian tribe, one must meet the enrollment criteria of that particular tribe.

This section examines these various ways of being “Indian” and explores how scholarly research illuminates this issue.

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