Legal Identity

Legal identity is established by the federal government and by tribal governments. If the federal government acknowledges that an individual is legally Indian, then that individual is entitled to certain benefits. These benefits follow from the government’s “trustee” responsibility to Indians as established by the Supreme Court. More importantly, Congress recognizes that it owes certain protections and services to tribes, that is, to the groups the U. S. recognizes to be tribes.

Federally recognized tribes are eligible to contract with the federal government to operate educational, job training, law enforcement, and health programs. This means that tribes can employ their members and operate these programs (formerly run by federal employees) in ways compatible with local needs. State and local governments provide these kinds of services for non-Indians.

Federally recognized tribes can sue to obtain rights or redress in federal court, petition for the return of objects from museums, and they can operate businesses (since 1987, gaming casinos) without being subject to state or local taxes. In fact, federally recognized tribes are not subject to state jurisdiction over their members on tribally owned land.

Individuals of Indian descent who are not members of federally recognized tribes can be legally recognized as Indians by the federal government upon their successful application for a “Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood” card (CDIB). To get this card, a person must establish that one of his or her lineal ancestors is listed (with blood “degree”) on a roll of a federally recognized tribe. The card indicates the individual’s “degree” of Indian blood (Indian ancestry from all relevant tribes). For example, if an individual’s father is ½ Indian and her mother, non-Indian, she is ¼ Indian. If her mother is ¼ Indian, she is 3/8 Indian.

With this card, an individual can apply for various benefits. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs offers hiring preference to members of federally recognized tribes; or, descendants of members of federally recognized tribes who were living on a reservation in 1934; or persons who have ½ degree of Indian blood. Other benefits (such as a higher education grant) call for ¼ degree of Indian blood.

Many individuals who are recognized as legally Indians by the federal government are ineligible for enrollment in any tribe. If a child’s father is ¼ Arapaho and his mother is 1/8 Menominee and 1/8 Oneida, he cannot enroll in the Arapaho, Menominee, or Oneida tribe, each of which requires ¼ degree blood quantum of that tribe. Since his father is ¼ Indian and so is his mother, he is ¼ degree Indian blood and can qualify as an individual Indian for some federal benefits. Clearly it is possible for an individual to be ¾ degree or more Indian blood, for example, yet not qualify for enrollment in a particular tribe.

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