UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY, scarcely anyone thought to ask what is fast becoming an increasingly pertinent question: just who is an Indian? For centuries, the Indian seemed self-evident, like a natural force. When the young painter George Catlin saw a delegation of tribesmen from the West pass through Philadelphia on their way to Washington in 1824, he knew that he was seeing Indians because these “lords of the forest” were “arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty,—with shield and helmet,—with tunic and manteau,—tinted and tasselled off, exactly for the painter’s palette!” They were myth come to life; the Indian was an Indian precisely because he looked like one and lived a life that was visibly different from that of white Americans.
Today, the answer, if there is one, is more problematic than ever. For after generations of intermarriage and adaptation, the Indian is not an easy person to define. The United States Census Bureau simply allows anyone who believes that he is Indian to declare himself one, a convenient portmanteau for the fantasies of wishful thinking wannabes that probably accounts for much, if not most, of the statistical near-doubling of Indians over the past twenty years, to 1.8 million in the 1990 census. “There are a lot of just plain old Americans who want to belong to an ethnic group of some kind,” says Holly Rekord, the ebullient Virginian who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Branch of Acknowledgement and Recognition. “For a long time, they usually wanted to be Cherokee. These days its more often Shawnee. Some say all the records were lost when the courthouse burned during the Civil War. We check and find that the courthouse is still there. Or some say, ’Grandma hid in a cave and couldn’t declare her Indianness.’ We check and find that they haven’t a trace of Indian ancestry, yet they are still totally convinced that they are Indians. Even if you have a trace of Indian blood, why do you want to select that for your identity, and not your Irish or Italian? It’s not clear why, but at this point in time a lot of people want to be Indian.”
Some Indians would make traditionalism the measure. “An Indian is one who offers tobacco to the ground, feeds the water, and prays to the four winds in his own language,” the Crow poet Henry Real Bird has said. “Without language, you’re nothing.” This, however, excludes both Indian Christians, who comprise a majority of Native Americans today, as well as countless members of long established tribes who have either forgotten or were never taught their ancestors’ tongue. The Pulitzer prize-winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday suggests a more generous, but still troublesome definition. “An Indian is someone who thinks of themselves as an Indian. But that’s not so easy to do and one has to earn the entitlement somehow. You have to have a certain experience of the world in order to formulate this idea. I consider myself an Indian; I’ve had the experience of an Indian. I know how my father saw the world, and his father before him.” This may be both subtle and true, but it is hardly adequate for the needs of policy makers and tribal leaders who are responsible for the allocation of nearly $2 billion worth of federal aid and services to Indians each year.
Some federal laws define an Indian as anyone of “Indian descent,” while others require one-fourth or one-half Indian blood, a confusing state of affairs which produces more than a few individuals who may, for example, qualify as an Indian for educational benefits but not for medical ones. For the most part, however, the federal government now defines an Indian as someone who is an enrolled member of a recognized tribe. This has the virtue of simplicity, as well as a certain reassuring force of logic, however circular. But Ross Swimmer, who headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Reagan Administration, estimated that as many as half a million ethnic Indians receive no federal benefits at all because for one reason or another they happen not to be members of a federally recognized tribe.