Who’s an Indian?

 

On a frosty February morning in 2004, I joined a small caravan headed to the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona. Our group was led by the well-known Colorado peace activist Chuck Worley, who had befriended several Hopi during World War II, when they were imprisoned together as conscientious objectors. He'd kept in touch with the men and their families ever since. Each year, Chuck brought bushels of onions and apples to the villages, and when his battered white pickup pulled into Hotevilla, the word spread quickly -- "The Onion Kachina is here."

Shy, smiling women came up with laundry baskets and plastic buckets to haul home their share. After the truck was emptied of food and clothing, Chuck's friends shared hot stew and bread with us in their creaky-piped adobe home. We'd come during the Bean Festival, and that night we were invited into a kiva to watch the kachinas dance in their painted masks, bright costumes and turtle-shell rattles. The next morning, one of our group asked about a kachina mask he'd seen. Our host answered emphatically, "Don't call it a mask -- that's so cold, like us calling your cross just a piece of wood. It contains a spirit; it is a friend." That was our first lesson in understanding the Hopi worldview.

We got another glimpse later that day, when the subject of PFC Lori Piestewa came up. She'd earned the tragic distinction of being the first servicewoman killed in the Iraq war (on March 23, 2003) and the first Native American woman to die while serving in the U.S. military. Media accounts described her as Hopi; Piestewa had a Hopi father and a Hispanic mother and was officially enrolled in the tribe. But the traditional Hopi we talked to did not claim her. We are pacifists, they said; we do not go to war. Furthermore, they explained, the tribe traces its descent through the women's side. Because her mother was Hispanic, they considered Piestewa to be Hispanic rather than Hopi.

Such questions of identity beset most Indian tribes. What defines membership -- ancestry, cultural beliefs, or total percentage of tribal blood? Beyond the intangible benefits of community and connection, financial issues are often at stake as well -- government housing, medical care and tax exemptions, or a share of the profits from tribal casinos or energy development.

In the early 1900s, the federal government decided to define tribal affiliation based on the percentage of a particular tribe's blood that a person carried. Many tribes, including the Hopi, subsequently adopted requirements that their members have at least one-quarter of the tribe's bloodline. But as tribal members intermarry, bloodlines become diluted, and membership dwindles. Other tribes have skirted this problem by declaring that members must have at least one ancestor listed on tribal rolls, regardless of their overall percentage of Indian blood. 

In this issue, writer Andrea Appleton examines these conundrums as they affect the Fort Peck tribe of northern Montana, and finds that the answer to the question, "Who is an Indian?" is far from simple. And while not all Hopi might agree that Piestewa truly belonged to their tribe, her death was honored across Indian Country. "The news of Lori brought (us) together, closer," wrote one Native commenter. "Which is how it should always be, not just in time of sadness."

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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