The Native Citizenry

The Native Citizenry

© Larry Towell/Magnum Photos


Words by Ruth ROBERTSON

This Fourth of July, Atmos columnist Ruth Robertson examines the colonization of U.S. citizenship, and explains why we must expand our understanding of it to include pre-colonial Native citizenship standards.

June 2 marked the 98th anniversary of the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. The law made Indigenous peoples born in the United States of America U.S. citizens, whether they wanted it or not.


Colonization is often nonsensical. Rather, it is all about power, and frankly, dehumanization, theft, and to put it plainly⁠—genocide. That’s why Native peoples, who were quite literally the Original Americans, and had resided on this continent for time immemorial, were effectively ignored and erased when it came to basic human rights, and were not granted citizenship until 136 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified.


Make no mistake about it⁠—we’ve been here. Even Western science admits that Indigenous people have lived on the North American continent for a minimum of 23,000 years. On top of it, we were hardly savages. We operated trade routes throughout the Western hemisphere, well before Europeans arrived. We had rich, mature cultures with distinct languages, as well as intricate, complex, well-organized societies.


Indeed, when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, there were approximately 100 million Indigenous people living in what would later be called The Americas.


And we are still here. Today, more than five million Americans claim Indigenous heritage, and there are 574 federally recognized Native Nations with ancestral homelands that fall within the colonial boundaries of the United States.


Sadly, U.S. citizenship for Native peoples rang pretty hollow. While most citizens were granted the right to worship freely, Native spirituality, ceremonies and sacred rites were illegal in the U.S. until 1978, when The American Indian Religious Freedom Act finally became law. Before then, practicing one’s ancestral beliefs meant Native folks could be rebuked, excluded, discriminated against, sent to an asylum, jailed, or even killed.


Most Tribal members wouldn’t be able to vote until the 1960s, either. New Mexico, which has always had a sizeable Native population, was the last state to confer voting rights to Native peoples in 1962. When The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, it further strengthened voting rights for all by outlawing exclusionary voting practices based on race or color.

While most citizens were granted the right to worship freely, Native spirituality, ceremonies and sacred rites were illegal in the U.S. until 1978.

Ruth Robertson

The question of U.S. citizenship for Natives has been fraught with controversy in Native circles, too. Some, like my grandfather—who fought for the United States in the trenches during World War I before he as an Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota Sioux) man was eligible for citizenship—saw it as valuable.


He and others like him, saw opportunity in United States citizenship. As a U.S. citizen, he would have a voice in the system that surrounded our ancestral homelands, and could exercise influence within it, perhaps making things better for the Oceti Sakowin and other Native Nations.


Other Native peoples did not want U.S. citizenship. They were already citizens of sovereign Native Nations. They saw the United States as an invading foreign power they wanted no part of, and viewed citizenship as yet another attempt to assimilate us into their colonial society while stripping us of our Indigeneity. We did not consent to U.S. citizenship, and saw the “granting” of said citizenship, despite the fact that they’d never been asked if we wanted it, as an affront and insult to Tribal sovereignty.


In a way, they both won. Today, members of federally recognized Tribes enjoy a unique vantage. They have dual citizenship, under the United States, and with their respective Tribes. While we continue to fight to ensure that every Native receives their full and fair right to vote across state boundaries, Natives are actively exercising their rights as U.S. citizens and participating in the colonial system that surrounds us. More and more Native people are being elected to office. Recently, Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became the first Native woman to serve as Secretary of the Department of Interior. In her new post, she has already made great strides in bringing attention to Native issues, like the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and is having a real impact, through accomplishments like launching an investigation into boarding schools that the federal government ran with churches to assimilate Native children. She’s been able to preserve public lands, save sacred sites, and protect our water, which she first became mindful of when she stood with the Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock.


Yet just because we exercise our rights as United States citizens does not mean that we do not value our Tribal citizenship, or that citizenship with a colonial country is somehow superior to belonging to an Indigenous Nation. Traditionally, citizenship with a Native Nation wasn’t merely about benefits conferred. Being a member of a Native community meant inclusion as well as kinship—to not only our fellow Tribal members, but to the ancestors and the land we call home. One took on the duties of that group, along with inclusion. While we were supported and encouraged to share our voice within our Native Nation, we were also responsible for confirming the safety, security, well-being and prosperity of the group, our Native languages, our Indigenous cultures, or belief systems, our sacred sites, our ancient teachings, and the land, water, animals and plant life that we lived amongst. Living communally meant contributing to the whole.

Citizenship isn’t merely about allegiance. Let us act with integrity in the relationship we are in with the body politic that surrounds us.

Ruth Robertson

Unfortunately, to a certain extent, Tribal citizenship has been negatively influenced by the colonial system that surrounds us. One manner in which this has occurred is by the enforcement of blood quantum as a sole requirement for membership in federally recognized Tribes. Blood quantum law is a federal government invention, where one’s “Indianness” is determined exclusively by blood ancestry. It was implemented to mathematically guarantee our extinction. Defining Native identity by blood quantum alone means that because of Tribes’ dwindling populations, it will become impossible for them to maintain full blood pedigrees without inbreeding. If Tribes maintain blood quantum law, requiring that, for example, Tribal members possess one quarter or more of blood from a specific Tribal group, their expiration is certain.


Historically, one’s membership within a Native Nation was not wholly based on blood. Members were expected to carry on the Tribe’s culture and belief system, speak the Native language, and take an active role in Tribal society. Tribes adopted members all the time. These adoptees had no blood ancestry, but were nonetheless full members. Intermarriage between Tribal groups also occurred.


Many Native individuals alive today possess bloodlines from multiple Tribes. Because of blood quantum laws, it is possible for individuals like this to have fractions of blood percentage from many Native Nations, yet lack enough of any one group to receive Tribal membership in any single one of them, even if they possess nothing but Native ancestry. Some Tribes also elect to “disenroll” members for various reasons, thus excluding individuals who otherwise possess the necessary blood quantum, and would invariably be considered Tribal members.


Even with blood quantum laws still in effect, Tribal membership is not about color. You will find Tribal members of every race within every Native Nation. The Supreme Court of the United States also concluded that Tribal membership is not a racial classification, but a political one.


As a Native woman with dual citizenship in the United States of America and the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, I see the value of both. I understand the benefits granted by each, as well as the duties, often not spoken of or compulsory to our acceptance. However, I implore my fellow American citizens this Fourth of July to consider expanding their understanding of citizenship to include pre-colonial Native citizenship standards, like protecting land and water, not just from invaders, but from ourselves and a system that continually degrades, pollutes, and destroys it. Citizenship isn’t merely about allegiance. Let us act with integrity in the relationship we are in with the body politic that surrounds us. Be an active member and shape the country into something more—better than we ever thought could be.

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