Doug George-Kanentiio: Tribes set standards for membership

Over the past generation it has become somewhat trendy to claim Native ancestry, especially since the expansion of commercial gambling with attendant benefits for enrolled members of federally recognized aboriginal governments.

Not so long ago Natives were seen as a primitive people whose presence in American society was either ignored or seen as a marginal; colorful and quaint but of no significance to the nation at large. There was not much to be gained by claiming to the descendant of a Native person other than a vague sense of belonging or an explanation for tawny skin and high cheekbones. It was, in a racially charged time, preferable to being black or Hispanic.

When the Civil Rights era came about it also affected Native people. The assertion of aboriginal sovereignty in the 1960's and 70's brought about a dramatic change in the status of Native nations and a more positive perception with regards to the nation's indigenous heritage.

With this came a desire by many to lay claim to Native ancestry. Most claimants did not seek anything more than an acknowledgement of their familial roots but for others there was an opportunity to use the claim to make money or to enhance their job status.

This has been extremely frustrating to those who are registered members of Native nations and who have taken active roles in sustaining their respective communities. When casino gambling became lucrative the claimants increased along with the demands for tribal benefits. Native governments were compelled to set firm standards for their members while establishing genealogical research offices to ensure the legitimacy of the claimants.

In some Native nations, such as the Mohawks and the Cherokees, it is now fairly simple to examine the records and affirm, or deny, a person's aboriginal ancestry. But for those nations ancestry is not necessarily membership. It should be made clear that no person may lay claim to any Native benefit who is not a tribal member, nor may they in any way accept such a benefit since they are not, under aboriginal laws, Native.

For example the Mohawk Nation, of which I am a member, has the following criteria for enrollment:
-a person who is a Mohawk must have four great-grandparents who are beyond dispute registered Mohawks
-a person must have demonstrable connections with the Mohawk people -a person must be of good character
-a person must demonstrate a commitment to the Mohawk people by embracing their heritage
-a person must show a willingness to contribute to the Mohawk people through community involvement
-a person must abide by the standards, laws and customs of the Mohawk Nation

In addition, the Mohawk Nation imposes a probationary period of five years on anyone to applies for status. This allows the Mohawk people to assess the character of the applicant while giving that person time to integrate into the community. While bloodlines are an important part of the membership process the other requirements are of equal significance.

Let this be known to all employers, government officials and the media: Native ancestry is not Native citizenship. A person is not a Cherokee, Mohawk, Navajo or Lakota unless that individual has been accepted by that Nation and is properly enrolled in accordance with their respective national standards. Without this, a person may have aboriginal DNA but they are not Native.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio resides on Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.

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