How Do You Join an Indian Tribe?

You might need to get a “white card” first.

Four congressmen are calling for an investigation into the ballooning membership of California’s Ione Band of Miwok Indians, which has grown in number from 70 people to 535 people since 2002. Officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs are accused of adding family members to the tribe’s rolls, ostensibly so they can share in the proceeds from a proposed casino. What are the rules governing tribal memberships?

A full rundown of tribal membership arcana would fill several volumes, as each of the nation’s 562 federally recognized tribes has its own rules, typically outlined in their respective constitutions. In general, however, tribes use either the blood quantum system or the descent system. The former approach uses an ancestry threshold to determine an applicant’s fitness for membership. Many tribes require that aspirants possess a certain degree, or percentage, of the relevant “Indian blood,” in addition to satisfying a few other ancestry requirements. The Nez Perce, for example, will grant membership only to those “who are at least one fourth degree Nez Perce Indian ancestry born to a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.” So, an applicant with one biological parent who was half Nez Perce by blood, as well as a tribal member, would have a good shot at making the rolls, too.

To determine blood quantum, many tribes ask applicants to obtain a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, issued by the BIA. Those seeking a CDIB must provide the government with primary sources, such as birth certificates and marriage records, to prove their level of Native American ancestry. The CDIB, or “white card,” then lists the precise percentage of the bearer’s blood that is Indian. If the required threshold is met, the hopeful can then apply directly to a tribe using the blood quantum system.

The descent system, by contrast, doesn’t set a minimum blood requirement. Instead, anyone who can prove that they have even a drop of Indian blood can gain membership, provided they can also demonstrate that they are directly descended from a member from a particular time period. A good example is the Cherokee Nation, which requires that prospective members trace their lineage to a person on the Dawes Roll. The Dawes Roll was essentially a census tied to the Dawes Act of 1887, which sought to replace communal tribal holdings with private property (as well as open up more Western territory to white settlers).

Some tribes mix the two systems, requiring a relatively low blood threshold—say, one-sixteenth—in combination with proof that an ancestor was mentioned in an old population survey. Others require that prospective members actually have been born on a reservation or live there for an extended period of time.

Conflicts over tribal membership have become more heated in recent years as new applicants seek to claim shares of gaming revenues or tribal elders look to expel newcomers in order fatten their monthly payments. The apparent meddling of BIA officials in the Ione Band situation strikes many observers as particularly shady since the agency’s own policy guidelines note, “Rarely is the BIA involved in enrollment and membership. Each tribe determines whether an individual is eligible for membership.” Elsewhere in California, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians is attempting to expel 130 members, arguing that they’re all related to a woman who voluntarily severed ties to the tribe in the 1920s. Last week, a court issued a temporary injunction to prevent the expulsions, but tribal leaders insist that American courts have no jurisdiction over their membership decisions. Members of the Pechanga Band receive monthly stipends of $10,000, plus benefits.

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