How do I trace my Native American ancestry? How do I become an enrolled member of a Native American tribe?
Both commonly heard questions at National Relief Charities, the simple answer to each is “it depends.”
To be fair, tracing Native American ancestry is just as difficult as tracing any ancestry. A great deal of information must be gathered before one can even begin the process of identifying your tribal origins. For example:
One step is sifting through family stories and then getting official documentation and records of lineage to identify your ancestors.
Another step is completing the long process of genealogical research with accurate, verifiable results and documentation before you should even consider contacting the administrative office of the tribe to which you think you might belong.
In other words, before starting the tribal enrollment process, you must be able to prove through documentation that you are lineally descended from an enrolled member of a tribe. Even then, enrollment is not guaranteed as different tribes have different requirements for becoming an enrolled member. Regarding this matter, the Department of the Interior cites:
“Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. The criterion varies from tribe to tribe, so uniform membership requirements do not exist.”
It is important to realize this and not expect to call the tribal office and receive your tribal enrollment card two weeks later in the mail. Enrollment is a very long process and there is truly no uniform way of becoming a tribally enrolled member.
So, my best answer to both of these questions is to be patient and to begin with an open-mind rather than expectations. Take time to learn about your family history and from whom you descend and be prepared to gather a lot of research and take as long as it takes to address the issues and meet the criteria of the tribe.
The U.S. Department of the Interior website offers invaluable advice and ways to facilitate your journey of tracing your Native American ancestry. It also includes a Tribal Directory with contact information for all federally recognized tribes in the United States. If you have helpful experience with tracing Native ancestry or enrolling in a tribe, we welcome your comments here.
As many of you know, NRC approaches quality of life for Native Americans in a couple of ways: providing immediate relief and supporting long-term solutions in collaboration with our reservation partners. Plus, we have long said that education is a key to the long-term challenges facing Native American tribes.
True to cause, our newest service – Four Directions Leadership Development (4D) – takes a long-term view of capacity building, focusing on building up grassroots leaders who want to make a greater contribution to their communities.
Four Directions Leadership Development is unlike any training offered in Indian country. Our 4D participants commit to completing a six-month program, during which they identify personal and professional development goals and work with mentors to attain them.
Our first 4D cohort wrapped up in March. Although we will be tracking and reporting the progress of our partner-participants for up to three years, we are excited about the preliminary results of their personalized training:
9 reservation partners participated in the first cohort of 4D training 100% completed the cohort and reported learning new skills 91% of partners were more equipped and demonstrating new skills by mid-cohort 100% of partners are actively networking with their training cohort & mentor
Among the partners’ self-identified goals were public speaking, networking for resource development, grant writing, financial education and teambuilding, as well as self-care such as personal support systems and healthy eating choices during peak periods of work and other requirements.
NRC has been testing and revamping our training service with reservation partners since 2012. Our unique 4D training service is a direct result of feedback from our reservation partners about what will help them be more effective.
When you look at self-sufficiency among tribes, there are many things to consider… many variables that must act together to create a path toward economic and financial independence. And, when you consider that Native-owned businesses “represent the smallest number of minority owned small businesses when compared to African American, Hispanic, or Asian American businesses,” it’s easy to see why financial self-sufficiency is such a daunting undertaking.
Besides the obvious topic of sovereignty when discussing businesses on reservations, there is the issue of how businesses might help tribes as their individual members work toward self-sufficiency. Why do Native people, on reservations or off, start their own businesses? Because they want to make their lives better. They want to provide a service. They want to add economic value to the community.
However, starting a business on the reservation is difficult for many reasons. On the reservations NRC serves, the impoverishment that spans entire communities makes it difficult to build a customer base that can support a business long-term. There is a shortage of college graduates and a lack of entrepreneurial training or initiatives on the reservations that would help Native Americans with little or no experience in the many facets of running a business. Accessing business start-up funding is also difficult, especially when the business would be located on federal trust lands.
Yet, for a group that makes up 1.01% of the total population in the United States, the 300,000 Native-owned businesses are growing, albeit in small increments. For example:
“Although the total number of Native American small businesses continues to increase, those with employees decreased 3.2 percent during the 2002-2007 period (0.9 percent of all U.S. businesses). In 2007, Native American businesses numbered 236,967 for an increase of 17.7 percent during the five-year time period of 2002-2007. These American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms accounted for 0.9 percent of all non-farm businesses in the United States, employed 184,416 persons (0.2 percent of total employment) and generated $34.4 billion in receipts (0.1 percent of all receipts).”
The U.S. Census reports the following scenarios for Native American businesses. Thinking these through, $34.4B in revenue sounds like a lot, but it averages out to $114,667 per business. Further, only eight percent of Native businesses actually create jobs and less than 1/2000 of one percent employ 100 people or more. These businesses do, however, represent a significant amount of self-employment.
Receipts for American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses in 2007, a 28.0 percent increase from 2002. These businesses numbered 236,967, up 17.7 percent from 2002.
Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms in California in 2007, which led the states. Oklahoma and Texas followed. Among the firms in California, 17,634 were in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metro area, which led all metro areas nationwide.
Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms that had paid employees in 2007. These businesses employed 184,416 people.
Percent of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms that operated in construction; and repair, maintenance, personal and laundry services in 2007.
Percent of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned business receipts accounted for by construction, retail trade and wholesale trade in 2007.
Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms with receipts of $1 million or more in 2007.
Number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned firms with 100 or more employees in 2007.
Source for data in this section: Survey of Business Owners-American Indian and Alaska Native Owned Firms: 2007.
The growing self-employment and incremental growth is a good thing for Native Americans across the country. They are seeing the potential for positive change in their own lives, in their communities, and in the world around them as they create self-sustaining opportunities for financial independence.
“I think a lot of people think about indigenous cultures as ancient or backward. But what I’ve found is that Iñupiaq culture — think about how innovative that culture was to be able to survive to now.” – Sean Vesce, E-Line Media
Indigenous innovation is a declaration of survival written by the creative utilization of existing resources in new and sustainable ways. While the mainstream tends to express indigenous innovations as “artifacts” on display in museums around the world, innovation by indigenous peoples did not end when European contact started.
Every day in communities urban and remote, indigenous peoples are innovating and adapting… creating, preserving, sharing, and surviving. Indigenous peoples continue enriching their own communities as well as the world around them.
Last week in our Native Language Meets Technology topic, we explored how Native Americans are using technology to preserve Native American languages. Another convergence of indigenous innovation and technology, the newly released video game “Never Alone” (Kisima Ingitchuna) offers a Native Alaskan cultural adventure spoken in the Iñupiaq language.
This video game was developed by a Cook Inlet Tribal Council enterprise (Upper One Games) in partnership with E-Line Media and members of Alaska’s Iñupiaq communities. Using a process known as “inclusive development,” Iñupiaq elders, storytellers, artists and youth worked directly with Western game developers to create the video game experience. It is refreshing that “Never Alone” is free of the racism, appropriation and misrepresentation often found in many mainstream films and games about indigenous cultures. Instead, E-Line Media and the Iñupiaq contributors influenced each other throughout the game’s development, authentically representing Iñupiaq art, music, language, culture, tools, and environment in the game.
“Never Alone” video game screen shot
Interestingly, the central tale of “Never Alone” was adapted to fashion an engaging and entertaining game in much the same way an Iñupiaq storyteller would put their own spin on a common story. In the game, players join a young Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her arctic fox companion on a journey to find the source of the unending blizzard that is devastating Nuna’s village. The story reflects traditional Iñupiaq themes like humanity’s relationship, connection and reliance on nature for survival, as well as sacrificing for the greater good of the community.
Although based on a traditional story and narrated exclusively in Iñupiaq, the experience of “Never Alone” is delivered via engaging and entertaining play that bridges the gap between Elders and youth. For Upper One Games, Never Alone is about preserving Iñupiaq culture for future generations while sharing the culture with the rest of the world. Subtitled in ten languages, the game connects the Iñupiaq and mainstream as well.
“Throughout the United States, many Native American languages are struggling to survive… These languages preserve priceless cultural heritage, and some hold unexpected value — nuances in these languages convey unparalleled knowledge of the natural world.” – Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, The New York Times
In August of 2014, The New York Times published a short documentary film about the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, Marie Wilcox. Native to central California, the Wukchumni is a small tribe of some 200 members not recognized by the federal government as part of the larger Yokuts tribal group. (The Yokuts numbered almost 50,000 before European contact.) As the last fluent speaker, Ms. Wilcox took it upon herself to extensively document the Wukchumni language.
First, it began with remembering the Wukchumni words that Marie’s grandparents spoke in her youth. Then, her process evolved into writing individual words on the nearest piece of paper as memories came back to her. Soon, Marie was spending day and night “pecking” away at the keyboard of her computer one letter at a time until she finished her first draft of the Wukchumni dictionary – her work now used for weekly language classes by the tribe.
In what can only be described as a labor of love, Marie, with the help of her great-grandson, has gone on to record an audio version of the dictionary as well as Wukchumni tales in the Wukchumni language. Marie and her daughter are also working with other tribes to address language loss in their respective communities.
Pub at Marie’s Dictionary, Global Oneness Project
The journey that began some seven years ago to save the Wukchumni language reflects all that National Relief Charities has been discussing in our “Walking in Two Worlds” blog series. Marie Wilcox has taken the best elements of Western technology to preserve an indigenous language that has been almost completely lost to European colonization and Western expansion.
Elsewhere, states are working directly with tribes to use technology to preserve indigenous languages. In Montana, the state legislature launched the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program that granted $2 million last year to the eight tribes in the state. Under the pilot program, the Blackfeet Community College of the Blackfeet Nation developed both a website and mobile app to assist in preserving and teaching their language.
Interestingly, social media has also become a place of informal language preservation. Groups like Lakota Language for Beginners on Facebook encourages anyone interested in the Lakota language to join, learn, and speak. Most powerful are the dialogues that happen between fluent, intermediate, and beginning speakers. In just two years, the group has grown to almost 14,000 members.
Whether it is an oral dictionary, a mobile app, or a Facebook group, Native Americans are redefining what it means to be Native by using the digital resources of Western culture to preserve and share some of the oldest elements of indigenous culture.
Last Thursday, March 12, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission released the Open Internet Order in wake of the commission’s decision to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility. While the new rules are detailed in some 400 pages of the Open Internet Order, according to the FCC the “…rules are designed to protect free expression and innovation on the Internet and promote investment in the nation’s broadband networks.”
Regulating both fixed and mobile broadband service establishes an equal playing field where innovators can innovate, investors can invest, and consumers have choice and freedom. The three “Bright Line Rules” for an open Internet summarize that broadband providers cannot:
Block any legal content
Negatively affect any legal content
Give priority to certain kinds of legal Internet traffic or content “…in exchange for consideration of any kind…”
Undoubtedly, the Open Internet Order is a monumental victory for net neutrality. Equally important is what the FCC’s new ruling will mean for Indian country. An open Internet presents unlimited opportunity and possibility for rural Native American and other communities. The open Internet provides the means to build nations and economies, and they can do so while supporting green trends.
For example, one can earn a college degree from a leading university without ever leaving their community. A person can start an international business without stepping outside their home. Native languages can be preserved. American Indian musicians can publish their music to iTunes. Indigenous filmmakers can share their visions on YouTube. Tribal leaders can address issues in their communities through online crowd-funding.
Yet, none of this will happen without broadband/Internet access. While availability and advances in broadband technology redefine life across the United States, isolated Native American communities struggle to simply get online. What Internet may be available in rural communities is often slow and costly. On reservations with high rates of unemployment, paying for Internet access and computers may not be an option. Perhaps the new Open Internet Order will ensure equitable access by combining faster speeds with cheaper prices in Indian country, but that remains to be seen.
In the meantime, what does the FCC’s Open Internet Order mean to you? And, how do you think it will make a difference in Native American or other rural communities?
As Andrew mentioned in his February 24 blog post on walking in two worlds, “there is the world of contemporary time and place defined by the mainstream culture, and there is the world of indigenous culture, knowledge and understanding.” In addition to the individual experience, the two worlds intersect in the realm of new tools and technologies.
Integrating the best of both worlds is best reflected in two trends on the reservations: renewable energy and sustainable housing. And, in keeping with Native cultures, it is no surprise that both of these are green trends that respect the natural environment.
No stranger to green housing, the traditional Navajo Hogan in use for centuries is considered energy-efficient housing. Comprised of a wood structure with mud packed against it, a Hogan is cooled by natural air ventilation and water sprinkled on the dirt floor or heated via a fire pit (or stove today). The dense mass of the Hogan creates an ability to store heat and level out temperate fluctuations. Under our NRF home repair service, the Elders’ homes we repair of often contemporary hogans.
Straw bale house on the Hopi Reservation
Today, sustainable straw bale homes are also being built on the reservations. Red Feather Development builds straw bale houses in Native American communities throughout Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, as part of the American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative. NRC Program Partners have also shared about the straw bale homes on the Hopi Reservation.
With 90,000 Native American families homeless, straw bale homes are a significant and accessible means of housing. They are affordable, go up quickly, are environmentally friendly and made from natural materials that are locally available in remote communities. Some straw bale houses also incorporate solar panels to support hot water and floor heating, and systems to catch rainwater – a key factor for reservation communities with contaminated ground water.
Native Americans have also for centuries lived in harmony with the natural environment. If your land has rivers, you fish. If your land has pastures, your herd cattle or sheep or buffalo. So the current focus by tribes on renewable energy makes perfect sense – it’s a blend of new technologies meeting modern needs while protecting the environment and seven generations into the future. Renewable energy also bodes well for future economic development of the tribes. NRC offers the AIRC winter fuel service because running out of energy assistance budget mid-winter is an annual challenge for some of the reservations.
Now, on the Fort Berthold and Rosebud reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota, massive wind turbine projects are underway. These will provide key learning about the effectiveness of wind energy and possibly lead to a commercial scale of wind energy production. The Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin has a solar project to provide renewable energy for electricity and hot water needs, and the Manzanita Reservation in California has a hybrid wind-and-solar project in the works. These and the off-grid project by Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico are just a few of the leading edge renewable energy projects being led by the tribes today.
To me, the green trends on the reservation are a natural outgrowth of the way of life honored by Native Americans for centuries. At the same time, the lead that the tribes are taking in clean energy and sustainable housing is both hopeful and impressive. As always, there is much to learn from inherent Native wisdom.
When I think about the idea of “walking in two worlds,” I consider everything that encompasses. Does it mean that I am two people? Does it mean that I am a fragmented person? Perhaps it means both, or neither. At any rate, I had the honor of visiting with Leon Hale, an elderly man from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, who now lives in Rapid City, South Dakota. I met him at his home to discuss the concept of “living in two worlds” and what followed was an experience.
Leon Hale, Cheyenne River Sioux
Leon has health problems and we talked a bit about the dialysis he must have three times a week in order to stay alive. He told me about his heart surgery and shared stories about breaking bones in his legs and arms throughout his life. But, he never lost a sense of optimism about what it all meant. He smiled and was grateful to be “hanging tough,” still moving forward in his life and thankful for the dialysis machine that let him enjoy spending time with his grandkids and pass on the wisdom his grandfather offered to him. We then spoke about the weather and this sparked our deeper discussion of what it means to exist within two very different cultures.
Leon talked about the old ways and how he prays for Mother Earth when he goes to Bear Butte, a sacred site to the Lakota People. He told me he is sad when he thinks about the way the earth has been abused and is struggling to find its own balance again… how the wolves disappeared and now the mountain lions are not living the way they naturally would… how the factors in nature that once controlled the wildlife and the waterways and the forests are all out of balance or no longer exist. I saw in his words a man that understands where we, as Native Americans, come from – how we view the earth and the physical environment around us. I could see the concern in his eyes and his struggle with the way things are and the way they should be when he spoke about nature and our Mother Earth. Two worlds…
Leon then recalled from his youth the way his mother would cook wild game for dinner and the way you need to honor the animals when you take them for food… how hunting was a co-existent way to live with all the creatures of the earth… how hunting was never about sport or dominance over another species. Two worlds…
He spoke about his love for the Lakota language and how it gives him peace and comfort speaking with another Lakota… how he can remember, so clearly, the words of his grandfather and his grandmother… the words they spoke and the wisdom they offered him as he struggled with feeling comfort and peace at home. But, Leon also remembers having erasers thrown at him or rulers slapped over his hands at school for speaking his Lakota language, and the teachers being so forceful and cruel in their ways to change him into someone else. Leon had a special place along the river near his small country school, where he would hide among the bushes and plants and look at the sky and chase the squirrels. And he compared his school experience to the way the Lakota and his grandparents felt about learning and knowledge… about being aware of wisdom and that the language is where it starts… speaking your own language, the Lakota language that to this day gives Leon peace and comfort. He explained that the teaching and the use of language from his grandparents was like an eagle plume. It was sacred and he felt good and alive in what he was learning. Two worlds…
And yet, as Leon reflected over his life, he told me the one thing he would change if he could go back would be to get an education. He said the teachers are much different today than they were in his time… that he has met his grandkids’ teachers and they seem eager to help his grandkids learn… eager to teach them what they need to know in order to exist and succeed in today’s world. But, Leon also understands the importance of teaching his grandkids what his grandfather taught him… to “learn to face the future”… to ‘learn the ways of the others.” I see this as an imperative for Leon, who wants his grandchildren to have it easier than he did… to not struggle as much he did with the idea that he was a Native American being pushed into a world that did not coincide with his own culture.
As I sat and listened to Leon muse about all of these things and more, I realized something. He is living in two worlds still. He knows we cannot go back to the way things were supposed to be… the way they were for millennia before this continent changed populations. And, he knows he can indeed look back to how we existed before and carry that into this new way of living… to sit in a circle and talk as a family… to see it can be a cultural struggle to get an education, yet education can help you succeed in the mainstream world. He knows that each culture offers something new and unique. Two worlds…
As I left Leon’s home, he thanked me in Lakota, and I promised I’d return to hear what he could tell me about anything he wanted to talk about… I left feeling that a person can be two things… that I can be two things. I can be a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, descended from and existing because of my ancestors and what they did for me so many generations in the past. I can also be an American citizen that offers his culture to those around him and accepts theirs with understanding and a willingness to face the future… a future that isn’t grim because of how history turned out… rather, a future that is forged one day at a time and can be exactly what I strive to make of it. I can live in two worlds by looking back and looking forward.
Last week we kicked off our “Walking in Two Worlds” blog series by talking about maintaining physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance in everyday life. Maintaining this kind of balance is critical for Native Americans living one life in two worlds. There is the world of contemporary time and place defined by the mainstream culture, and there is the world of indigenous culture, knowledge and understanding. As I mentioned last week, sometimes the two worlds contradict; sometimes they complement one another.
This week, Mary Mitchell, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a senior at Black Hills State University (BHSU), shares her experience of “walking in two worlds.”
Before moving to Spearfish, South Dakota, to attend college, Mary spent her entire life in the community of Eagle Butte, South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Growing up Mary spent her time volunteering in her community and getting involved in school sports. Being so active and present helped Mary build an empowering network. Through this and her large, supportive, close-knit family, Mary grew up knowing who she was – a young Lakota woman.
When Mary left Eagle Butte, she left nervous, sad and one of only a handful ever to have left the reservation for college. Her life was becoming one that would be spent in two worlds.
Thankfully, Mary wouldn’t have to go it alone. The Bridge Program offered by BHSU’s Center for American Indian Studies gave Mary the opportunity before the start of her first semester to transition into life away from home, while getting connected with other first-time Native American college students. (The Center for American Indian Studies is a long-time Program Partner of National Relief Charities and its American Indian Education Foundation.)
Connection, Mary says, is at the heart of her ability to maintain balance while “walking in two worlds.” After participating in the Bridge Program her freshman year, Mary went on to mentor other Native American students entering the Bridge. She also now serves as President of the Lakota Omniciye student organization at BHSU. Lakota Omniciye addresses the needs of Native students and coordinates the school’s annual “American Indian Awareness Week” and its “Lakota Omniciye Wacipi.” The wacipi (powwow) brings in about 3,000 guests from South Dakota and the surrounding states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota.
Bringing Native American culture to campus is just one of the ways Mary stays connected with her roots. She continues to be active in Eagle Butte, volunteering with the Cheyenne River Youth Project and the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte School. Mary also keeps close to her family on Cheyenne River through letters and phone calls throughout the school year.
When Mary faces difficulty keeping her balance while “walking in two worlds,” she remembers the lessons of her Aunt Ione shared at a very early age: As a young Lakota woman, her life is in the service of her people. Mary humbly carries this knowledge in all that she does, be it volunteering in the community or representing Native Americans at Black Hills State University.
What does it mean for a Native American to “walk in two worlds” and does it apply to other cultures in the U.S.? Well, before I can answer this question, I first need to talk about balance.
I’m going to break myself down to four equally important aspects: There is the physical part, the mental part, the emotional and the spiritual. You are the same. Together, these aspects form the circle of our being, and no one aspect is more important than the other.
But, a circle requires all of its points (or aspects) to be equi-distant from its center point – and in that center point is you, the individual. Thus, we experience the most balance as individuals when we cultivate all four of our aspects. When we neglect one aspect or focus primarily on another, we become unbalanced.
Of course, we bump up against the real challenge of staying in balance as we go about our day-to-day lives. In this contemporary world, there seems little time to focus on the core aspects of self. With this in mind, consider people like Native Americans who must stay in balance while “walking in two worlds.”
Minorities in the United States know that two worlds exist in this country. There is the world of the dominant culture, and in my case the world of indigenous culture. One is very new. The other is very old. One culture landed here hundreds of years ago. The other originated here thousands of years ago, if not longer. Often, one contradicts the other, and sometimes they complement each other.
Regardless, this leaves Native Americans no choice but to walk in both worlds. We have the history of forced assimilation, but we also have a rich history of adaptation to the dominant culture. It is through this adaptation to the best parts of the dominant culture that Native peoples have been able to make a positive impact in their communities. Yet, balancing this requires a strong knowledge and ability to navigate both cultures, a constant striving to maintain an indigenous identity while also coursing the mainstream.
Over the next few weeks, National Relief Charities will feature stories of Native Americans living in two worlds or adapting to the use of technologies prevalent in the dominant culture. Check in next week to learn what living in two worlds means for a Native American college student. In the meantime, leave us a comment below if you have an experience of living in two worlds you would like to share.