What makes a child Native American

Published 15 Mar 2017

In ancient worlds, determining ancestry was clear-cut, rigidly definable, and absolutely necessary for issues such as claiming thrones, suitability for marriage, inheriting property or succeeding in family operations. However, as the United States has progressed into a society in which the melting pot analogy of immigration can now be applied to families as well, ancestral lines have become blurred. For many American children, creating a family tree is a much more difficult project than it used to be. Families are blended; paternity is unknown; children are adopted; names of immigrants have been changed; and some individuals have deliberately chosen to forget their past for personal reasons.

When determining what makes a child Native American, several factors must be considered. Historically, the first factor in resolving the dilemma is the part that ancestry plays or should plan in the upbringing of a child. Clearly ancestry must play a role in determining the ethnicity and cultural influences that would be most beneficial to a developing individual. However, ancestry implies a deeper search into family than just the biological parents. Native American scholarships are given out at most state universities and colleges if the student can show himself to be a minimum of 1/16th Native American. That would be the equivalent of having a Native American great-grandparent. Therefore, the standard for determining Native American ancestry should be more lenient than simply having a biological parent who is Native American. A child taken from a reservation and placed with non-Native American families will be forever releasing his ties to a culture that has been a significant part of his ancestors.

Politically, one may question whether or not the parent is a member of a federally recognized tribe. Of course, in order to receive any type of benefits, the person in question must be able to show lineage to a federally recognized tribe, especially if the federal government is providing the support. After all, the support is given in recognition of perceived wrongs done to the tribe or perhaps in recognition of the classification of the person as a minority. These groups must be documented; otherwise individuals might sink so low as to create a “tribe” just for the purpose of collecting some benefit.

A child that is taken from a reservation, however, is not attempting to receive a benefit. He is simply living the cultural lifestyle of his forefathers. It may be difficult to determine the exact tribal membership if the child is no longer living with his biological parents or if his biological parents are dead or unknown. What is clear, however, is the association of the child at the time he is removed from the reservation. Clearly he would be receiving some type of care from one of the tribal groups. This would be the tribal association that should be attributed to the child.

On a darker political side, removing children from reservations under the guise of giving them better homes may be a subversive political move to reduce the numbers of Native Americans living on reservations in general. The end goal might be to reduce the size of reservations, perhaps ultimately eliminating them altogether. Indeed, the US government stands to benefit from the eradication of the Native American. If the Native American culture is completely removed from the traditional reservation and aligned with mainstream USA, as have many cultures before, such as the Asian-American and African-American, millions of dollars could be saved. However, one must still ask the question of whether this is the ethical thing to do, especially to a child.

Socially, many groups attempt to pin the sins of the father upon the child. As in many areas of the United States, biological parents may not recognize the importance of their permanence in the life of the child. Thus, the parents’ behavior should have no impact upon the designation of the child as affiliated with a particular tribe or as a rightful part of the tribe.

If the parent has abandoned the child, he has given up his own rights to the child. However, he has not given up the child’s right to his own heritage. Abandonment does not make the child cease to be a Native American; it just makes him unfortunate enough to have a parent who made a poor choice. The same holds true with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol or who are incarcerated. These choices should not affect whether or not the child is considered Native American or if he has any claim to membership and benefits of a certain tribe.

Basically, the savior impulse of the wealthy oftentimes mistakes their values for those of the child. In an era of family values, these quick-to-intercede individuals do not recognize that a poor, nontraditional or somewhat dysfunctional family is still just that, a family. Therefore, the child’s well-being should not be measured in dollar bills but in an interaction with his native culture and the people, whoever they may be, that have been loving and caring for him.

In my opinion, removing a child from a Native American reservation should almost never occur. If the child has any relative or a caregiver that has dedicated him or herself to the well-being of the child, there is no reason whatsoever to step in and interject one set of cultural values on another. After all Native American and American cultures are vastly different. Native Americans worship several natural gods while most Americans consider themselves Christian. Native Americans have a natural reverence and respect for land whereas Americans tend to worship technological advancement. Finally, Native Americans enjoy a simple life of close family and community whereas Americans are far more disjointed.

The age at which a child is removed from a reservation is significant. If the child is old enough to realize these changes, he will certainly be confused. Socially, this confusion could lead to trauma, which could then lead to destructive behaviors. It is clear that the Native American genetic makeup tends to predispose them as a group to alcoholism. A stressed or traumatized young Native American might tend to abuse alcohol or drugs.
On a larger scale, the tribe has a right to live the way it sees fit as long as it is not abusing its children. The tribe has a right to its members if they want to be there. It has a right to live the way it wishes, albeit on established reservations sites. Considering the wrongs wreaked upon the Native Americans in the last four hundred years, it only seems right they are allowed to try to reestablish their community. The United States politics right now are focusing on aiding foreign nations in Africa that need to rebuild after civil, war, economical collapse and natural disaster. For all of its international kindness, it seems the United States is unwilling to step in and give equal aid to a population that exists within its own borders – the Native American population. In addition, the United States certainly does not condone the extraction of Rwandan children from their own villages in order to give them a better life.

Overall, the US political goal should be to help people help themselves. For the Native Americans, that means provide them with a place to live and the means to become self-sufficient without further interference. Making tribes dependent on the US government for survival will not help in the long run, nor will removing the very future of the tribe itself.

Of course, some extenuating circumstances may occur. First, the child may have never lived on a reservation. If this is the case, he is bound by whatever laws and statutes comprise the area in which he lives. The child could, upon adulthood, choose to visit or even remain in his Native American tribal community, but he should no less be forced to live there as a child who does live there be forced to leave.
As previously discussed, the best interests of the child are always of the utmost importance. The first consideration in deciding the living arrangements of the child should be where the child has been living for most of its life. If the child has been living on a reservation, then unless he is in a state of starvation or abuse, he should remain within his community. If a child has lived with adoptive parents since birth or a very young age, then he should remain with them as that is all he knows. They, as adoptive parents, have a legal and more importantly emotional bond with the child.

For those instances in the middle, the child may be cognizant of both forms of existence but unable to maturely choose which the best is for him. When these cases occur outside the Native American communities, the courts generally attempt to find a stable relative who is willing to take on the child before pronouncing him a ward of the state. In much the same way, the existence of a relative on the reservation should take precedence over the foster parents. The child, at the age of 18, is able to make his own decisions or seek earlier emancipation. When and if the best interests of the tribe and the interests of the child conflict, the interests of the child should take precedence, but only if it is clear and unbiased what those interests are.

The placement of Native American children is a touchy one. It is not as clear cut as the saviors of the world would like to make it seem. It is definitely an issue which demands consideration of historical, political and social perspectives. Generally, the Native American community should be allowed to thrive in every way possible.

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