Friday, August 24, 2018

What Makes You Native American?


WaPo  |  In March 2012, Heather McMillan Nakai wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs asking the agency to verify that she was Indian. She was seeking a job at the Indian Health Service and wanted to apply with “Indian preference.” Nakai knew this might be difficult: As far as she was aware, no one from her North Carolina tribe — the Lumbee — had ever been granted such preference.

Her birth certificate says she’s Indian, as did her first driver’s license. Both of her parents were required to attend segregated tribal schools in the 1950s and ’60s. In Nakai’s hometown in Robeson County, N.C., strangers can look at the dark ringlets in her hair, hear her speak and watch her eyes widen when she’s indignant, and know exactly who her mother and father are. “Who’s your people?” is a common question in Robeson, allowing locals to pinpoint their place among the generations of Lumbee who have lived in the area for nearly 300 years.

Yet in the eyes of the BIA, the Lumbee have never been Indian enough. Responding to Nakai the following month, tribal government specialist Chandra Joseph informed her that the Lumbee were not a federally recognized tribe and therefore couldn’t receive any federal benefits, including “Indian preference.” Invoking a 1956 law concerning the status of the Lumbee, Joseph wrote: “The Lumbee Act precludes the Bureau from extending any benefits to the Indians of Robeson and adjoining counties.” She enclosed a pamphlet titled “Guide to Tracing Indian Ancestry.”

As a staff attorney for the National Indian Gaming Commission, Nakai understands the intricacies of documenting native bloodlines. In fact, she had submitted 80 pages of evidence to support her case. The Lumbee are descended from several Carolina tribes, including the Cheraw, who intermarried with whites and free African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nakai, 38, can trace her family tree back to at least 1900, when her great-grandfather was listed as Indian on the federal census. “That’s a terrible feeling,” she says, “to have somebody say to you, ‘You’re so not Indian that you need somebody to send you a pamphlet.’ ”

Lumbees rely on historic census documents listing the “Indian Population” of specific counties to enroll members in their tribe. In researching her response, Nakai realized the same documents could be used to argue that Lumbees were eligible for federal benefits. She thought hers was a powerful legal argument. If she could receive Indian preference, then so could other members of her tribe. “When I’m pushed, I don’t run,” Nakai says. “I want to push back.” And so she appealed the bureau’s decision — and kept appealing until her case landed in federal court.

Her battle would force the Department of the Interior to reexamine its policy toward the more than 55,000 Lumbee who make up the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. For more than 60 years, the government has acknowledged that they are Indians, yet denied them the sovereignty, land and benefits it grants to other tribes. It’s a situation that raises fundamental questions about identity: What makes someone Native American? Is it a matter of race, or culture, or some combination of both? The Lumbee don’t fit neatly into any racial categories, but they have long been living as Indians, cultivating unique traditions and community. Can a country divided by race ever accept them?