Manataka American Indian Council








Native American Spirituality:





Or, Blood Quantum:

Native America’s Dirty Little Secret




By Jim PathFinder Ewing (Nvnehi Awatisgi)



In Greek mythology, the king of Phrygia had the pole of his wagon fastened to the yoke with a knot that defied efforts to untie it. An oracle stated that he who untied this Gordian knot would rule Asia. According to legend, many tried to unravel the knot to no avail until Alexander The Great simply pulled his sword and cut the knot, going on to fulfill the prophecy.


American Indians and Native American Spirituality are caught in a Gordian knot that began before America’s colonization, tightened with the founding of this country and exists to this day.


Bound within it like interlocking links of chain are the issues of sovereignty, tribal recognition, blood quantum and, at its heart, the free exercise of religion.  If this knot is not unraveled, the chains unbound, American Indians and those who follow traditional teachings will never be able to freely exercise their religion. The future is one of increasing restrictions, deepening divisions and, ultimately, the death of Native America.


Those who practice Native American spiritual beliefs are guaranteed free expression of their religion under the U.S. Constitution, under First Amendment rights, but this does not mean there aren’t considerable barriers placed in their way to make those rights in many ways almost meaningless.



Freedom of expression is undeniably guaranteed both as a First Amendment issue and under specific federal statutes, regulations and executive orders. Many Americans don’t realize this was not always the case. Until 1978, American Indians on reservations had no religious rights and were specifically barred from practicing traditional ceremonies. These efforts were driven by fear of uprisings by Native populations, most notably epitomized by the massacre at Wounded Knee, Dec. 29, 1890, when Lakota men, women and children were gunned down while gathering for a Ghost Dance, a spiritual practice.


Historically, the federal government sought to eradicate all forms of traditional spiritual practice and belief on reservations through use of boarding schools (separating children from parents), prohibiting use of Native languages, and making gatherings for ceremonial purposes illegal.  The expressed intent was to “civilize” Native peoples; a policy begun under treaties well before The Trail of Tears forced removal marches in the 1830s with Cherokee and other Eastern tribes. The result was a sustained federal policy of social and cultural annihilation.


The justification for this denial of religious freedom, inexplicably enough, was that Native peoples were sovereign nations by treaty and not granted the freedoms that American “citizens” claimed as fundamental rights.  Under “sovereignty,” the U.S. government occupied the reservations, kept control of the populations through military might, imposed arbitrary civil orders and prevented them from exercising freedoms guaranteed Americans under the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment freedom of religion that is bedrock to the Bill of Rights.


This changed in 1978 with The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and subsequent amendment.


It states, that, by act of Congress, Aug. 11, 1978 (U.S. Code, Title 42, Chapter 21, Subchapter I, 1996) it is “the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise {their} traditional religions . . . . including but not limited to . . . . use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.” See:


Flowing from the right to worship freely is the recognition that sacred sites, lands taken and/or controlled by the federal government that are traditionally held holy by Native Americans, should not be barred from access.  This also includes objects, artifacts and human remains.


From this consideration, more legislation was passed, including:


-- Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act -- 104 STAT. 3048 Public Law 101-601 -- NOV. 16, 1990 (

-- Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 -- Public Law 96-95; 16 U.S.C. 470aa-mm (

-- Various executive orders, including Executive Order 13007, May 24, 1996, designating “Sacred Sites.”



The statutes, orders and rules issued by Congress, presidents and federal rule-making bodies give specific directions and remedies so Native Americans have recourse to government to ensure religious freedoms.  Religious freedom is also well grounded in international law, with the United States a signatory to more than a dozen conventions.


They include:

-- Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN 1994)  Article 13: "Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of human remains.”


-- Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (UN 1981)  

Article 1(1): “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in pubic or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”


Article 1(2): “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.”  

Article 4(1): “All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.”  



As the international conventions and agreements amply outline, religious freedom is to be broadly interpreted and fundamentally ensured.  As a signatory to these agreements, with its promulgation and support of democracy in the world, as well as its pronouncements of adherence to constitutional mandates, the United States would seem to be a premier international champion of religious rights and foremost in ensuring them.  Yet, such is not the case, at least when it comes to Native American Spirituality upon these shores. Where the United States falls short is intrinsically woven in its very history with Native Americans from the start.


Most federal policies directing efforts to ensure religious rights are confined to lists of federally recognized tribes, which specify blood quantum for federal recognition.


This poses several dilemmas. First, if a tribe’s authorization is removed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for whatever reason, members of that tribe are no longer covered by federal rules and regulations protecting their religious rights.  Second, even if members of a tribe are historically and demonstrably members of a tribe, the tribe itself determines membership according to federally prescribed guidelines on blood quantum. In recent years, tribes increasingly have tightened blood quantum restrictions as a result of casino revenues, delisting even longstanding tribal members. Third, if an individual is denied tribal enrollment for blood quantum reasons, that person is no longer recognized as “Native American” under federal law and, hence, no longer falls within the scope of federal authority and protection of religious rights as specifically defined for Native Americans.


If, for example, a tribe requires one-quarter blood through genealogy to be an enrolled member, what happens to succeeding generations of descendents? They automatically are disenfranchised, are no longer considered “Native American” as defined by law, and therefore are no longer covered by the statutes, regulations and acts passed by Congress to ensure their rights.



How crazy is this blood-quantum system when used to determine federally recognized tribes?


As one example: "The Osage Nation of Oklahoma has just four members -- all older than 96 -- who are recognized by the federal government. More than 20,000 Osage descendants in several states, including Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, aren't. A 1906 law gave all those on the rolls before June 30, 1907, a portion called a headright. Those 2,229 people are the only federally recognized members of the Osage Nation. Those members have about 4,000 descendants, 3,000 of whom have voting rights in what is similar to a corporation with shareholders. Only when a person inherits a headright or a portion of a headright does he or she have voting rights. However, those rights don't make those descendants members." 


Even now, varying from tribe to tribe, there are such anomalies as a non-tribal woman having certain privileges, such as healthcare, while carrying a tribal member’s child, but none before or after the baby is born. The baby will have tribal privileges after it is born if blood-quantum is sufficient.


While some point to the fact that there are over 500 BIA tribes, many if not most are composed of few members; plus, federal recognition is constantly changing. Even traditional, long-standing historic tribes (such as the Delaware, which was the first tribe to sign a treaty with the newly formed United States) have had their recognition removed, for various reasons, leaving their descendents in a quandary.


Lawsuits involving recognition and the revocation of recognition are constant and unrelenting, leading to tribes to care more about BIA rules (to keep federal dollars flowing) than their “sovereignty.”



Casinos have accelerated the dis-enrollments, with tribes tightening blood-quantum requirements so that fewer people share more of the profits, even if hundreds of members, even elderly and long-standing families, are summarily wiped off the rolls. Not only are these people no longer eligible for federal protections, but they are no longer legally “Native American.”  With casinos, in addition, the imposition of non-traditional ways of thinking and alien social structure are as damaging as the federally imposed tribal government system itself.


Traditional ways are inclusive, the tribe and family first, care of the elderly, women and children. With casinos, greed comes foremost: inequality of the distribution of resources, every one for him or herself first, profits rule, and with it comes graft with government (such as the Abramoff scandal), influence-peddling, cronyism. Whereas the traditional tribal structure (throughout time, among all groups, bands, tribes) has been communal with "giveaway" and shared decision-making, the casino culture promotes separation, fracturing of families, promotion of self-interest and favoritism on reservations that already are fragmented and rife with social ills. Whereas traditional tribal communities were spirit-based, with leaders chosen for the wisdom and the retention of practices favorable to keeping communities together, inclusive and healthy for generations to come, with spiritual values at their core, the modern reservation/casino culture promotes only material values that are, at heart, the worst of short-sighted Western culture.



Adding to the confusion is what constitutes a "tribe" legally. Most "tribes" today are a lumping together of bands, in some cases, even separate groups that had warred against each other. Tribal governments reflect federal requirements, not traditional practices either in selection of leaders or administration.


In effect, they are BIA-Tribes, that is, groups of individuals who hold a federal franchise on a legally recognized status designated as a Tribe for legal purposes, defined by treaty, and overseen and held to rules of accountability outlined by the BIA.

In 1978, the BIA enacted administrative procedures governing the administrative process for federal acknowledgment (Title 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 83) of what it would consider to be a “tribe.”


From 1935 to 1974, the BIA determined tribal existence based on one or more criteria: a) had treaty relations with the U.S.; b) had been denominated a tribe by act of Congress or executive order; c) had been treated as having collective rights in tribal lands or funds; d) had been treated by a tribe or band by other tribes; or e) had exercised political authority over its members through a tribal council or other governmental forms.


The 1978 regulations set seven criteria:

1. The tribe has been identified by reliable external sources on a substantially continuous basis as an Indian entity since 1900.

2. The tribe has maintained a continuous community from historical times to the present day.

3. The tribe has maintained political authority or influence over its members on a substantially continuous basis from historical times until the present day; and

4. Has a governing document which it must submit, or if it does not have a formal governing document, a statement describing its government operations and membership criteria over its affairs and members; and

5. The current members of the tribe, as a whole, descend from a historic tribe or tribes that amalgamated; and

6. Tribal members are not principally members of an already recognized tribe; and

7. The tribe was not terminated by legislation. 


This has led to a proliferation of "tribes," but not to what constitutes an American Indian other than defined by BIA-Tribe rules or offering any protection for non-tribal Indians (people of Native descent who have no federal BIA-Tribe affiliation; for example, people who have left the reservation or family group and cut ties for a generation or more; or married outside the tribe and skipped a generation; or cannot document their genealogy).  For these individuals, even if practicing Native American Spirituality, and "Indian," by belief, custom, or origin, there is no specific legal protection. The guarantee of religious freedom is not specified and falls under general laws and First Amendment freedoms.  While that should be enough to guarantee freedom of expression, in practice it has proven problematic, which led to (among other discrepancies) a move over a decade ago to the writing of the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993.



The act failed to pass Congress, other than a brief section allowing use of peyote in Native American Church ceremonies. But it remains needed – with minor alteration. It is perhaps even more needed now than then, as federally recognized tribal numbers dwindle, and as more and more Americans recognizing their Native ancestry begin to practice Native American Spirituality.


Hence, the federal government’s reliance on blood quantum for tribal status actually continues the policy of cultural annihilation by disenfranchising offspring of Native Americans from recognition, status and benefits in ever increasing numbers.  This is given an economic incentive through casino development that puts pressure on tribes to limit proceeds to smaller classes of individuals; which in turn introduces ugly elements of race and politics into tribal membership, dividing tribes even more.

Even the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993 falls short in that it defines a Native American religious practitioner as a Native American who is recognized within the existing blood-quantum/BIA-listed system. In effect, the blood-quantum system tells tribes who or who may not be members of their tribes and, under this definition, who can practice "Native American religion."


In effect, according to the U.S. government, if you don't have a BIA card, you cannot freely worship God according to your Native American faith. Where else in the world  does a person have to have a government-authorized card in order to practice his or her faith? Or carry a government card listing one’s racial category entitling one to religious freedom? This is the letter of the laws, if not the intent.

Thankfully, there is plenty of case law to support that a person cannot be denied expression of religious faith, federal rules notwithstanding. Courts have held that religious affiliation can be demonstrated by the individual by simple affirmation of faith. This goes for “Indians” and “non-Indians” as defined by BIA rules. But the fact that such federal rules and regulations are in place provide barriers to religious expression and create a chilling effect on the exercise of religion. ‘You want to exercise your religious faith? Then sue me, the reasoning goes.



To understand the crazy system of BIA-Tribes in America, the restriction of Native American religious expression as “protection” and the ongoing cultural annihilation today, one must go back to the initial links in the chain: blood quantum and “sovereignty” which compose the heart of the Gordian knot.


Blood quantum is a holdover from pre-Civil War days when U.S. citizenship, and rights, were based on race. A “white” male had all rights as guaranteed by the Constitution; white females had some rights (couldn’t vote, often could not hold property, depending on the state). Blood quantum defined freedom. Legally, anyone with “one drop” of Negro blood was considered non-white, defined in the landmark case of Gray v. Ohio, in 1831, and were considered chattel or property unless legally freed.


Indians, unless specified by treaty, legally didn’t exist. The United States considered American Indians as “Nations,” and their members as under those Nations’ “sovereignty,” which meant they had no U.S. citizenship rights. In law, Indians weren’t even considered human beings. If a white man claimed a tract of land and Indians were living on it, they were legally considered as deer, rabbits and squirrels – not human, and protected only by their Nations’ sovereignty. That meant that the only rights they had were the ones granted by treaty and enforced by the U.S. government, and only while residing on treaty lands.


For example, when the state of Georgia seized the Cherokees’ last remaining holdings, and President Andrew Jackson refused to protect them, the Cherokees were left totally defenseless. They had no legal standing: they had no rights; could not sue in courts, legally protect their property, or swear out a warrant against a white man if they were attacked, beaten, raped or killed.  State courts and law enforcement officials were not obliged to intervene, and didn’t. In two cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831 and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not pass laws conflicting with federal Indian treaties and that the federal government had an obligation to exclude white intruders from Indian lands. Angered by the decision granting rights, Jackson is said to have challenged: "(Chief  Justice) John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"


Not only did Indians have no civil rights in America, they had no human rights. This was the law of the land, across the United States, essentially a policy of genocide that resulted in the near-extermination of Native peoples. The American Civil War freed the slaves, but American Indians received no benefit. For Indians, the Civil War didn’t end the travesty of freedom defined by blood or skin color. In fact, it was well after the Civil War when “blood quantum” became the legal requirement for Native American tribal membership.


After the “Indian Territory” became the state of Oklahoma Nov. 16, 1907, the U.S. government, through the Department of Interior, began issuing "Certificate Of Indian Blood" (CDIB) cards as a prerequisite for participation in federal government assistance programs for Indians.  These CDIB cards were based on the blood quanta listed on the Dawes Roll, a 1906 Indian census that today is considered by Oklahoma Indians – backed by the BIA -- to be the only acceptable way to document Native American heritage. Unless someone was “registered” as an Indian in 1906, that person was not an Indian, and his or her descendants aren’t legally considered Indian today, regardless of family, lineage or belief. The standard, arbitrary even in its time, was largely based on skin color.


To see how this system has continued in recent times, one has only to see the position paper called  "White Indians" prepared for the federal government in 1943 that notes the "problem" of blood quantum.  It argues that Indians who don't "look like" Indians pose difficulties for administration. In this, race is exposed as not just a sidelight to federal policy, but a central dynamic for exclusion, divisiveness and control.


Or, as the government’s position paper notes, “the degree of Indian blood as a mathematical consideration is not important; rather, the Indian appearance is the important factor. The biological Indian must be the basis on which Indians are reclassified culturally and legally. Physical anthropology has made some attempt to measure the physical traits of Indians. Generally speaking, however, it seems tenable that persons who have less than a half degree of Indian blood are fairly indistinguishable in the general American population. Certainly the generalization could be made that a person of three-fourths Indian blood will have a distinct Indian skin color while the person of one-fourth Indian blood will have a white appearance. This matter of skin color becomes the crux of it.”


The main issue for Native America today, though, is not civil rights but human rights, of which freedom of religion is at the heart. Unless Native America sheds its racial shackles and recovers/reinvents its spiritual roots in accord with bedrock principles of inclusion and unity of purpose, the BIA System will have its way, with Native Americans the willing and cooperating victims. It is not too late to turn the tide.



The BIA System is a conundrum for the tribes themselves. The only way tribes can obtain rights promised to them is “to play the game,” as designated by federal laws and rules. Yet, following federal laws and rules leads to loss of autonomy (deciding who is/is not a member based upon its own consensual rules) and loss of cohesiveness (attrition; as generations of children leave the reservation for opportunities elsewhere, intermarry with outsiders, lose their traditions and cultural identity, and so on).


Ironically, the social entities — tribes — which are designated to have rights protected by law are penalized by those protections.  These “protective laws” are of the same insidious ilk as “sovereignty,” which was once used to rob Indians of their lands, even kill them, and deny them religious freedom when forced to live on tribal lands a century and a half ago.  History substantiates that "sovereignty" never meant much to the federal government or any federal official since the concept was broached.

As Andrew Jackson said, untruthfully, in attempting to motivate Eastern Indians to relocate to Arkansas and Oklahoma before he forced the issue at the point of a bayonet:

"There, your white brothers will not trouble you, they will have no claims to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty."

Then, in 1851, all previous treaties with the "sovereign" Indian nations were abrogated by Congress with the Indian Appropriations Act, which sought to concentrate Native American populations on reservations. By then, all who could flee federal control had done so or were doing so, as Native individuals and groups had done for generations.


It should be noted that it was also in 1851 that the last vestiges of the traditional Native way of legitimizing self-government was lost, as well. Before the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Western tribes, the federal government had sought to find someone it could designate a "chief" to sign a treaty and thereby steal rights and lands under treaty. This treaty system depended on acknowledging agreement from the "sovereign subjects" of that chief.



Native peoples had always adhered to the form of self-government whereupon all made decisions together after days of council. In the Cherokee and Iroquois, it’s called the clan system. In the Lakota and allied Western tribes, it’s called "Oyate Omniciye," or "Circle Meetings of the People.”  That made it difficult for the federal government to play its "sovereignty" charade.

Under Oyate Omnicye, Native America actually practiced genuine sovereignty through democracy. But with the Cherokee removal treaties and the1851 Laramie treaty, any pretense of “Oyate Omniciye” was cast aside.  The federal government designated its own chiefs and determined who they governed, empowering them to sign away rights of the people without their consent. Because of this, some contend that no treaty or agreements with the federal government since 1851 are valid and, of course, many of the treaties the government forced prior to then are invalid, too, since those who signed them were not entitled to speak for even what the federal government considered the Indian "nations."


It should be considered, too, that instituting “chiefs” with the unilateral ability to speak for the people was totally foreign to Native thought. “Tribes” themselves are Western concepts. Most Native people were grouped according to bands, or family groupings, if nomadic, and “towns,” if settled. For example, historically, there was no such thing as an Apache “tribe.” They were universally small bands that only shared a similar language.

Even among the settled Cherokee, each town was democratic and autonomous. For example, one town might decide to go to war while a neighboring one would choose peace. This caused great difficulty for the federal government, and so it offered “sovereignty” for “nations” that previously had been loose confederations or alliances and even ones that had longstanding hostilities with each other. That “sovereignty” was supposed to protect the various “nations” and individuals among the “tribes.”




Native America today, under the BIA system, could be seen as the "Pet Rock" of the federal government, a dependent novelty, tolerated, patronized and given false hope while kept captive in a bureaucratic nightmare and diminished under a system that since its beginnings has had assimilation and ultimate annihilation as its goal. “Sovereignty” and “self determination” are the empty buzz-words that perpetuate the system of bureaucratic enslavement.


Defining religious rights is a powerful wedge for keeping Indians in line.  It also puts pressure on tribes regarding traditions and culture. Spiritual practices on the reservations can be controlled; in the general population, they cannot. Tribal spiritual leaders are of two minds: one line of reasoning goes that whites, mixed bloods and non-Indians can “steal” their traditions, culture and way of life. Therefore, sacred knowledge should be closely guarded, “protected,” even through federal law, and dissemination discouraged outside of the reservation system. The other line of reasoning goes that spiritual power belongs to Creator, Native Americans were given this knowledge for a reason, with a covenant to preserve, honor and protect the Earthly Mother.  Therefore, to withhold sacred knowledge spells doom for Earth and all its inhabitants.


The federal government exploits this rift through extending specific protections for Native American Spirituality only for federally recognized tribes and individuals designated by those tribes who carry blood-quantum BIA-cards (the same CDIB cards of a century ago) designating them as Native American.


Yet, millions of Americans have some Native ancestry -- and others who practice Native American Spirituality don’t or can’t prove it if they did -- including individuals who live on reservations and have been historically recognized as members of a tribe. In violation of international conventions the United States has formally agreed to, these millions of Americans are being discriminated against in the practice of their religion. 


Despite claims of adhering to civil and human rights commitments, the U.S. government has been unremitting in fragmenting and destroying Native America, including its spiritual beliefs. From the 19th century until the Freedom of Religion Act was passed in 1978, spiritual leaders ran the risk of jail sentences of up to 30 years for simply practicing their rituals. Much of Native American Spirituality was lost, as religious practices went underground, were forgotten or abandoned. In the meantime, forcing children into Christian boarding schools and intense missionary work during this time produced the result that most Native Americans today either follow a mainstream Christian denomination or mix it with traditional beliefs.  The syncretism of the Native American Church is a good example of this.  Not all spiritual practice fared as well, many   “traditional” beliefs have been fragmented and/or misconstrued.



Despite blood-quantum requirements for BIA-Tribe membership, racial characteristics do not an “Indian” make. Among the Cherokees, most of the leaders who fought the U.S. government were one-quarter to half white in the 1800s, including John Ross (at most only one-eighth Cherokee), who fought the federal government through the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – and won.  Only to have Andrew Jackson refuse to follow the court’s ruling, resulting in the Trail of Tears. This followed generations of Cherokees seeking to intermarry in order to assimilate and, hence, they hoped, escape subjugation. It did them no good, with loss of rights.


Chickamauga Cherokee Chief Bowles, who fought and died in Texas defending his people from being relocated to “Indian Territory,” was half white. Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief in Texas and a founder of the Native American Church, was half white. The Seminoles of Florida include descendents of escaped slaves, Creeks who fled relocation, and others. English intermarried with Iroquois and French with Huron, Cree and mountain tribes; in Louisiana, Choctaw and others intermarried with Cajun, Black and Creole. Most African Americans today have some Indian blood, or a known Native relative, after 200 years of intermarriage; as do most white Southerners whose families have been in America for six generations or more. The much-derided “Cherokee Princess” has a basis in fact; though the Indian ancestor(s) may have been from another tribe and gender. Intermarriage among races was widespread. But its social ramifications weren’t without complications.


Oprah Winfrey, in the PBS program African American Lives, described childhood taunting in her native Mississippi where being part Indian was preferable to being all black. Yet, genetic tests done for the program showed that she probably had Native American ancestors.


Among white Southerners, particularly of Scots-Irish descent who settled on land claims for service after the war of 1812, the reverse was usually true. Native physical characteristics were (and still are) explained away by claiming they were Black Irish or Black Dutch. It allowed mixed bloods to claim white status during and after Removal. It has become something of a code word for Indian intermarriage in the South. In many Southern families today, it is often still considered a deep, dark secret.


Even among BIA Tribes the issue of accurately quantifying blood-quantum is problematic. At this writing, the Cherokee Nation is seeking to disenfranchise the Cherokee Freedmen, a catch-all phrase designating descendants of freed slaves and free mixed African Cherokee peoples who received Cherokee citizenship in 1866 through a treaty with the U.S. government. Some of the controversy stems from white Indian agents deciding for the Dawes Roll if the Indians they listed “looked Indian,” or black, and designating them “full blood” or “Freedmen” regardless of lineage or family ties.


The Dawes Roll itself is problematic. It was created 70 years after Removal; generations of Cherokees had already fled, intermarried, or been accepted by the tribe with as little as 1/32 Indian blood, making the blood-quantum standard meaningless. The result is that there are probably as many or more Cherokee descendents with as much or more “Indian blood” without CDIB cards as with them. Nor are the Cherokees alone in this.  More than 60 years ago, Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, physical anthropologist of the Smithsonian Institution, commented: "There is probably not a full-blood Indian in this continent today."


 In 1906, the Bureau of American Ethnology Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico  reported that “Of 15,000 persons of Canadian-French descent in Michigan few were probably free from Indian blood. Some of the French mixed-bloods wandered as far as the Pacific, establishing settlements of their own kind beyond the Rocky Mountains . . .The tribes that have furnished the most mixed-bloods are the Cree and Chippewa, and next the Sioux ....”


How extensive is the dilution of Native blood in America? Consider this piece of mathematics: “ The Iroquois of St.. Regis, Caughnawaga, and other agencies can hardly boast an Indian of pure blood. According to the Almanac Iroquois for 1900, the blood of Eunice Williams, captured at Deerfield, Mass., in 1704, and adopted and married within the tribe, flows in the veins of 125 descendants at Caughnawaga; Silas Rice, captured at Marlboro, Mass., in 1703, has 1,350 descendants; Jacob Hill and John Stacey captured near Albany in 1755, have, respectively, 1,100 and 400 descendants. Similar cases are found among the New York Iroquois.” Mind you, this was written in 1906 – 100 years ago!


“Indians,” even in BIA tribes, come in all colors. Census, DNA and genealogical studies show that “pure” Indian blood is almost nonexistent. According to the 2000 Census, eight of 10 Americans with Native American ancestry were of mixed blood. It is estimated that by 2100 that figure will rise to nine of 10. Yet, the most common blood-quantum of one-quarter from these flawed records and inconsistent accounting remains the federal standard for being “Indian”.


Meaning that, regardless of culture, tradition, or heritage, or even birth upon a reservation, if someone is one-eighth Indian, that person is considered white; they are no longer “Indian” and their children and children’s children will be white, forever. The “protection” of their right to practice their spirituality that comes with federal recognition will be denied them.


It makes me wonder what Chief Bowles and Quanah Parker, two of the most successful Indian chiefs in fighting white invaders nearly 200 years ago, both mixed blood, would think of this? Especially since, under the BIA’s blood-quantum system alone, were he alive today, Chief Ross himself would not be considered “Indian.”



One of the great tragedies of the BIA-Tribe system, and the intertwining links of “sovereignty,” “blood quantum” and designation of what is an “Indian” according to federal law is the cultural elitism it engenders.  If a person, regardless of blood, heritage, spiritual belief or practice, does not belong to a BIA Tribe, or is of mixed ancestry, or cannot prove ancestry, that person is not an “Indian”. His or her religious beliefs are not recognized or honored by the federal government’s laws and often not by BIA-Tribes and outsiders either.  That person is not “a real Indian.”


This form of cultural elitism is practiced not only among many members of BIA Tribes but by people who ostensibly support Native Americans. Some point to the estimated numbers of Native Americans as proof that the numbers of Americans claiming Native ancestry today is inflated. Such statements as “It is a firmly established fact that a mere 250,000 native Americans were still alive in the territory of the United States at the end of the 19th century” are simply astounding. They ask: How can nearly 5 million people in America today claim Native ancestry?


To begin, the estimated numbers of pre-Columbian population vary widely. The lowest of 12 million in North America, to 112 million on the continent, to 50 million in North America are widely quoted. If there were 50 million Native Americans in North America before Columbus, the accepted figure for nearly a century, even disease could not have so decimated the population to 5 million 200 years later. The Black Death in Europe, the greatest plague proportionally in recorded human history, wiped out “only” one-third of the overall population of Europe.


The worst plague scenarios even now given by the federal government for pandemic and terror-related pathogens, unbridled and untreated, is 50 percent.  Yet, scholars from a dozen fields are attempting to rewrite history, studying even the anti-body antigens and DNA from robbed graves, to support a scenario in which twice as many Indians lived in North America as previously thought, and up to 95 percent died from disease. 



It’s one thing to try to accurately determine Native American numbers, but to try to find evidence to support a political theory is revisionism. It’s barely noticed these days, when the line between historical fact and fiction has been blurred by our cultural addiction to entertaining quasi-historical dramas, that may be as close to a history lesson as anyone gets.  But this revisionism is clearly academic malpractice just the same.  It reveals an ethically dubious assumption — that since Native populations were already decimated by disease, white settlers were blameless to take over the villages and lands, just players in a sad twist of inevitable fate.  The destiny of the Indians was out of our control, the line of reasoning goes. It was their own fault for not domesticating bovine and porcine animals to gain immunity to these diseases: poor, ignorant savages!


It reminds me of the equally spurious schoolbook theory in the 1950s that the massive die-off of species after the Ice Age was the result of Native over-hunting. The theory included all large land mammals except those that migrated from Asia like the elk and the bear and included in the die-off whole classes of insects and mollusks. We now understand only a changing climate could have drastically changed that ecosystem, given the small population numbers.  But overpopulation would help to support that theory, too, wouldn’t it? And also serve to “scientifically” discredit the importance and pervasiveness of Native American Spirituality’s basic tenets: living in balance with the land, taking only what was needed, and honoring the Earthly Mother.



It should be noted that extensive records by English and French traders in the 17th and 18th centuries show that deer populations in the Southeast only began to decline after the French and English used deer hides in trade for guns, while also exploiting wars and differences between the tribes, creating a market for those guns. Even then, deer didn’t become endangered until European settlement, mass clearing of land and over-hunting took its toll. The woodland buffalo ranged throughout the Eastern United States until the Europeans came. The Western buffalo were exterminated by a federal policy to starve the Indians onto the reservations. As Gen. Philip Sheridan, overseeing the reservations in the 1870s, put it: "let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance."


Unbridled genocide, as horrible and incomprehensible a holocaust as was perpetuated, in this mass population/mass pandemic theory cannot account for almost half again (20 million) even of the 45 million purported deaths spanning a continent of 3,000 miles. According to the U.S. Census, in 1850 the entire U.S. population (free whites and slaves) was only 23 million. The figures don’t add up, except to support a political theory.  (See: Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?


The reduction in numbers – whatever the true figure -- was not death, though considerable and perhaps as much as 40 percent, but assimilation. Pointing to genocide alone for declining figures does not take into account the power of the human spirit for survival. Native Americans were not docile, mindless creatures. In face of the onslaught, those who were able faded into the countryside, melted into remote regions or the general population – again, the “Black Irish,” “Black Dutch,” Creole and African-American populations.


Curiously, many  ‘friends’ to Native Americans seem bent on inflating the numbers of American Indians killed through genocidal practices. The documented history of Native America is horrible enough, without seeking to prove improbable decimation.  A “firmly established fact that a mere 250,000 native Americans were still alive in the territory of the United States at the end of the 19th century” is not the number of Native Americans or their descendants that survived and continued to propagate, but how many were remaining on reservations, and counted as “Indian.”


The obsession for inflating numbers of Indians killed/populations reduced has a secondary effect; it serves to bolster BIA-Tribes’ claims for exclusivity. The fewer the numbers of Indians, the greater are the federally recognized tribes’ claims for representing those who remain – again, through the “documentation” of blood quantum. “Real” Indians are fewer if there were fewer left alive to start with, bolstering the cultural elitism of the BIA-Tribes over unrecognized groups of Indians.



According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Approximately 1.5 percent of the U.S. population -- 4.1 million Americans -- identify themselves as having American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) heritage. The federal government currently recognizes 561 different AI/AN tribes and there are many other tribes that are not officially recognized. In 1980, most American Indians designated by the BIA lived on reservations or trust lands, compared to only 20 percent today. Over 50 percent now live in urban, suburban, or rural non-reservation areas.


Some seem surprised that so many Americans declare themselves “Indian.” That should be no surprise. After generations of being disenfranchised, run off or otherwise discouraged from claiming Native ancestry, starting in the 1600s, the surprise should be that there are not more. In fact, the number of Americans who have some Native heritage could be as much as 10 times the number listed on BIA rolls. That so many cannot document their lineage is largely due to the fact that declaring oneself Native opened one up to suspicion, discrimination and outright abuse—better to blend in.  Nor is there much incentive to seek affiliation, if it means life on reservations.


Reservations remain pockets of poverty, with high unemployment and serious social issues, including substance abuse and violence. In 2004, the poorest community in America was Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Unemployment was over 80 percent, 69 percent of people lived in poverty and male life expectancy was 57 years. In the Western hemisphere, only Haiti has lower statistics.


Successive waves of Indians are leaving reservations, which adds to upward mobility, but also can result in loss of cultural identity. This presents a challenge to reservations: how to solve social ills, increase education and employment, and keep young people both at home and following traditional ways. Cultural attrition is compounded by the fact that many who live on reservations do not adhere to traditional beliefs. Central to this is that generations of American Indians have been either diverted from claiming ancestry, driven off, socialized to reject their heritage while claiming white or other ethnic group, or been coerced or enticed to lose their connections or membership with tribes or traditional Native ways.

It must be remembered that one must apply to be a member of a tribe. The more one is removed from the reservation and tribal life, the less likely that connection will be kept, maintained or passed on.  This has been going on for 300 years — leading to a Diaspora of Native peoples, from the first tribes in the Northeast killed or driven off, to Eastern Seaboard tribes sold into slavery, to Southeastern tribes assimilated, to the rounding up and relocation of peoples to reservations since the 1830s.



The federal government's policies have had another contradictory result. In an attempt to assimilate Indians into mainstream culture, the BIA began establishing Indian centers in urban areas. By the early 1970s, about 10,000 Indians were leaving their reservations each year to live in cities. In all, over 100,000 Indians migrated into these urban centers.


This had several effects:

        1)      Decimating reservations of able, productive working men and women;

        2)      Compounding poverty and unemployment on reservations;

        3)       Luring young people away from traditional lifestyles and teachings;

        4)      Breaking the link between elder and younger generations so traditional roles and teachings would not passed on;

        5)      Acculturating younger Native people to mainstream society;

        6)      Encouraging assimilation into mainstream culture, including marriage outside the tribe;

        7)      Further diluting blood-quantum and tribal rights and membership.


It also, however, has had another effect: the growth of Pan-Indian communities, where tribal culture and Native ways were introduced into mainstream culture, broadening interest in traditional ways and causing Native American Spirituality to be more broadly adopted by mixed-bloods, non-traditional Indians, other cultures and whites.


This Pan-Indian influence has led to rites such as Sundance — at one time an exclusively Plains tribal practice — to be adopted as "Indian" in general.  Also, perhaps in a misguided attempt to simplify — or find a “gold standard”/one right way within the diverse world of American Indian spiritual practices and wisdom traditions — some, such as Lakota, have come to be seen as more legitimate, pure, or superior.  Other tribes' cultures and beliefs have suffered or been seen as contradictory to what is popularly, if ignorantly, perceived as true tribal culture.


It also has sparked a backlash, such as Lakota leader Arvol Looking Horse seeking to incorporate his tribe’s traditions as protected by federal law under his Protection of Ceremonies proclamation. Such inclusion of specific spiritual practices would be false from the standpoint of “ownership” of Native American Spirituality by the Sioux -- Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Oyate (People), and so on.  None of the practices including use of the pipe, the medicine wheel, the vision quest, or the sweat lodge ever has belonged exclusively to those groups. But, more important, why would anyone want to give any more religious control to the government? Especially given the federal government’s utterly destructive history with Native peoples?

To give further power to the federal government to regulate Native American Spirituality only hastens cultural annihilation, ensuring that it dies with the fewer and fewer BIA-card Indians who continue to practice traditional ways. The Lakota, or any other group, should feel free to practice their own ways of Native American Spirituality any way they deem fit, and take whatever reasonable action they wish among their own members. That is, people of Lakota ancestry who recognize those who presume to speak for them. Clearly they have no right to presume what is right and wrong spiritual practice for other tribes, groups or individuals, much less try to franchise their beliefs under force of federal law and impose them upon others.



The Pan-Indian movement has also led to members of some tribes to condemn other members of other tribes for not practicing what they deem to be legitimate teachings when, in fact, there has always been wide diversity in beliefs among tribes.

It has led to members of one tribe, belief, faction or another to disparage others as illegitimate or "wannabes" or "false Indians" or “pink Indians” or "frauds" for not having blood-quantum BIA certification or following Pan-Indian beliefs and practices that are wholly legitimate within their tribes, lineage and belief systems.


For example, for those who hold such “Hollywood Indian” motifs in mind, Cherokee traditions would seem utterly wrong: traditional dances are counterclockwise, not clockwise; the Cherokee honor Grandfather Moon and Grandmother Sun, not the other way around; quartz crystals (often decried as “New Age”) were traditionally carried by medicine men, or “priests,” to be used in healing and even in auguring guilt or innocence in disputes; contrary to the “poverty scenario” some would force on medicine men today, the Cherokee healers, shamans or priests charged for personal services, under the traditional practice called Ugista ti; the owl, seen by some as a portent of “death,” was considered sacred, one of the few of the plant and animal nations that stayed awake during the 7 days of Creation; Cherokee had their own pipes and “asi” (“hot house”) or sweat lodge traditions that were similar but different from the Plains pipe and Inipi; and so on.


Some of these traditions extend back to before the Cherokee entered this continent, yet these self-professed “defenders” of Native ways call those who adhere to them “plastic shamans” and “frauds,” convinced that they are right in their Pan-Indian beliefs and all other ways are wrong.  It’s a bit like Roman Catholics calling Lutherans “Low Catholics.”



The creed of these attacks stems from an Internet message sent in 1993 by three Lakota who felt their tribe "owned" all expression of Native American Spirituality and, as such,  they were perfectly entitled to hurl epithets and cast in the most negative tones anyone they believed to be trespassing on their turf. To self-proclaimed “defenders” of what they construe to be “real” Indian beliefs, this gate keeping was the unholy grail of their cause.

The piece, titled, Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality, was subsequently picked up and published in a book by Ward Churchill (Indians R Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America,1994), which gave the screed a fleeting legitimacy. Every catchphrase for abuse is included, as a sort of a “talking points” for attacking anyone who is seen as an enemy to their reactionary way of thought.


Defaming and “exposing” people of other tribes, faiths, beliefs and traditions through such words as “wannabe” etc. should be a clear signal to anyone that the attackers are attempting to coerce, intimidate, silence and ostracize other groups, ways and leaders. People, by rights, are free to hold their own wisdom traditions without being subjected to public ridicule, harassment and character assassination. Such disreputable behavior speaks volumes about those who make such accusations, especially when those making them hide themselves in anonymity or cloak themselves with high-sounding organizations that are composed only of a few like believers.


It's an irony, or perhaps justice, that Ward Churchill has since been “hoisted on his own petard.”  He has been proven guilty of doing the very things that he and those who have rallied to the “war declaration” have so vehemently condemned. It turns out, according to The Rocky Mountain News, that Churchill’s claims of Indian ancestry are false, and he has been misrepresenting himself as Native for many years (Source: “Special report: The Churchill files, The charge: Misrepresentation,”,1299,DRMN_15_3841949,00.html).


The University of Colorado where he is employed as a tenured professor has also ordered an investigation, which is currently under way, into allegations of research misconduct, which include plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. He has also been accused of threatening a colleague. Fakes and frauds? Hmmm. Indeed.


But the damage Churchill helped launch against “unbelievers” more than a decade ago continues and is still circulating around the Internet with ever more victims. Unfortunately, many people do not apply active discernment skills to Internet postings — it is such a new medium — to some, just the fact that it is “out there” gives any information a kind of unassailable legitimacy. Otherwise, these rants would not be taken seriously. The self-proclaimed defenders of “right” Indian ways are unmindful of how they are unwittingly supporting the BIA system — intolerance, institutionalized racism, religious repression, and the annihilation of the very culture they purport to defend.


Pan-Indian belief is both a blessing and a curse. It has popularized and disseminated Native American Spirituality, but it also has a downside, in that it has hardened stereotypes.  The Lakota belief system is powerful, a wonderfully coherent way of seeing the world spiritually, which has been popularized and romanticized by TV and movies since before “talkies” began. But not all Native peoples wore war bonnets, lived off buffalo or in teepees. As beautiful as the popular Lakota-based movie Dances With Wolves was, not all Native peoples stem from the traditions portrayed. As two Northwestern tribal youth in the movie Smoke Signals joked, their tribe had historically been fishermen: “What are we? Dances with Salmon?”



The problem is not Pan-Indianism. Pan-Indianism has happened and continues to grow. The genie is out of the bottle and can never be put back.  Resistance to Pan-Indianism is ethnocentric and intolerant at its root.  To assert that there is one right way of practicing Native American Spirituality echoes the Christian missionary battle-cry. What it engenders is a divisive, destructive waste of energy and resources; Indians warring against themselves and against those who they see as outsiders trying to usurp their religious authority.  Recognizing only one tradition as the only legitimate form of Pan-Indianism, the Lakota or Plains tradition, for example, destroys indigenous culture just as surely as insisting on blood quantum as a requirement for religious belief.


Although it is clear that the BIA-Tribe System created and sustains Pan-Indianism, pitting Indian against Indian; ironically it might possibly be Native America's salvation.


Europeans excelled in conquering Native America by exploiting weaknesses, inflaming rivalries and playing one tribe against another.  How did Cortez with only 600 men conquer the mighty triple alliance of the Aztecs? He recruited their enemies, amassing an army of 200,000 warriors. And what was their reward? To die of European diseases, if not worked to death or sold into slavery.

Europe got its foothold on these shores with the so-called Pilgrims, though the story taught in history books is not exactly accurate. The first settlers could not have survived on their own. A century of European exploration had not resulted in a single viable colony along the entire Eastern Seaboard because established tribes would not allow it. But Massasoit, the sachem or chief of the Wampanoag confederation (villages in southeastern Massachusetts), welcomed the Pilgrims and helped them survive because disease brought by the invaders they had allowed for short durations into their villages earlier had decimated his tribe. He feared that he would be overrun by the Narragansett to the west and hoped an alliance with the Europeans would protect his people. Once established at Plymouth, however, the invaders' numbers kept growing; further outposts were established; the tribes were overrun.

King Philip's War of 1675-1676 was an attempt to stop the European incursions into Native American lands. It was led by Metacomet (who the colonists dubbed "King Phillip), the son of Massasoit himself, who had 50 years earlier saved the original Plymouth Colony from starvation.

Seeing that Native America as he knew it was on the path of annihilation, Metacomet appealed to all tribes to band together to defeat the colonists once and for all. But his appeal to Native America fell on deaf ears, the old rivalries too strong. Metacomet was captured, murdered, his head impaled on a pike and displayed in the town square of Plymouth for the next 25 years. His 9-year-old son was shipped to the Caribbean and sold as a slave.  Metacomet's appeal to Pan-Indian resistance was only among the first to go


The great Shawnee leader Tecumsah saw Pan-Indianism as the only way to resist the annihilation of Native America, trying to rally the diverse tribes as a single, unified force, before he was cut down in 1813, ending effective Indian resistance in the Old Northwest.


The Sauk leader Blackhawk tried the same in 1832, with the same results: Indian people staying divided even as they were destroyed one by one by federal forces. They were following the pattern of the Ottawa Chief Pontiac who successfully rallied Northeastern tribes in 1763, only to be murdered by a fellow Indian.

Do we want to continue the self-sabotage and self-annihilation that has kept Native America divided among itself from the beginning?


The Ghost Dance that prompted the U.S. government’s massacre at Wounded Knee Dec. 29, 1890, was itself a Pan-Indian movement. Founded by a half-white Northern Paiute with shamanic training who called himself Wovoka, the dance swept across the Plains as a last hope for starving Indians crowded upon the barren reservations without the food and shelter that had been promised them. The power of the dance is its simplicity; it requires only alternate stylized hand movements with a rhythmic standing-in-place “dance” to a rapid drum beat that in a mere matter of moments can induce a shamanic state. It actually originated among the Cherokee and Southeastern tribes prior to Removal about 75 years before. As a spiritual dance, not a ceremonial one, it gave anyone who practiced (or practices) it, the ability to connect with the ancestors in Dreamtime – a tremendous spiritual power before then reserved to shamans and holy people. As such, and the rapidity with which it spread through Native America, it frightened federal authorities, precipitating the massacre and the banning of spiritual practices on reservations with severe penalties until 1978.


Wovoka’s vision of a peaceful resurrection of Native peoples and around which he built the Ghost Dance religion died at Wounded Knee. Its weakness was that it was seen, and in some cases presented, as a militant movement, a “taking back” in which the invaders were destroyed – much as the American Indian Movement (what some call “Attitude in Moccasins”) brought attention with Wounded Knee II to inequities and abuses in the BIA System yet has never itself caught on much beyond the reservation. A “them or us” mentality is always doomed to fail, as it only reinforces the BIA System itself – containing Native America through blood quantum (racism) and “sovereignty.”


The power of Spirit and of Native American Spirituality endures, fully tapped or not.


As a footnote to this seminal moment in the history of the BIA System and its steadfast aim of the annihilation of Native American Spirituality, it should be noted that 20 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers participating in the Wounded Knee Massacre in which 290 overwhelmingly unarmed mostly elderly men, women and children were killed. Wovoka died as Jack Wilson in 1932, after playing bit parts in silent movie Westerns and as a sideshow attraction. What the BIA System cannot destroy, it turns to triumphant tragedy and shame – shades of Metacomet’s head, again.



As settled societies, Indians were pretty good at managing war and peace. For centuries, for example, the Cherokee had both times of peace and war with their neighbors, the Creek, Shawano, Seneca nations. All were worthy opponents of approximately equal size and strength.


When the British brokered a peace treaty among the Eastern tribes in 1768, the Cherokee admitted they feared having no enemies; they must have enemies, they noted. War kept the society cohesive, on its toes, it maintained boundaries and challenged young men into developing their skills. After the treaty was signed, it turned its attention to warring with the Osage, further west.


Conversely, a number of tribes defeated or destroyed by white incursion were “folded into” the Cherokees, including the Yuchi and the Natchez, destroyed by the French in 1731, many sold into slavery. The remnants were adopted en masse, allowed to have their own villages and practice their religions as they saw fit.


This process of inclusion was practiced over centuries by many Native peoples; it ensured survival of the group, kept peace, and was a logical alternative to war. "Making a Relative," particularly regarding enemies, whether individually, or to willing groups, was extended wherever appropriate.


To find a uniquely Native model for solving the puzzle of uniting peoples while maintaining diversity, and using Pan-Indianism in a way that works for the betterment of all, one must go back even further, to the Iroquois' Deganawida. 


Deganawida, known as "The Peacemaker," a Huron, came upon the scene possibly about 1000 AD.  Prior to his arrival, the tribes that came to be known as the Iroquois confederation were warring, savage, even cannibalistic. He taught how disparate factions can join as one, to believe as one, while maintaining separate identities. His way is called "the good mind,” peace in practice. There is a longstanding traditional strategy among Native peoples along the Eastern Seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico, to make allies of enemies. This action requires great strength of Spirit, and the perspective it brings.
When individuals recognize that Spirit is greater than all, then differences are minor.


Such pro-active unity is called for today. These leaders saw what others had not; that it is drawing distinctions, playing on rivalries -- keeping Native America divided -- that leads to its cultural destruction.

Native America survived on this continent for millennia through a balance of peace and war, seeing conflict as a practical matter, not an end to itself. “Peace chiefs” were the norm – leading the people most of time, following the path of Spirit, only stepping aside for the “war chief” when deemed appropriate.

When differences promoted cohesion of the group, they were accentuated.  When tolerance was required for expansion, regrowth or renewal, then accommodation and/or adoption was pursued.  All decisions were weighed against the good of all, which included the whole of life: past, present and future.

The whole system of "peace chiefs" and "war chiefs" accepted this need for balance, to survive. The history of Native America is one of adaptation to
change, small wars and large peace; of peoples rising, falling, joining together in synergy.


The United States is dotted with “unrecognized tribes,” particularly along the Eastern Seaboard, the Southeast and the South.  Rather than "unrecognized" tribes, implying that the BIA System is in some way legitimizing, perhaps these groups and individuals should be called "broken" tribes or "unseen tribes," or, perhaps, "forgotten people."


As much as BIA Tribes, the federal government and the Churchillian Joe McCarthys out to save the world from the “Pink Menace” may bolster the cultural elitism of federally recognized tribes and their by-product, institutionalized racism, the ranks of “unrecognized” tribes and Native groupings quite often live closer to the ways of their ancestors than those living on reservations.


Called by the “fake and wannabe” folks as “white Indians,” or “pink Indians,” or “frauds” and “fakes,” these federally unrecognized groups quietly living in small enclaves and sometimes quite expansive regions across Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas still hold to their traditions freely, without imposed BIA rules.


As The Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper reported in 1996, several unrecognized tribes exist in Louisiana.  It reported, for what’s called the Clifton Choctaw Tribe:


The history of the Clifton Choctaw is detailed by anthropologist Hiram F. Gregory in an article in Louisiana Folklife Vol. VIII, No. 1 (March 1983). In it, he pointed out that the piney woods of western Louisiana were a refuge for people of all kinds. By the late 18th century, Anglo-Americans, Choctaw and other eastern Indians fleeing English expansion, and mixed-blood people uncomfortable in the white dominated southern caste system, seeking solace from poverty and the rigidity of caste, moved here.


The isolated groups of people, including the Clifton Choctaw, learned to rely on their survival instincts, the article continued, and made quilts, white oak baskets, carved wooden bowls and finely tanned deerskin.

Theresa Sarpy said quite a few people in the community are excellent crafts people today, engaging in beadwork, quilting, basket making, wood working and leather craft. Charles Tyler, an offshore oil worker, makes saddles during his time off the rig, she said.  "Most of us belong to Caddo tribes," she said, "mixed Choctaw and Caddo. My three lines are Choctaw, Caddo and Apache. The Lippan Apaches were sold as slaves by the Caddo to the Spanish and French. Language is one thing we've totally lost. The old people still speak French. My great-grandmother refused to speak English and was put in jail in Natchitoches for speaking French."


Who are these people who belong to “unrecognized” tribes?


They are the Texas Cherokee woman, age 55, who remembers her grandmother telling of growing up trying to “pass” as a white person, and fearing that someone would find out. Or her 66-year-old clan sister in the tribe, who had listened to the stories of how they fled and tried to blend in, and did, and only now, this year, applied for and received her CDIB card “not for myself, but for my grandchildren.”


They are the black Oklahoma Choctaw man, 50, who remembers his mother holding a knife on his grandmother, threatening her for teaching him Native ways (and he has a CDIB card), who enjoys the non-discrimination among people who live the traditional way, based on Spirit.   "Remind me to tell you sometime,” he says, “about what's it's like to be too 'black' to be Indian and too 'Indian' to be black."


They are the Texas Apache woman, 55, who grew up on a reservation out West. Born with blonde hair and blue eyes, unlike her dark-haired, dark-eyed brothers and sisters, she endured taunts as “whitey” and “yellow hair” until she was seven, when her family moved off the reservation, and the taunting by others was aimed at her siblings. Now, she enjoys the “family” of the tribe; not caring about physical characteristics, the absence of racial discrimination. She says she feels “at home,” where the only thing that matters is the tribe’s deep spiritual beliefs.



Academicians, the media, the BIA supporters and the “wannabe” sleuths with their blinders on don’t trifle to understand this phenomenon of people living close to the land, honoring Native traditions and rejecting the worst of the BIA Tribe system in favor of traditional ways of governance. They “buy in” to the idea that non-BIA Indians aren’t “real” Indians.


What a tragedy this is, this guilt, this burden that has been handed Native peoples. It is an intergenerational shame, a blaming-the-victim that continues back and forth today. How can any human being judge the horrors of the “Sophie’s Choice” asked of Native peoples two or more centuries ago, that resulted in this Diaspora and the fragmentation that the blood-quantum distinction brings?


The brutalities witnessed upon Native peoples for four centuries are indisputable. Countless stories of peaceful tribes massacred, men shot on sight, women raped and murdered, children killed or carried away, people hunted down with dogs, lynched, captured and sold into slavery. Even those who adopted European ways, having their lands seized, their rights taken away, herded like cattle and forced to march to a distant, barren land.


The choice? Being forced to choose life and reject your blood or accept your blood and risk death, suffering, and total, merciless inhumanity with no hope or future for you, your family, or your descendants. Survive by hiding or deception, or live and accept destruction. Being forced to choose for your children and your children’s children, to abandon their birthright, when to choose their birthright meant certain suffering for those you love?


With the divisions of blood-quantum, the racial discrimination and even federal proscription of spiritual belief, we know either way the children are condemned. It is a fact compounded by those with the federal government’s official “Indian” cards condemning their cousins -- that continues the damnation of a people today, willing pawns in the federal government’s checkmate of Native American Spirituality.


Both – those “officially” Indian, and those not, on the reservation, and not – suffer from this intergenerational sorrow. Both face what the sociologists call anomie – loss of purpose, identity and meaning in life. Only the most cruel and inhumane would condemn their relations for either choice – loss of rights, or loss of birthright – forced upon their ancestors, and willingly carry it on to vilify those who strive to hold on to some shred of their ancient traditions, seeking to follow, practice and deepen them.


There was no right or wrong in the choices, only wrong that a choice had to be made. A terrible wrong, that we must stop repeating. It is up to us to make it “right. To keep the flame alive, to honor the traditions, to weave them back again into the fabric of life so our ancestors will live again, in honor. We must mend the broken tribes, make peace among ourselves, find the lost and welcome them “home.” We do honor to ourselves this way, honor and forgiveness for those who had to make the horrible choice, whatever choice they made. The heritage lives on, not by hiding it, holding it close, but honoring it, promoting it, healing the circle that was broken and opening it to all who would embrace it, so that it will grow wider and stronger than ever before.


This is our choice. It is the only “right” choice given us, to make this wrong aright as best we can. The shame is not ours. The shame is upon those who forced the choice upon us.



Non-recognized tribes often find that “recognition,” while enticing for the possibility of receiving federal funds, comes with “strings” attached they may not wish to abide.


One Cherokee tribe in Texas tells of applying for federal recognition, had filled all the appropriate forms, gone through the process and was assured that it met the criteria. But when it was told that it could only have people of Cherokee descent as members, it withdrew its request. “The Cherokees in Texas were here before Texas statehood to get away from the U.S. government telling us what to do,” said one of the tribe’s clan mothers. “We’ve always accepted people from any tribes, since the early 1800s – people who fled the government’s control. Now, the government says we can’t do that? And if we do, we can’t be a tribe? If that’s what it means to be federally ‘recognized,’ maybe we don’t recognize them!”


At the same time, even BIA-Tribal members’ practices of traditional religious expression are routinely denied by federal authorities despite their “protection.”


From a recent article in a Native newspaper, a CDIB-card carrying south Texas Powwow participant had his bustle and relatives’ on loan confiscated by a federal officer. Under the Endangered Species Act, eagle feathers are protected.  Under federal rules and regulations whereby Native Americans as defined by the BIA may legally have eagle feathers, the feathers must be registered. Even feathers that are being used in sacred ceremony and have been passed down through generations, treated with reverence and respect, are “illegal” under federal law as unregistered and/or undocumented — and subject to confiscation.


At present, only the federal government can collect and disperse eagle feathers, denying even BIA-Indians and BIA-designated tribes the traditional right to gather sacred objects even on their own “sovereign” lands -- leading to further subversion of spiritual tradition and practice, conducted only in a climate of fear, secrecy and intimidation. Even where laws have been added/ amended to allow spiritual practice, such as the Native American Church’s use of the sacred plant peyote for religious worship, what happens if a church member is “caught” with an eagle fan used in the service itself? Members of the Native American Church already feel the threat and intimidation of state and federal authorities when passing through states hostile to their religious expression.


In short, virtually wherever the federal government has sought to "protect" Indians, it has led to dissolution, division, constriction, broken promises, and confusion. And where laws have been passed to “protect” aspects of Native American Spirituality, it has been undercut by other laws or otherwise undermined by contrary rulings or interpretations.


The effect, as with Indian sovereignty, is to give a little with one hand and take much more with the other. Gaining recognition as a tribe is extremely difficult because of a Catch-22 in the process, including extensive genealogical documentation and proof of a group’s cohesiveness over many years; yet it has been in Native Americans’ best interest for generations to deny their Native American heritage because it would have deprived them of their natural rights. Today, many Native groups refuse to seek BIA recognition precisely because of the loss of sovereignty and onerous rules imposed.


Yet, among some of the “defenders” of Native ways, even some Native people themselves, and certainly in the viewpoint of federal law, these groups actually practicing sovereignty, traditional ways, and Native American Spirituality are “illegitimate.”



First, it must be established that blood quantum cannot be used as a determinant for religious freedom protection. We must pass the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993 — with alteration establishing the practice of Native American Spirituality as not tied to blood quantum.


Second, laws restricting the exercise of Native American Spirituality must be repealed or declared void.


Third, governance of Indian Affairs — including federal oversight of tribal recognition and blood-quantum requirements — should be removed from federal jurisdiction and left up to the tribes themselves.


Indian tribes can never be sovereign nations as long as their decisions and activities are bound by federal law and overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal Councils today are not traditional but based on the system imposed by treaty, whereby governing authorities are set by federal funding and based on federal models of governance.

In some tribes, there is no traditional Spirit-based authority, or even any recognition or support of spiritual traditions.


To get back to where they came from prior to being bound by the federal knot, Indians should be who they say they are, their membership rules and expression of spiritual practices must be explicitly guaranteed by law, and their administration should be set by them without government interference. If not, “sovereignty” is an empty phrase.


From the onset, the unwritten federal policy has been to foster divisions among Native people, even when grouping them on reservations. Or, simply put: divide and conquer, divide and conquer, divide and conquer. . . . It has been going on for so long that it has become almost endemic among some Native peoples, where no unity, no consensus or agreement can be found, each group or subgroup warring against the other for scarce recognition or resources and sabotaging anyone's success.

This goes from the reservation system to, in the general population, the undermining of attempts to teach, outreach and express Native ways, practices and spiritual beliefs. Such that, the greatest critics of anyone who attempts to share Native ways is most harshly criticized and condemned by segments of Native society itself. It's almost as if to say: If we can't practice our own ways (in fear, hiding, secret, exclusively because of
discrimination, coercion or retribution by the federal government and society) then no one should have it. Let it die with us. This withdrawal is another factor that keeps Native America from being the positive force in social, cultural and spiritual ways that it naturally can and should be. It widens the rifts and deepens the resentments in Native America while alienating would-be friends and supporters.

If all the diverse Native American people were ever united, just think how powerful a force in reordering American society and culture they could be. How much better for America's monied and ruling elites to keep them powerless, warring among themselves and dependent!


Native American Spirituality is the most powerful tool for Native American unity and, as the "protection" of it fosters division, Native American Spirituality is also Native America's greatest weakness. It’s our choice: Strength or Weakness?



Among unrecognized tribes and those who have lost their connections with the tribes is a great reservoir of knowledge of Native American Spirituality.  Many among them don't think they know anything and are hungry for information of the traditions and knowledge. They falsely tend to discount their own knowledge because they are removed from the imprimatur of the reservation system. Often they know a lot that they don't know they know -- stories handed down, ways of unconsciously doing things that are comfortable for them, they think they are simply common ways of doing things or just the way things are. The unrecognized tribes are untapped sources of traditions that were destroyed and forgotten under the BIA system, repositories of ways of worship, social structure and belief. They are often hungry to receive more and practice more, joining with and returning "home" to the ways of their ancestors.

On the reservations, many practice the forms of traditional religion – attending festivals, dances, etc. – without the beliefs. What is religion without belief? How can that be “traditional,” except as a show, a display, and not a way of life? Particularly since the vast majority of people on reservations today claim mainstream religion as their spiritual affiliation?


The traditional spiritual or ceremonial elder is nearly extinct on reservations today, and certainly diminished in social and cultural importance, often replaced by powwow officials who have adopted the outward forms without the spiritual underpinnings. Powwows certainly don’t practice or promote Native American Spirituality. When have you heard a powwow dancer say “I dance for healing of the Earthly Mother and All Our Relations?” Powwows are money-making competitions and entertainments that have their purpose – stemming from the days when Indians could gather only for non-spiritual purposes after the Ghost Dance massacre at Wounded Knee.


Maybe it’s time we danced the Ghost Dance again? Maybe it’s time we all came “home” – Red Indians, White Indians, Black Indians, Yellow Indians – all the colors of Creator’s rainbow, all one, the five-fingered tribe, all whose hearts beat red. Feeding the hungry and sharing the knowledge benefits everyone and nurtures all from the roots into new ways of being.


In order to be meaningful, Native American Spirituality must breathe, must grow, must live -- as it has been doing, quietly, amidst the assaults of government coercion. Growth means change. It's either growing and changing or it's dying. It cannot stay static or moribund, declining, as it is under BIA System, or bound by Hollywood stereotypes, or it will simply fade away to become a relic of the past.  In order to thrive, Native American Spirituality should be encouraged to blossom wherever it is found, in all its diversity, like little plants struggling to survive in a harsh climate. In this way, the fields will grow naturally again, not forced into row-crop pockets on ever more unproductive land.

The very founding of the principles of this nation are Native – beginning with Benjamin Franklin expropriating the Iroquois ways of council to model the modern U.S. House and Senate (without the Native's female power: suffrage, clan leadership and ownership of property). Yet, Native America today through the BIA-tribe and blood-quantum system is the most un-Democratic of forms: autocratic, limited, exclusive and designed to fail as a declining population inevitably wiping itself out through attrition and intermarriage.

Ironically, this comes as more and more Americans who have a trace of Native blood are seeking to “return home,” and more and more are finding Native American Spirituality “speaks to them.”


Some Native American spiritual elders and holy people are welcoming this “broadening of the circle” to encompass all who profess sincere faith in Native American Spirituality. They point to Native Americans’ traditional orientation of inclusion, of making of relatives, or adoption. We are all members of the five-fingered tribe. The Medicine Wheel encompasses all the colors the rainbow, with the four directions – black, white, yellow, red – the colors of the four races, all encompassed by Mother Earth.

In this, regardless of birth, blood or history, we are all relations.


This yearning to find faith in Native ways is also preordained by the prophecies of the Hopi's Eighth Sign: “You will see many youth, who wear their hair long like my people, come and join the tribal nations, to learn their ways and wisdom.” 


It is those who have "pure hearts," those who follow the ways, who will emerge into the time of the 5th Sun, the prophecies foretell – certainly not limited to those who carry BIA cards.

Those with minute amounts of Native blood, or those who have “pure hearts,” with no definable blood quantum, seeking to find meaning and belief in Native American Spirituality should be welcomed.


It is through new blood and new life that Native peoples will rise again, and be stronger than before the Europeans came. This is not a taking, but a giving, as traditional belief and practice has always been: the making of a relative, to make bonds stronger and increase the circle of relations.


Certainly, there are people who practice ways that are unusual or unorthodox under the label of Native American Spirituality. But all of open hearts, open minds and willingness to learn should not be turned away or condemned for ignorance. Nor is there one "expert," one "way," a "pope" of even the sometimes autocratic Pan-Indian ways.


Those who seek to build divisions, those who throw words around like "fake" and "wannabe" and seek to besmirch and destroy their own who share the teachings, those who label "New Age" anything they don't understand -- are promoting the death of their own culture. The circle will only get smaller and smaller under the current BIA System, until the beliefs and practices “die with us.”

Creator creates. Creator supports the emergence of new ways. Creator doesn't condemn and deny, limit and destroy, seek to undermine and poison the flowering of Spirit in all its many ways. Every human being has the God-given right to find and express purity of heart, to follow where Spirit leads, to find meaning in the world from a spiritual perspective, and to follow the unique path suited for that person to find God. Isn’t that what religion “is” and does? There is no "official" Native American religion, nor should their be. There never has been; and now is not the time to start.



The free expression of religion is central to individual liberty, and to try to exclusively "protect" religious ceremonies among one group or groups is precisely what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution proscribing "the establishment of religion" was written to prevent. For the government to proscribe religious beliefs and practices is a clear violation of citizens’ fundamental right to practice religion without government interference.


And blood quantum, as defined and used by the federal government and the various “recognized” tribes to ensure “sovereignty,” is not only arbitrary, inconsistent and inherently meaningless as a standard of what makes an “Indian,” but it is the very definition of racism, imposing institutional discrimination through force of law that has no place in modern America.


How many more ways can the U.S. government contravene the very fundamentals of the U.S. Constitution and international agreements on religious liberty it has signed?

It's important to note that all who practice Native American Spirituality are protected in the free exercise of their religion under law and through the courts. This is true for "Indians" and non-Indians. But, as long as some have more "rights" than others, then all "rights" are subject to interpretation, qualification, restriction and revocation, not as "rights," but as powers reserved by the federal government.

In traditional ways, being Indian was never so much a matter of blood, but a way of belief and practice. And it has always been so. Those who say otherwise are only playing into the hands of those who would divide and conquer until extinction.   It is spiritual power that matters, that endures, the one thing that unites Native America.  The differences that have been strategically and successfully used in the past are against Native America today by the same forces that displayed Metacomet's head upon a pike and continues to do so with the BIA System.


Like the famous New Yorker cartoon, some people, especially those residing in large   population centers, have a U.S. map in their mind that includes New York, Los Angeles and Miami with a vast uninhabited hinterland in between. They think nothing of consequence is there. The same goes for many who think of Native America. There is just an "Indian," an amalgam of Hollywood stereotypes built up over the years, like the Lone Ranger's "Tonto," or the characters in Little Big Man or Dances With Wolves -- a Plains Indian. There are Navajo, Hopi, Sioux . . . And, indeed, these tribes exist. But just as the New York-LA-Miami "map" leaves out 9/10s of America, so this mental map of "Indians" leaves out 9/10s of what is Native America.


Between the very real high-profile tribes, from coast to coast, is a vast rainforest of wisdom traditions that have been quietly growing in profusion over the centuries -- transplanted, fragmented, cast upon the winds, but thriving. It is infused from its Native roots with a myriad of other traditions, some new, some old, some borrowed, some simply forgotten elsewhere, but it remains a tremendous reservoir of knowledge and sacred ways that are often simply undiscovered, unrecognized or overlooked.

Some of these original traditions have been diluted, diffused, camouflaged by necessity over the generations; some have deepened and become stronger, more rooted and virtually unchanged; some have taken on an array of new ideas to become a whole new, explosive hybrid of thought, often under the broad coloration of "New Age."



Ancient prophecy tells us that when the eagle of the North and the condor of the South fly together, the Earth will awaken, to enter a new day, a new "Sun." Neither can be free unless they are joined as one, in knowledge, understanding and unity of Spirit. Yet, how can the peoples of North and South join as one when both are so fragmented? In Cherokee, according to legend, the elders predicted a great catastrophe when the eagle disappeared from the corn shortly before the white man came. "But when the eagle comes again to the corn, it will be a time of healing and all peoples coming together."


It should be noted that corn, or maize, is unique to the Americas; nothing like it on Earth. Geneticists are amazed that indigenous peoples of the Americas could cultivate it, for in its original form, it was a relatively rare mountain plant with small fruit and a tough husk that required considerable knowledge and patience to develop. With squash and beans, maize provided a balanced diet that was centuries ahead of the nutritional standard of the Europeans.


Scientists have determined there are at least 50,000 potential variants of maize, with hundreds of varieties once cultivated, from hand-sized cobs of a single color, to two-foot cobs of many colors, each with a different use and way of preparation. With maize came the Native way of planting in the “milpa,” or plot set aside for each strain, corn and squash was planted so that the runners could go up the corn stalk and find sunlight and the legumes could at the same time fertilize the soil with nitrogen. In this way, fields would never go barren, and didn’t, with continuous crops on the same fields for centuries and pounds-per-acre of maize actually increasing as these fields were used.


When the first Europeans took maize and exported it elsewhere, those who came to subsist on it didn’t follow the milpa method, and hence received sustenance but not the balanced diet that squash and beans gave, resulting in pellagra among the people and fields that grew barren, soil depleted of nutrients from monoculture planting. This short-sighted practice continues today. American corporations now export only a handful of corn seeds, hybrids that produce only one type, size and color; which require massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides that exhaust the soil. The hybrids cannot reproduce, so that they must be ordered from the manufacturer each year.  These unnatural monocultures are uniquely fragile; with no natural immunity to infestation by insects or pathogens. As such, they require increasingly strong/toxic chemical protection. There is no “seed corn” for future generations, literally. 


Is that not also an apt metaphor for the state of government-controlled Native American Spirituality today?  Under the BIA System, the strains of spirituality are often hybrid, imported "hothouse flowers," unable to exist outside the rez, a controlled environment.  We need to locate and nurture the natural spiritual human being within ourselves, connected with all of life, and allow it to flourish. Then the "weeds" will fall away, unable to sustain themselves from their own inner weaknesses and untruths.


What can we derive from the wisdom of the ancients? Can we see that unless we return to our roots, we cannot soar? There is no one “corn” in Native America, and never was. Linguists have determined that there were 1,200 separate languages in Native America. Each represented a people, a way of thought, a wisdom that if not extinct has been underground, only awaiting the proper conditions, like the Native maize – the differently colored kernels — to reach for the sky and ripen. Today, the BIA System is like the Western way with maize – one corn, one size, shape and color that cannot reproduce and is dependent on the government to survive, and then only in limited form.


Just like the independent farmers who have incorporated the wisdom of indigenous peoples in their growing practices -- thus assuring the survival of our rich heritage of cultivated foods, so the practice of traditional rituals of worship help to ensure our spiritual survival. The nourishment of the soul.


The Eagle will return to the corn and fly with the Condor when we have provided for our own sustenance, replanted our corn in all its remarkable variety.  We know that resistance to change hastens extinction, and adaptation is the key.


Rather than American Indian Spirituality being “lost,” “taken” or “appropriated” by modern American society, this process of adaptation can be seen as the success of Native America's spiritual power, an affirmation, to be nurtured, not scorned.

Perhaps we are moving towards fulfillment of a forgotten prophecy that after seven generations, all would be American Indian.  Rather than being “lost,” it is being found, and rather than being taken, it is regenerating.


It is incumbent upon those who remember the roots, in all their diversity, to promulgate their knowledge -- not for the sake of “ownership,” but as “giveaway,” in the Native tradition. Certainly these times call for it, as we are poised on the edge of manifold societal and ecological disasters, that most agree our present institutions and technology are inadequate to forestall.  Only a change of paradigm, heart and mind, a re-connection to our roots that serves to re-order our core values and motivations will alter the tide.


If full freedom of expression is ever allowed again, Native America will be America. Perhaps that is the fear of governing authorities, that American Indian Spirituality will be unbound and unleash a tide that revitalizes Native American culture and values.


Native America today must confront its problems head on. In order to be free, it must cut the knot of federal dependency and demand that it be free. Sovereignty as defined today simply retains the chains of the past, with each “success” only a longer chain with heavier links. The basis for cutting the chains is, as Native people have always known: Spirit. The way of spirit is unity, wholeness, oneness, not divisiveness.  The Gordian Knot of repression requires tension on both ends to remain in place. Isn’t it time we stop fighting ourselves, and leave those who would oppress us to deal with a useless tangle of their own making?




Jim PathFinder Ewing (Nvnehi Awatisgi), 53, is an enrolled member of the Southern Cherokee Tribe & Associated Bands in Texas, Ceremonial Elder, Paint Clan (Ani-Wodi, Tsalagiyi Uganawa Anigusdi), member of the Manataka American Indian Council (Hot Springs, Ark.), and a member of the Bear Clan Medicine Society (Russellville, Ark). He alternates living in Buffalo, Texas, at the tribe’s Ceremonial Grounds, and in Lena, Miss., where he practices, teaches, and holds Bear Lodge (Asi/Inipi) and leads a monthly Drum Circle, a prayer ceremony honoring the Native American Medicine Wheel. He writes a monthly newsletter ("Keeping In Touch …") that has subscribers across the United States and in several foreign countries. His Web page is Healing The Earth/Ourselves:


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