This is On Native Being and Belonging , a new column by Joseph Lee on Native American identity.
Every October when we were kids, my mom gave me and my brother a form to give to our teachers. The form said that Cranberry Day—the annual Wampanoag harvest holiday—was an official holiday and we should be excused from school. My tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah, is a small tribe based on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Although I grew up off-Island, my parents have a gift store in Aquinnah and I’ve been spending summers there my whole life. During Cranberry Day, which always falls on the second Tuesday in October, we would head back to the island to pick cranberries down in the bogs and eat hot dogs around a fire. Like any kid, I relished the excused absence from school, but more than that I loved how official it felt. What could be more official than a form that got me out of school? I needed those moments of tangible Native-ness, because I was never sure if I was Native enough.
When my classmates found out that I was Native American, they would ask me, “How much?” It didn’t count, they had heard, unless you were at least an eighth. I assured them that I was “enough,” but I was never really sure. I was worried that living off-Island or not knowing more about our culture made me less Wampanoag.
When I turned eighteen, I finally got the official document that proved the Wampanoag identity I had been so insecure about: my tribal ID card. My tribal ID card, like a state ID or driver’s license, lists my date of birth, eye color, hair color, address, and other personal information. It also lists my tribal enrollment number. Every person in the tribe is assigned an enrollment number; mine is 774, which means that 773 people were enrolled before me. Today, we have over a thousand members.
I quickly realized that my tribal ID card proved I was a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, but didn’t answer my questions about what it meant to be Wampanoag and if I was Wampanoag enough. Eager for any validation of my Native identity, I had never considered the ways that identity might be different from tribal membership. Tribal membership was available to me regardless of how much I knew about Wampanoag culture or how well I spoke the language. Tribal identity is up to me to figure out. Tribal membership, a political status with specific requirements, is not.
Some tribes have a Blood Quantum membership policy, which might be one eighth, or it might be a different percentage of “Indian” blood that is required to be a member of that tribe. That’s what the kids in school were talking about. My tribe uses a system of lineal descent to determine who is eligible for membership. According to my tribe’s membership office, “Any person who can document their direct lineal descent from a specifically identified Gay Head Wampanoag Indian on the 1870 Census Roll of the Tribe, submitted to the Commonwealth in 1871, shall be eligible for Membership.” Blood, in other words, doesn’t play a role, beyond being able to trace my lineage back to someone on that 1870 Roll, which was one of the first officially recorded lists of my tribe. Culture and residency—the other factors I thought were essential to Native identity and worried I didn’t have enough of as a kid—don’t count at all.
Such eligibility requirements perform the specific purpose of determining membership, which I have come to understand as citizenship. When I first got my tribal ID, I showed it off to my friends. Pointing to the already fading US government seal on the back, I would remind them that being a member of my tribe means being a citizen of a sovereign nation within the United States. This citizenship comes with the right to participate in tribal meetings, to benefit from shared privileges like health insurance, vaccinations and check-ups, and to vote.
Although my tribe’s membership policy is relatively straightforward, there is an ongoing debate over which members should be allowed to determine the tribe’s future. I have a cousin who believes that land and residency should be the most important factor in who holds tribal power. “Our ancestors spilled their blood on this ground for thousands of years,” he told me. “That’s what matters.” Maybe he’s right. Land and continued existence on it are important to all Native people I know. But, I asked him, isn’t valuing land above all else even more regressive than privileging language or culture? Why do we have to be tied to this land? I realize now that I was conflating membership and identity again. My Wampanoag identity might not be tied to the land, but my citizenship in our nation is.
At the heart of this debate is the bigger question of what it means to be Wampanoag. Tribes get to choose their own membership policies—a rare privilege affirmed by the federal government—and can make them as exclusive or inclusive as they want. Membership, in a way, is the ultimate expression of sovereignty. A good membership policy should be designed to build and sustain the tribe’s vision of itself. Of course, not everyone will have the same vision.
For the past thirty or so years, various people within my tribe have been trying to build a casino. Recently, the efforts have focused on building a small gaming facility in Aquinnah. Many—although not all—tribal members who live in Aquinnah are opposed to it. Some, like my cousin, believe that these off-Island members should have limited voting privileges on issues that will affect them less directly. On the other hand, many off-Island tribal members believe it is unfair that a minority of tribal members (those who live on-Island) could block something that might benefit all tribal members. I don’t want a casino, but I also don’t want to change the way we vote. The debate over which group should be allowed to control what happens in Aquinnah reminds me that membership is not some abstract issue, but a political status with real consequences.
From a distance, it’s easy to get caught up in questions of what my Wampanoag identity means. But the more I participate in tribal activities, the less I care about what the genetic makeup of the tribe is. I am more concerned with what a casino would mean for us or how the growing non-Wampanoag population in Aquinnah might change town politics. Tribal citizenship is only one element of my Wampanoag identity.