Given the current issues that have arisen from the DNA test by Senator Elizabeth Warren, we are providing some essential definitions that might help clarify the confusion that her claims have caused. These definitions are not legal definitions, but rather are provided to help sort out some misunderstandings that exist surrounding Native American heritage and claims of Native ancestry.
Federally Recognized Tribe
A federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Federally recognized tribes are recognized as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty) and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States. At present, there are 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.
Here is a button link to a list of Federally Recognized Indian Tribes.
State Recognized Tribe
State-recognized tribes are Native American Indian tribes, Nations, and Heritage Groups that have been recognized by a process established under assorted state laws for varying purposes. State recognition does not confer benefits under federal law unless federal law authorizes such benefits. A state recognized tribe may have a well-defined historical and contemporary existence, but due to a variety of circumstances might have been excluded from federal recognition, or (as in the case of the Lumbee) might have been denied federal recognition by an act of congress.
Below is a button link to a listing of State Recognized tribes.
Unrecognized tribes are organizations of people who claim to be historically, culturally or genetically related to historic Native American Indian tribes, but who are not officially recognized as indigenous nations by the United States government or by individual state governments. While some unrecognized tribes might be legitimate and are fighting for re-recognition of their claims that were denied due to colonialist effects like termination or other historical events, many unrecognized tribes have no valid claim and are considered to be fake by federally and state recognized tribes as they might claim to be associated with these, but lack the documentation of an actual connection.
Enrolled tribal Member
Simply, this means a person who is enrolled on the membership list of a federally recognized American Indian tribe. Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances. The criterion varies from tribe to tribe, so uniform membership requirements do not exist. A variety of federal and tribal benefits set aside for tribes and tribal members are available to enrolled members.
Two common requirements for membership are lineal decent from someone named on the tribe's base roll, or a relationship to a tribal member who descended from someone named on the base roll. Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe are other common factors that might be required.
Tribal Lineal Descendant
The term "lineal descendant" means an individual who can trace, directly and without interruption, the ancestry of the individual through the traditional kinship systems of an Indian tribe, or through the common law system of descent, to a known Indian who is an enrolled member. Such an individual may be, or may not be, an enrolled tribal member themselves. Nonetheless, certain federal and tribal benefits may be made available to lineal descendants based on their association to their tribe or to an enrolled tribal member.
Lineal descent is a standard that requires that the earlier person be identified as an individual whose descendants can be traced. Lineal descent of a present-day individual from an earlier individual and cultural affiliation to a present-day Indian tribe must be established by a preponderance of evidence and verified by the tribe in question.
Person of Native Ancestry
Because of intermarriage between Europeans and Natives throughout the past centuries, many people might have some measure of Native ancestry in their family tree.
During genealogical research or by using ancestral DNA testing, a person may find that one (or more) of their ancestors were Native. This connection may have existed many generations ago and is an interesting personal fact. However, having Native ancestry derived from several generations in the past might not qualify a person to become a member of a tribe that is recognized by the federal government, and it doesn’t mean that they are legally a descendant of such a tribe (i.e. lineal descendant).
In such a case where a person does have Native ancestry, but lacks a recent historical or current connection with a tribe, it is often frowned upon for a person to claim to be associated (or representative of) that tribe. Upwards of five million Americans might possess some measure of Native ancestry many generations ago, and it can harm tribes, tribal members and lineal descendants when someone with no actual connection to the tribal community claims to have a connection.
Some people who are of Native ancestry, but who do not qualify as tribal members or lineal descendants may see term Metis – commonly used in Canada – that is often used to designate persons who have both European and Native blood and want to use that term to designate or identify themselves. In most cases this is an incorrect thing to do, since the Metis are an actual recognized, sovereign indigenous group with their own membership and kinship systems governed under the Metis Nation and its provincial affiliates in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.
The Metis Nation uses a membership definition that includes such factors as historical Proof (e.g. evidence of ancestral land grant or “scrip” granted under the Manitoba Act or the Dominion Lands Act, census records, or other documents), having ancestors who resided in the Metis homeland of western Canada and the northern US, and holding distinction from other Aboriginal peoples as a Metis.
Below is a button link to the Metis National Council citizenship definition.