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  • Indigenous Identity:What Is It, and Who Really Has It?
  • Hilary N. Weaver (bio)

Indigenous identity is a truly complex and somewhat controversial topic. There is little agreement on precisely what constitutes an indigenous identity, how to measure it, and who truly has it. Indeed, there is not even a consensus on appropriate terms. Are we talking about Indians, American Indians, Natives, Native Americans, indigenous people, or First Nations people? Are we talking about Sioux or Lakota? Navajo or Dine? Chippewa, Ojibway, or Anishnabe? Once we get that sorted out, are we talking about race, ethnicity, cultural identity, tribal identity, acculturation, enculturation, bicultural identity, multicultural identity, or some other form of identity?

The topic of indigenous identity opens a Pandora's box of possibilities, and to try to address them all would mean doing justice to none. This article provides background information on three facets of identity—self-identification, community identification, and external identification—followed by a brief overview of measurement issues and my reflections on how internalized oppression/colonization is related to identity. The terms Native and indigenous are used interchangeably to refer to the descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. These are not, per se, the "right" terms or the only terms that could have been used. They reflect my preferences.

Cultural identity, as reflected in the values, beliefs, and worldviews of indigenous people, is the focus of the article. Those who belong to the same culture share a broadly similar conceptual map and way of interpreting language.1 People can identify themselves in many ways other than by their cultures.2 In fact, identity may actually be a composite of many things such as race, class, education, region, religion, and gender.3 The influence of these aspects of identity on who someone is as an indigenous person is likely to change over time. Identities are always fragmented, multiply constructed, and intersected in a constantly changing, sometimes conflicting array.4 Although in reality the various facets of identity are inextricably linked, for the purposes of this essay I will focus on culture as a facet of identity. [End Page 240]

While indigenous identity is a topic that I have done some research on, it is also a topic that I, as a Lakota woman, approach with subjectivity. Rather than solely a limitation, this subjectivity adds an important dimension to the work. Native people must begin to examine their own histories and issues rather than leaving these analyses to nonnatives.5 My work is influenced by the facts that my mother's parents left Rosebud decades ago after attending boarding school and I live in an urban setting largely made up of Haudenosaunee people. Additionally, my professional affiliation as a social worker leads me to focus on aspects of cultural identity that tend to have practical implications for helping service providers understand their indigenous clients. As well as drawing on the literature, I draw on my own experiences and bring my personal perspectives to the topic.

My father came from an Appalachian background. He was the one who remembered and told the stories. Thus, I begin with a story about cultural identity. I do not know the original source, but the story rings with an important truth and is a poignant commentary on contemporary indigenous identity. My appreciation goes out to the original storytellers, whoever they may be. A brief summary of the story is warranted here.

"The Big Game"

The day had come for the championship game in the all-Native basketball tournament. Many teams had played valiantly, but on the last day the competition came down to the highly competitive Lakota and Navajo teams. The tension was high as all waited to see which would be the best team.

Prior to the game, some of the Lakota players went to watch the Navajos practice. They were awed and somewhat intimidated by the Navajos' impressive display of skills. One Lakota who was particularly anxious and insecure pointed out to his teammates that some of the Navajo players had facial hair. "Everyone knows that Indians don't have facial hair," he stated. Another Lakota added that some of the Navajos also had suspiciously dark skin. They concluded...


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pp. 240-255
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