Exploring the Complexities of Native American Identity


While wanting to explore family ties isn’t wrong, Tsosie cautions that DNA tests can mislead people. She also points out that blood quantum is a flawed method for tracing descent, imposing an artificial, physiological construction of tribal membership on American Indians.

The strongest predictors of strong American Indian ethnic identity were involvement in native spirituality and traditional cultural practices. These reflected ways that youth were actively involved in connecting to their heritage.

Cultural Traditions

In the past, American Indians adapted their beliefs and traditions to conform to colonizers’ demands for assimilation. They changed their appearance, attended Western schools, and abandoned traditional hunting practices. Many tribal communities are scattered across the country but working together to reclaim their culture and history.

In addition to being a source of pride, these cultural elements are essential for maintaining Native health and wellness. These include respect for elders, coexistence with nature, spirituality, tradition, community, kinship, and a solid tribal social hierarchy. Outsiders often trivialize these aspects of identity, but they are a powerful force for Native communities and their families.

These elements are the foundation for community-driven prevention efforts. They help the community understand how they can address life’s challenges with resiliency. They also provide the basis for a robust framework for teaching children about prevention and healthy behaviors.

To ensure that prevention messages are grounded in culture, our urban Native focus groups probed deep within their cultural identities to identify the core elements common among their varied tribal backgrounds. Through extensive data analysis, ten specific artistic details emerged: Ancestry, including matriarchal and patriarchal affiliation; Clans or Bands and the notion of kinship; Spirituality; Storytelling; Home, synonymous with the reservation; Traditional Language; Ritual; and Sacred History. Each of these elements has its unique story to share and contributes to the richness of tribal identity.

Ancestral Roots

Many Native American people, with their Native American ancestry physical traits, long to connect with their ancestral roots. They want to know about their ancestors, family history, or tribal heritage. This longing for a connection to their past is an integral part of the identity formation process.

However, genetic ancestry tests challenge those attempting to connect with their ancestral roots and claim a Native American identity. For example, traditional methods for determining tribal membership relied on blood quantum requirements – a legacy of the internalized colonial concept of race – and genealogical evidence proving an individual’s lineage through an enrolled tribe member.

Ancestry DNA testing can reveal some ancestry information, but the tests could be more accurate. Because they test only a sample from each person’s mitochondrial (mtDNA) or paternal chromosome, they can only provide information about one’s maternal or paternal ancestry. Similarly, Y-chromosome DNA tests can identify the specific haplogroups that correspond with particular populations worldwide but cannot confirm a person’s ancestry from any exact location.

These limitations are significant because, in the case of a Native American, a genetic ancestry test may not be enough to satisfy the criteria for tribal membership. Furthermore, the genetic data reveal only a tiny percentage of a person’s ancestry, making it difficult to distinguish between different origins within the Americas.

Identity Attachment

A sense of connection to a tribe and cultural traditions is vital for many Native Americans. However, for some, this is challenging to maintain, especially for those living off of reservations and without full tribal membership.

This study sought to understand how tribal recognition and belonging influence identity attachment. In addition, we wanted to see how these factors are influenced by parental and peer attachment. To explore these relationships, we used the IPPA and EPSI scales to measure extension. We also examined indirect effects through slopes of identification synthesis and confusion. Overall, partial scalar measurement invariance was achieved through Time 1 to 3.

For many Indigenous peoples, being part of a community provides a sense of identity and belonging that helps overcome the effects of historical trauma. This trauma has been caused by various circumstances, from the introduction of Western diseases to the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence of boarding schools. Many of these experiences have contributed to high levels of addiction and abuse in contemporary Native communities.

There are over 650 Federally Recognized American Indian tribes, some of which share similar cultural traditions, while others remain distinct. Many of these tribes are still struggling to recover from the massive loss of cultural items, land, and practices, often due to the actions of the United States government. Many of these tribes are now reviving languages, bringing back ceremonies, and pursuing repatriation claims through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Identity Exploration

Although a substantial minority of the youth in this sample reported nonnative heritage on their ethnic self-identification questionnaire, the majority exhibited strong alignment with all three components of Markstrom’s indigenous identity model. The strength of their American Indian identity was exceptionally high on the cultural/spiritual dimension. Most reported regularly practicing American Indian cultural traditions and hearing their tribal language at home.

In addition, a significant proportion attended powwows regularly, and some were beginning to master the traditional ceremonial dances. These activities were the most commonly mentioned sources of their American Indian identity in the open-ended identification questions. The other prominent descriptors were their ancestry and membership in a tribe.

These findings suggest that urban American Indian youth appear relatively moored to their cultural heritage. Despite the acculturation pressures of urban life, they have retained their indigenous identities as an essential part of their worldview.

In a series of multivariate analyses, the predictors identified by the qualitative study were significant in explaining overall American Indian ethnic identity. The standardized effects remained sizeable in models where these predictors were entered separately or together and when the outcome variable was recoded from American Indian identity to a combination of the two subscales on Phinney’s ethnic identity measure.