Trying to define “indigeneity” or “Indian” is a difficult task, in part because of the diversity of tribal cultures and identities. In the contemporary period, there are also new competing racial, cultural, and political identities that many Indian people are exposed to and sometimes adopt. In the final analysis, people and tribal groups make their own choices about tribal identity or membership.
The reason there are indigenous people is because there are millions of people around the contemporary world who continue to live in indigenous cultures and nations. Despite over 500 years of colonial relations, indigenous people persist and will continue indefinitely. A key element for understanding indigenous cultural continuity is the holistic and independent worldviews that inform indigenous ways of life. The holistic interdependencies of community, plants, animals, cosmic beings, and the view that all beings are interdependent and need to show respect for each other, differs profoundly with the cultures and governments of the nation states.
Indigenous Peoples continue to contest with nations states over land, identity, forms of government, ways of life, and other issues. Indigenous Peoples are those who continue to adhere to the holistic cultures of tribal nations for identity and political participation. The continuity of indigenous nations will depend on whether their members or citizens uphold commitments to live within and support tribal nations.
There are many people who are of indigenous lineage, either wholly or partially. In Canada such people are called Métis, or in Mexico, Mestizo. Most Mestizos, and many other Latin and South American nations, are culturally and politically hostile to Indigenous Peoples, nations, and cultures. In the United States there are pan-Indian organizations and identities, but they are often composed of tribal members and are favorable to tribal issues.
Ethnic Indians are those persons who have an Indian identity and lineage, but are not members of a tribal community. There are hundreds of non-federally recognized Indian nations, but their members tend to retain strong commitments tribal identity and life. Ethnic Indians are those who have not retained a commitment to tribal relations or tribal membership, although they may know their tribal nation, they have not taken membership or do not qualify for membership. Ethnic Indians have an identity like Americans, who have multiple ancestral lineages such as English, Dutch, American Indian, or other nations, but do not participate in those cultures, and are contemporary Americans in terms of identity while recognizing their numerous historical heritages.
Ethnic Indians are in many ways more familiar than tribal Indians with American culture, and are better positioned to qualify for college scholarships, and gain employment as Indians in racial terms to fulfilling U.S. affirmative action goals. Race-based rules do not require Indians to have cultural or political commitments to tribal communities. The ethnic Indian population is increasing and, according to recent Census reports are more numerous than tribal members. Will U.S. ethnic Indians support tribal interests, or will they decide to assume and strive to exert their own ethnic status rights within U.S. society?
An advantage for ethnic Indians is that they are in a position to take advantage of civil rights and human rights accorded to all U.S. citizens. The ethnic Indian position of economic and political assimilation is much more congenial to nation state political goals than the difficult, culturally contested, and long struggle to preserve indigenous rights to land, self-government and cultural autonomy. If ethnic Indians support indigenous rights then they will be allies to tribal communities. However, if ethnic Indians believe they are or will be the majority, and therefore better positioned to assume the center of indigenous struggle as an ethnic rights struggle, then ethnic Indians will have assumed an oppressive role against tribal nations and indigenous rights.