No single federal or tribal criterion establishes a person's identity as an Indian. Tribal membership is determined by the enrollment criteria of the tribe from which Indian blood may be derived, and this varies with each tribe. Generally, if linkage to an identified tribal member is far removed, one would not qualify for membership.
To be eligible for Bureau of Indian Affairs services, an Indian must be a member of a tribe recognized by the federal government, be of one-half or more Indian blood of tribes indigenous to the United States; or must, for some purposes, be of one-fourth or more Indian ancestry. By legislative and administrative decision, the Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians of Alaska are eligible for BIA services. Most of the BIA's services and programs, however, are limited to Indians living on or near Indian reservations.
The Bureau of the Census counts anyone an Indian who declares himself or herself to be an Indian. In 1990 the Census figures showed there were 1,959,234 American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the United States (1,878,285 American Indians, 57,152 Eskimos, and 23,797 Aleuts). This is a 37.9 percent increase over the 1980 recorded total of 1,420,000. The increase is attributed to improved census taking and more self- identification during the 1990 count.
Why are Indians sometimes referred to as Native Americans?
The term, Native American, came into usage in the 1960s to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Natives (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some federal programs. It, therefore, came into disfavor among some Indian groups. The preferred term is American Indian. The Eskimos and Aleuts in Alaska are two culturally distinct groups and are sensitive about being included under the “Indian” designation. They prefer Alaska Native.
How does one trace Indian ancestry and become a member of a tribe?
The first step in tracing Indian ancestry is basic genealogical research if one does not already have specific family information and documents that identify tribal ties. Some information to obtain is: names of ancestors; dates of birth; marriages and death; places where they lived; brothers and sisters, if any; and, most importantly, tribal affiliations. Among family documents to check are Bibles, wills, and other such papers. The next step is to determine whether one's ancestors are on an official tribal roll or census by contacting the tribe.