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For the first 400 years after Christopher Columbus's voyages across the Atlantic, it was easy for anyone in North America to see differences between American Indians and non-Indians. Indians were socio-culturally and genotypically distinct from non-Indians. "They" were there, often on the other side of a frontier boundary line, and "we" were here. And, of course, American Indians have always been there, and here, first. Today, most popular notions of American Indians and "Indianness" remain locked in the past and stereotyped. "American Indians appear to be the most traditional, the most invariant, the most unconstructed of American ethnic groups" (Nagel, 1996, p. 32) They seem frozen in time in enduring treaty-based relationships to the federal government, as perpetual citizens of "domestic dependent nations", and as permanent wards of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other agencies of the federal government (see Cohen, 1982; Kappler, 1904-1941; Pevar, 1992; Prucha, 1990; Wilkinson, 1979). In television (e.g., the CBS television series 500 Nations based on Josephy, 1994), the movies (Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves) and elsewhere in the media, Indianness seems permanently associated with the American Indian of the old American frontier.
Sometimes researchers in Indian Studies, particularly from the broader fields of sociology and anthropology, will provide definitions of Indianness that are dynamic or changing rather than static and fixed in time. Indianness is defined as a natural and ongoing process of Indian adaptation and adjustment to the dominant society (see Barth, 1969; Castile, 1981; Harris, 1964; Nagel, 1996), an "oppositional process" in which Indianness is a means by which native peoples maintain boundaries between themselves and "the controllers of the surrounding state apparatus" (Spicer, 1971, cited in Castile, 1981), or Indianness may refer to a process of "ethnogenesis" or the renewal of Indian identities, social organizations or cultures (see Conzen, Gerber, Morawska, Pozzetta, & Vecoli, 1992; Nagel, 1996; Walker, 1972; Yancey, Ericksen, & Juliani, 1976).
Far more than with any other American racial or ethnic minority, American Indian identity, or Indianness, is often expressed as a measurable or quantifiable entity. Documenting a minimum tribal blood quantum (one-fourth) is a requirement for official federal recognition as an American Indian, and documenting some evidence of an Indian heritage is a requirement for membership in most American Indian Tribes (Cohen, 1982; Hagan, 1985). When the practice of defining Indianness in terms of a blood quantum is combined with the statistical observation that Indians constitute less than one percent of the total U.S. population and interracially marry at a higher rate (75%) than whites (5%), blacks (8%) or any other racial or ethnic category (Otten, 1994), Indians appear to be on a course toward irreversible absorption into the larger American society (Thorton, 1987).
There is also a mysterious or other worldly dimension to Indianness that conveys a sense of "peoplehood" inseparably linked to sacred traditions, place (homeland or holyland), and a shared history as aboriginal peoples (Holm, 1996). Indianness becomes something that cannot be captured in the restrictive terminology or limited methodologies available to academic research in the social sciences (Deloria, 1991). From this perspective, Indians are recognized as "ancient keepers of wisdom" and "our sole remaining gateway to the aboriginal knowledge of the land" (Dowdeswell, 1993, p. 1).
Sometimes Indianness amounts to little more than a personal opinion about one's own identity that might be declared when filling out a census form (Nagel, 1996, pp. 83-112), a college application (Chavers, 1996), or writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper (McLeod, 1996; White Eagle, 1996). And, of course, Indianness is constantly defined and redefined by the opinions of local, federal, state or tribal officials, by lawyers, and by journalists, scholars and other writers. Sometimes a combination of opinions may arbitrarily establish Indian identity. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) currently assigns the mother's race to a child born to a white and a Native American parent. When people give mixed-race responses for themselves or their children, current practice is to code only the first race mentioned ("Interracial children.....", 1993).
Confusion about the identity of native or indigenous peoples is a world-wide occurrence (Gilbert, 1992). Perhaps Indianness is not so much a thing as it is a composite of many things including race, class, education, region, and …