Race, Descent, and Tribal Citizenship
California Law Review Circuit
Volume 4 (April 2013)
Bethany R. Berger, Thomas F. Gallivan, Jr. Professor of Real Property Law
University of Connecticut
What is the relationship between descent-based tribal citizenship requirements and race or racism? This essay argues that tribal citizenship laws that require Indian or tribal descent are generally neither the product nor the source of racism in federal Indian law and policy. And while descent does affect multiple areas of federal Indian law and policy, citizenship requirements do not drive many of them. Descent as used in tribal citizenship criteria, moreover, only has a tenuous connection to race as it is commonly understood. More importantly, recognizing governmental authority in tribes that use descent-based citizenship criteria does not violate either federal law or federal norms.
This is a big topic, one this essay cannot fully explore. In part this is because questions of race and descent do not just influence tribal citizenship criteria, but also many areas of federal Indian law and policy. To illustrate this point, I begin this essay in a somewhat counterintuitive place, with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Three out of five Native women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. One third of all Native women will be raped, more than twice the national average. Sixty-three percent of these assaults and sixty-seven percent of these rapes are at the hands of non-Native perpetrators. This is a reversal of the pattern for most other races, where the race of the survivor and perpetrator is typically the same.
But in 1978, the Supreme Court decreed that tribes had no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians committing crimes in their territory. Later decisions deprived tribes of much civil jurisdiction as well. The results were that tribes could not impose criminal penalties on non-Indian abusers, and some tribal governments would not even enter civil orders because of the uncertainty of tribal civil jurisdiction; when civil orders were entered, some state and federal courts refused to enforce them. Amnesty International found that the lack of jurisdiction over non-Indians helped create a culture of impunity for perpetrators of violence against women in Indian country.
When the authors of the bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act proposed affirming tribal criminal and civil jurisdiction over anyone, Indian or non-Indian, who commits domestic violence against an Indian in Indian country, both women’s advocates and tribes celebrated. A group of congressional Republicans, however, argued that it was unconstitutional for tribes to exercise jurisdiction over “any American”—i.e., non-Indian Americans. Their objections were made in the name of racial equality. Senator Jon Kyl, for example, declared that “by subjecting individuals to the criminal jurisdiction of a government from which they are excluded on account of race,” the bill violated the Due Process and the Equal Protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
At the same time, a situation in which only tribes cannot exercise local jurisdiction over all domestic violence problems in their territory, and only Indian women abused by non-Indians are excluded by this lack of jurisdiction, also appears to be one of racial disparity. Responding to congressional opponents of the bill, Representative Darrell Issa of California called the “current law a clear discrimination between two residents of the reservation simply based on race.”
Objections to tribal courts trying non-Indian men for beating Indian women led to a nine-month delay in reauthorizing VAWA. Efforts to strip the provision from the bill, along with provisions seeking to ensure protection for LGBT and immigrant victims, failed in the Senate but succeeded in the House last May. After more coalition building, advocacy, removal of additional visas for undocumented immigrants, and the November 2012 elections, the bill passed the Senate by 78-to-22 on February 12, 2013. Finally, on February 28, the bill passed the House, with 87 Republicans joining all but one Democrat to vote in favor.
This story reveals some of the multiple and contested roles that race, descent, and tribal citizenship play in Indian country. As examined in recent important work by Sarah Krakoff and Addie Rolnick, Indian status is with race, because modern Indian status is forged by the often racist efforts to deal with and contain the political sovereignty of indigenous peoples. The continued reliance by tribes on descent to define their political boundaries, however, is not the source of this racialization. While specific citizenship choices may be motivated by ignoble goals, the reliance on descent in general comes from efforts to maintain political continuity and cohesion in the face of persistent and racist efforts to destroy tribes. Neither federal constitutional law nor international norms prevent descent-based citizenship criteria or recognition of territorial sovereignty in tribes that employ them.
This essay proceeds in three parts. First, it highlights the common misunderstandings associated with the relationship between race, descent, and Indian status. Second, it outlines the many contrasting relationships between race, descent, membership, and Indian law, showing that tribal citizenship criteria frequently do not drive these relationships, and are not the source of racism against Indians or tribes. Finally, this essay addresses and rejects challenges that federal Indian law and tribal citizenship criteria are racist, illegal, or immoral because of the role of descent…
Read the entire article here.