RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week, we're bringing you new stories about Native Americans as part of collaboration with the PBS series "We shall Remain." And one of the biggest questions now facing native communities is pretty fundamental: Who is an Indian? Brian Bull of Wisconsin Public Radio is himself a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, and he set out to explore that question.
BRIAN BULL: So to examine this issue of who is an Indian, I went to a ranch house in Wisconsin Rapids about 100 miles from Madison. There, I met with five generations of a Native American family gathered under one roof. Eighty-nine-year old Florence Camacho is a Potawatomi elder.
She's helping her grandson Dontae make a traditional piece of neckwear. They've scattered red, yellow and brass beads all over the kitchen table.
DONTAE: After you're done beading it, you have to tie knots right there. Then my grandma's going to have to leather it right there.
Ms. FLORENCE CAMACHO (Potawatomi elder): You made already out of plastic, and these are bones.
BULL: Nearby, Florence's other grandchild, Mareenah Poulin, cradles her son, Leeam. He is just two weeks old.
Ms. MAREENAH POULIN: Hey, there, boy. Oh, there's a smile. Or gas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BULL: Leeam's soft brown eyes open for a moment, then he's back to sleep as Mareenah's mom, Amber Malone, looks on. She wants Leeam to learn all about her tribe, the Prairie Band of Potawatomi. Only technically, he's not actually a member. Most tribes, including the Potawatomi, require at least one-quarter tribal blood to become official, complete with enrollment card and number. Malone says she's worried how enrolled members will treat her grandson as he grows up.
Ms. AMBER MALONE: I know of people that have asked for proof. If you don't have proof, then you're not an Indian. And in the native culture, some people treat them as substandard individuals, as wannabes.
BULL: Malone says there's talk among the Potawatomi of lowering the requirement to one-eighth. That - in a stroke of a pen - could double the tribe's membership. And there's a lot at stake here. Enrolled members enjoy tribal benefits, including health care and education, and there are science and art programs, too. Malone would love that for her own family.
Ms. MALONE: Anything that's going to better enrich their lives, whereas you have children that are non-tribally enrolled, you're kind of stonewalled as far as trying to get them the help and the tools to help better culture their minds.
BULL: In recent years, some tribes have gone the other way. They've actually reduced membership. While leaders say it's a matter of legitimacy, critics say it's all about money - namely per capita payments based on casino revenues.
Ms. MALONE: And to be quite honest with you, I think with a lot of tribes, I think it comes down to the money issue. They lower the blood quantum, there's a lot more people that are going to be able to come onto the rolls, and that per capita is going to be cut right in half.
(Soundbite of television baseball broadcast)
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) his way, three and one.
BULL: Across the room, Malone's dad, Fred Camacho, is watching a ballgame on TV. He says many tribes are considering lowering their blood quantum. He says it's inevitable.
Mr. FRED CAMACHO: Understanding that if you maintain a quarter-blood quantum, at some point, the tribe will disappear - unless, and I have seen the argument, that you marry another one of your tribe.
BULL: That issue, marriage, is a contentious one among Native Americans. In Madison, Melissa Lompre tells a story. She was looking for a new church and recalls enjoying the services at a local Native American church, until…
Ms. MELISSA LOMPRE: A man got up and he made a comment. Our Native American brothers and sisters, here, they're not married to or with other Native American people. I was going to stand up and say, well, I'm here as a Native American person praying with all of you. What does it matter who I'm living with, who I'm married to? And I didn't go back to that service anymore.
BULL: Lompre's part Menomonie, Ojibwe and Delaware, but two of her kids are half Puerto Rican, from their father's side.
Ms. LOMPRE: They're less than 25 percent Menomonie.
BULL: The struggle for identity among Native Americans isn't just about outsiders. Lompre says other natives have looked down on her for not growing up on the reservation.
Ms. LOMPRE: I wish there was a magical mutt nation that you could put people in that could have that identity given to them, but there's not.
BULL: Even if someone is enrolled and lives on a reservation, that's still no guarantee they'll be considered Indian, as Denise Hobson-Ryan knows. She's half Navajo, half Irish.
Ms. DENISE HOBSON-RYAN: All right, this will be a real one.
BULL: In a dry, scrubby park in Phoenix, Arizona, Ryan swings, then hurls a round metal weight across the field. It's all practice for an upcoming Highland Games tournament. As her dad measures the distance, Ryan recalls how other kids on the reservation where she grew up teased her for her lighter complexion.
Ms. HOBSON-RYAN: Well, they would say "billagona billasaana," because it rhymed really nice, and billagona means white person and billasaana means apple. So it was, "billagona billasaana." I heard that all my life growing up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HOBSON-RYAN: But I lived with my Indian grandma for a while when I was little, and she would tell me some things in Navajo to say back to them. So I would say some pretty mean things back. Probably not something you can say on the radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BULL: Ryan later went to Dartmouth College. She says the upper-class Indian students routinely questioned her identity.
Ms. HOBSON-RYAN: I mean, I'd never been to a powwow. I had really nothing to add to the conversation. I think that was sort of where they drew their traditional ideas was, well, you don't do powwows, then you're not an Indian.
(Soundbite of music)
BULL: In central Wisconsin recently, the Brothertown Indians held a powwow of sorts. The only problem: According to the federal government, they're not technically Indians. Dressed in their finest beaded and feathered regalia, attendees look and sound like other natives. But the Brothertown aren't federally recognized, which limits them in many ways, like their land.
Mr. DARREN KROENKE: The parcel of land that we're standing on here is about a three-quarter acre piece of land that was purchased by the tribe a number of years back, in the process of the federal acknowledgment effort.
BULL: The Brothertown are among 300 some Indian tribes seeking federal recognition. Tribal member Darren Kroenke walks me through the snow and freezing rain across tribal property. It takes us less than a minute to walk across it. A storage garage is the only building. Kroenke says tribal members are anxious for a place at the table with Wisconsin's 11 federally recognized tribes.
Mr. KROENKE: The issue that I raise is that federal acknowledgment is used as a qualifier, but it shouldn't have anything to do with that. It shouldn't prejudice or substantiate history or culture.
BULL: Kroenke says it's just a fact that the Brothertown Tribe has a long history in Wisconsin. But after decades, they're still waiting for the government to make them official.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull.