Tribal-State Policy 101: Tribal Citizenship

A strong, mutually respectful relationship between the State of Oklahoma and the 38 federally recognized Tribal Nations in the state is vital to the well-being of all who call Oklahoma home. OK Policy will be publishing a series of articles that explore some of the issues central to creating a better understanding of the complexities of Tribal-State relations and policy formation.

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In order to better understand Indian Country and diverse Native populations and public policy, you must first understand who is classified as an “American Indian”

While American Indians long predate the establishment of the United States, the federal government has only recognized American Indians as U.S. citizens since 1924. Public policy impacts American Indian citizens in unique, distinct ways. Understanding Tribal citizenship is foundational to better engaging and understanding Tribal-state public policy in Oklahoma.

Tribal Nations existed prior to colonial contact in 1492 and continue to be sovereign entities within the United States. Tribal sovereignty is recognized in treaties between all 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States and the federal government. This sovereignty – Tribes’ inherent ability to govern themselves – looks different from Tribal Nation to Tribal Nation, depending on each nation’s history, identity, and relationship with the land, state, and federal government.

Tribal citizenship is a legal concept.

Whether or not someone is understood to be a Tribal citizen is based on Tribal sovereignty, which recognizes each Tribe’s authority to determine their citizenship. Federally recognized Tribes (also called Tribes, Nations, Tribal towns, Bands, Pueblos, communities, and Native villages) in the United States are domestic, sovereign nations with their own legal citizenship requirements outlined in their respective tribal constitutions and laws. All 574 federally recognized Tribes (as well as state-recognized Tribes), have their own citizenship policies and processes.

However, the federal government has also attempted to dictate how tribes determine their enrollment. For instance, the federal government in the 1800s forced tribes to adopt “blood quantum” requirements to significantly restrict citizenship and guarantee Tribal enrollment would fall over time in an effort to essentially eradicate American Indians. In the allotment period from the late 1800s to 1900s, non-Indian settlers and the federal government used blood quantum to justify land claims and purchases by settlers, stealing American Indian wealth and land. Tribal citizenship – who is and isn’t considered American Indian – is one element of understanding Tribal policy, federal Indian law, and Tribal-state policy formation.

Tribal citizenship is diverse and specific to each tribal nation.

Many treaties between the federal government and Tribal nations define who is a tribal citizen and who is not. Today, the U.S. government cannot confer or strip Tribal citizenship as it can with U.S. citizenship. As the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) states, “All Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby.” This laid the foundation of how the federal government, rather than individual states, had treaty-making authority with Tribal Nations and their respective Tribal citizenship. It also determined who fell within the federal trust responsibility to Tribal Nations – that is, the ways the federal government promised to compensate people it recognized as Tribal citizens for the taking of their lands.

Historically, Tribes used their own ways of deciding citizenship. For instance, some Tribes trace citizenship matrilineally (through the mother), while some trace it patrilineally (through the father). Tribal citizenship determinations and the process to enroll are established by each Tribe. However, the way the federal government recognizes Tribal citizens, and therefore its responsibilities to them, is based on legal agreements between Tribes and the federal government, and it varies from treaty to treaty. Some Tribes adopted other requirements, such as a minimum blood quantum, into their own constitutions and other legal documents under pressure from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Tribal citizens have historical and ongoing challenges in identity and in justice.

Existing federal law recognizing tribal citizenship was historically established in an effort to wipe tribes out. Although federal policy towards American Indians is no longer explicitly genocidal, Tribal citizens have ongoing challenges in both identity and in seeking justice owing to the complicated history of Tribal citizenship/identity. The right of a Tribe to decide its citizenship is one of the inherent parts of their Tribal sovereignty. But given the politicized nature of Tribal citizenship, many non-Indian policymakers don’t understand that there are diverse political, cultural, social, and racial identities among Tribal citizens.

The integrity of the tribal process of defining citizenship is at the core of many debates about Native ancestry, DNA, and a perpetuation of the general public’s misunderstanding of Tribal citizenship. The 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (Public Law 93-638) shifted the anti-Indian policy landscape for Tribes to have greater autonomy and responsibility of their Nations. This shift further enabled Tribal control and administration in defining their Nations and inherent sovereignty, especially in regard to Tribal citizenship. But both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and historical documentation – for instance, the 1898-1914 Dawes Rolls, from which enrolled citizens of Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw Nations must be able to trace their lineage – continue to have a role in Tribal citizenship, as heritage is now preserved in historical documentation. This also means that connection to tribal lineage can also be broken when documentation is non-existent or when documentation has been lost or through an ancestor’s decision to not become part of the Dawes Rolls or other required documentation of being “Indian” is lost, among other things.

American Indian identity is inherently political because it is defined by the historical relationships between governments. Identity politics can negatively impact Tribal citizenship given the complex history of how and who Tribal nations recognize as their citizens. Common misconceptions include that Tribal citizenship is determined by an individual’s appearance and skin color, participation in cultural ceremonies and practices, and involvement with one’s Tribe. The U.S. federal government still decides which Tribal Nations are recognized – hence the emphasis in federally recognized tribes – and the Bureau of Indian Affairs still issues Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. American Indians are the only group of people that the U.S. government demands a certificate of degree of Indian blood or rather documented computed lineal ancestry to legally acknowledge their identity.

Oklahoma is strengthened when everyone has a voice, this starts by honoring American Indian identities.

Note: Not all AI/AN people are citizens of Tribal Nations.

Identifying American Indians with racial terms rather than their political status disempowers American Indians of their rights and sovereignty. State policies should honor the political status of American Indians and Tribal Nations. Past anti-Indian policies continue to impact American Indians’ livelihoods. It’s important that the state recognizes the opportunity to undo economic and systemic injustice in historical exclusion and dismantling of Tribal citizenship. The history of American Indian identity and federal Indian law continues to influence contemporary Tribal-state relations and policy formation. Although it was not always the case, today, American Indians are citizens of their respective Tribes, the state they reside in, and the United States. There are many opportunities for Oklahoma’s elected officials and policy makers to become better informed on what Tribal citizenship entails. Doing so can help create smart Tribal-state policy, further coordinate criminal and civil jurisdictions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, and improve child welfare outcomes (to name a few). Through a deeper understanding of Tribal citizenship, Tribal and state policymakers, along with advocates, can better serve American Indian children, families, and communities who make up a large part of our state’s population.


Vivian Morris joined OK Policy in August 2021 as a Tribal Policy Fellow through the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities State Policy Fellowship Program. She was named the Tribal-State Policy Analyst in August 2023. Vivian is Alabama (federally recognized as Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town) Mvskoke-Seminole, and Diné (Navajo). Vivian grew up in rural Oklahoma, on both the Mvskoke (Creek) and Seminole Nation reservations. She completed her Master of Public Administration degree with a Public Policy concentration from the University of Oklahoma in May 2022 and holds dual bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Studies and Women and Gender Studies, with a minor in Native American Studies from the University of Oklahoma. Previously, Vivian served the Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town Election Committee where she oversaw the tribe’s election process and policy development and worked as a Tribal Government Relations Health Promotion Coordinator at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (SoonerCare). Vivian was a member of the 2022 AICCO Leadership Native Oklahoma class, recipient of the 2022 OU-WGS Alice Mary Robertson award, and Metriarch’s 2023 Breakthrough Maven award. Vivian is passionate about racial and economic equity and access to justice for all Oklahomans. In her free time you will likely hear her elongating her As and Es.