Angela Gonzales

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar


The (Re)Articulation of American Indian Identity: Maintaining Boundaries and Regulating Access to Ethnically-tied Resources

Who and what is American Indian? Since 1960, when the United States Bureau of Census began asking people to identify themselves by race or ethnic group, the American Indian population has nearly tripled. More and more people are choosing to self-identify as American Indians—a practice called "ethnic switching." At the same time, there are increasing efforts within the American Indian population to regulate identity and access to resources. Unlike other ethnic groups, who are eager to expand their definition and increase their official numbers, many American Indians seek actively to regulate ethnic group boundaries.

Before European contact, it was easy to answer the question "Who is Indian?" because nobody was. "Indian" is a European-derived word and concept. Prior to contact the indigenous inhabitants of North America were simply members of their own sociopolitical and cultural groups—what later came to be labeled "tribes." Europeans used their own values and ideas, conceptual categories, and explanatory frameworks to define American Indians, and their definitions eventually became codified in United States federal laws. Whether classifying people collectively as "Indian tribes" or individually according to "blood quantum," the federal government, through its judicial system, has defined American Indians in unique and contradictory ways.

It should come as little surprise, states Angela Gonzales, that the self-definition of American Indians has been shaped in part by the complexity of federal law. A tribally enrolled Hopi, Gonzales experiences these complications in many personal ways. "My Hopi card," she says, "states that the tribe has the right to revoke my membership at any time."

In her doctoral dissertation, "American Indian Identity Matters: The Political Economy of Ethnic Boundaries," Gonzales examines American Indian identity within three different contexts—college admissions and financial aid policies, the marketing and sale of American Indian art, and tribal enrollment policies—to focus on contemporary American Indian identity and the social, political, and economic aspects of ethnic group boundaries.

Gonzales asserts that race-based public policies and programs that give preferential consideration to designated minority groups have raised problematic questions of entitlement and access. "In my work, I'm looking at ethnically tied resources. But in a larger sense, I want to create a space where we can talk openly about ethnic fraud, about self-identify, about being identified and stereotyped by others. I'm interested in the difference between identity and identification."

Her residency at SAR offered Gonzales an unanticipated benefit: access to the New Mexico tribes. "I was able to use them for case studies in the dissertation," she says.

"SAR's offer of unencumbered time was invaluable. The support was amazing—from a computer technician on call to social events with other scholars. But most importantly," Gonzalez notes with a smile, "they knew when to leave us alone."

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Sociology, Harvard

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