Who Is an Indian? Searching for an Answer to the Question at the Core of Federal Indian Law

The definition of Indian is the measure of eligibility for a variety of benefits and programs provided to Indians under federal law. There is confusion, however, at the core of efforts to define “Indian.” This confusion raises many concerns about the role that government plays in defining “Indian.” This Note surveys the most common definitions of “Indian” found in federal statutes, BIA regulations, and state laws. The author argues that the racial basis of many of these laws and regulations are unconstitutional and tread on the sovereignty of Indian tribes. She evaluates efforts of the federal government to avoid these problematic definitions. Finally, she proposes the adoption of a uniform federal definition of “Indian” based on the definition of “Indian” found in the Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. Such a definition would defer to tribal sovereignty and address the financial and administrative concerns of the federal government while remaining within constitutional guidelines.