The Institute frequently receives requests for assistance in identifying a person’s tribal affiliation. We have listed the following excerpts from responses we have issued to various inquiries.
Most Texans who identify as indigenous are detribalized and will never know their true tribal origin. Some few individuals have been able to research sufficient knowledge to discover a distant ancestor who is documented in some way as an indigenous person – this is rare. So we are all faced with the reality of a legacy stolen from us and a need to claim our indigeneity for the purpose of knowing where we came from, to know who we are and where we are going.
What many detribalized people are doing is exactly what you have done. You have traced your ancestors to a place on Mother Earth and looked at the presence of indigenous people at that site. Indeed the ancestors of most people whose families have lived for countless generations in Texas and northern Mexico – are Coahuiltecan people. Coahuiltecan bands have lived in this area for over 13,000 years according to archeological studies (we believe longer, of course). Since you have traced your families to this area, it is appropriate for you to claim a relationship to the Coahuiltecan people, and possibly identify a few bands that might be your tribal ancestors.
Please realize that claiming indigeneity is not enough. There are people who look white and claim to be Native American because they have a card that says they are 1/32 indigenous. These people live in a white world of privilege and never understand the hardship and trauma that our ancestors endured at the hands of the invading Europeans, nor do they have an understanding of the indigenous way of seeing and knowing the world. If you choose to identify as indigenous, the demand on you is not “to know your tribe” but rather to serve your community of indigenous relations. This is a much bigger challenge because you have to find an indigenous community, through your existing family or local people who also identify as indigenous, and seek elders and teachers to guide you. You will hear the term “decolonize” yourself – shed yourself of the Western way of doing and seeing – every man for himself, dog eat dog, best man wins – and embrace the indigenous way of community first and service to your people and your Mother Earth. And hopefully, involve yourself in authentic ceremony so that you can connect more fully (spiritually) to this responsibility.
Our colonial history in Texas was such that our indigenous identity was stolen and we were forced to take on our slave masters’ Spanish names, learn Spanish and forget our language, take on Christianity and leave behind our spiritual belief systems, give up our lands so that when the U.S. took over we had nothing to trade for federal recognition as U.S. indigenous tribes/nations, and eventually become detribalized individuals mislabeled “Hispanic.” However, most of us retained our culture, that is commonly referred to as “Mexican” and in actuality is indigenous. We still speak an indigenous language (Nahuatl) within our Texas Spanish (sacate vs. lodo, cuate vs. gemelo, aguacate, zapatos, etc.). We eat indigenous foods such as corn, squash, beans, tortillas, tamales, etc. Our family structures are expansive and reflect the tribal communities of our ancestors. Our gatherings are ceremonial. Many of us continue to practice ancient ceremonies such as the Peyote way, danza, sweats. So here in Texas many of us who are identified as Hispanic are reclaiming our indigenous identity, working to decolonize ourselves, forming communities, and embracing indigenous ways and values. We identify as indigenous and work every day to be worthy of this designation.
We do not consider this action appropriation because the ancestors that we pray to, call on for our daily work to be indigenous, are actually indigenous people from our families that go back hundreds, thousands of years on this land we now call America. For us, appropriation is the people whose ancestors are from a different part of Mother Earth, with different customs and ceremonies, languages and ways, who pray to our ancestors and use our ceremonies to connect to the Cosmos/Universe/Creation/Creator and use our culture for ulterior motives.
It’s much more complex than my attempts above, so forgive my non-academic explanations. If you know for sure that your relations are European – and you are descended from white people who are all blond, fair skinned, and blue eyed, then of course I can see your reluctance to seek your indigeneity, and decide to say that you’re not indigenous. But if you don’t know who your ancestors are, and are willing to find out why you look so indigenous, then there are many paths to indigeneity. The Guatemalan people may have a way to designate someone who is not of their community, but my experience has been that many of the indigenous communities we know are willing to accept a detribalized person who wants to learn their ways and become a genuine member of their families. And of course, there is a much different way to define indigenous communities now, as you’ve observed at. U.T. So this is a little bit of our perspective.
The issue of DNA tests has developed some questions about the accuracy of the reports. Depending on the company, of which there are several, some may give totally erroneous information and the best will only give partial and not completely reliable data on which to base your ancestral lineage. Reliable genetic testing requires in-depth processes and is very expensive, so are not accessible to the general public. And even if you had extensive testing, the results would not provide a tribal affiliation. [INSERT: If the DNA tester gives you a tribal affiliation, it is a fake and you cannot trust this company. DNA CANNOT tell you tribal affiliation.]
If a company tells you your tribal affiliation, as you mentioned below, then it is not a reputable report. There is not any DNA test that can tell you your tribal identity, which is a social relationship that does not code into your genetic material. The company may tell you from which region they harvested matching DNA and tell you what tribes likely lived in that area, but that is not absolute proof that you are Coahuiltecan. The fact is, that during the Spanish colonization process – different from the northern U.S. European process that included reservations – our tribal identities were pretty much erased. Most indigenous-Hispanics are detribalized and will never know their tribal identity.
These facts should not deter you from seeking and embracing your indigenous identity. If your family has lived in a certain area or areas for as far back as anyone can remember, then that area is probably close to your original tribe’s homeland. For example, if your family is from Coahuila, lived there for at least three generations that you can trace, and then moved to Texas and lived here for another five or six generations, then you are likely from the Texas/northern Mexico tribal area. If you are brown-skinned, even light brown, have brown eyes, and don’t look European/white, then you are likely indigenous. If you have a Spanish last name that you can trace back to a hacienda or mission, then you probably got that name from a slave master or a priest, who replaced your indigenous name when they claimed you or baptized you. So there are check marks you can make that say you are indigenous to the Americas.
Knowing this, you now have choices to make about your indigenous identity. If you want to claim “I’m Native to the Americas,” then with that comes a responsibility. You can say, “I’m Native to the Americas and follow traditional ways,” or you can say “I’m a colonized Native who follows Western tradition and so I deny my indigenous heritage.” Following traditional ways means commitment to indigenous values and ways of seeing the world. This is a complex process and requires that you join an indigenous community that is trying to bring back the traditional ways through ceremony, gatherings, classes, activism, and/or other means.
The slideshow below is an example of research documented by Dr. Ruben Arellano.