Axios' Navajo Nation is now largest U.S. tribe says:

The Navajo Nation surpassed the Cherokee Nation as the largest tribe in the United States from an enrollment surge during the coronavirus pandemic, growing to 399,494 members, according to the New York Times.

Why it matters: The uptick in enrollments was likely from a need to secure federal pandemic relief funds as the virus tore through the largest Indian reservation in the country.

The big picture: Nearly 90% of those in the Navajo Nation who are eligible have received at least one shot — a vaccination rate higher than much of the rest of the U.S., according to the Times.

The enrollment numbers of several tribes increased during the pandemic, but the Navajo Nation's spiked by 30%.

Question: Why might those in the recent enrollment surge in US Native American tribes (especially Navajo) not have enrollee until now? I'm not asking why they did it now, and I’m not trying to ask about what their internal motivations might have been. What I’m asking about are coats or policy decisions that discouraged eligible people from joining.

What were the major advantages of not enrolling in tribes before this, or disadvantages of doing so?


1 Answer 1


In terms of actual legal or material disadvantages to affiliating with an Indian tribe, I'm not sure there are many, if any. But for some non-enrollees, it's not about disadvantages so much as the advantages not being enticing enough to be worth the effort.

The bulk of the federal benefits of tribal affiliation require living on tribal lands, and increasingly most American Indians don't: 62% lived on native lands in the 1970 census, compared 71% living in urban areas in the 2010 census. Signing up for a tribe can be a pretty laborious process, and the Navajo Nation has more stringent requirements than other tribes. So for many, it wasn't worth digging up family records and birth certificates for a largely symbolic status. Unsurprisingly, when tribal membership suddenly meant being eligible for a $1,350 check, their calculus shifted.

The New York Times piece on the recent enrollment boom gets into this a little bit:

Wendy Greyeyes, an assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of New Mexico, noted that most Diné live off the reservation, away from the offices that keep up with enrollment figures, and that the Navajo Nation maintains stricter citizenship requirements than many other tribes.

The Navajo Nation requires members to be at least one-quarter Diné, in contrast to tribes like the Cherokee that forgo a specific blood quantum requirement in favor of largely basing citizenship on having Cherokee ancestry.

“Living in Albuquerque, I’ve met so many members who don’t qualify for the minimum enrollment, or they may be enrolled in another tribe and cannot double enroll,” said Dr. Greyeyes, who is from Kayenta, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation reservation.

Dr. Greyeyes, who assisted people wanting to enroll in the tribe in recent months, also emphasized that the process can be bureaucratically complicated, potentially keeping some Diné from becoming citizens.

“It’s not an easy process,” Dr. Greyeyes said. “How do you prove your blood descent? You need to get the paperwork for your parents, the paperwork for everybody.”

  • 1
    Exactly! If say one of my grandmothers belonged to a particular tribe, but married and moved to a place about a thousand miles from tribal lands, why should I bother to become an enrolled member of that tribe?
    – jamesqf
    May 26, 2021 at 17:41

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