When students pick a research project, they typically will choose something that they’re passionate about, but rarely are they the subject of their research. Young Brinson, ’15, chose to study whether federal recognition of Native American tribes helps them feel empowered as they struggle to define their identity.

As a member of the Cheroenhaka Nottoway tribe of southeastern Virginia, “I wanted to take this project on because it is personal to me,” said Brinson. “Everyone’s really dispersed now, but we have tribal territory and tribal lands near Courtland, Va.”

Growing up, Brinson was well aware of the tribe’s struggle with identity. The Cheroenhaka Nottoway spent many years advocating for recognition by the state of Virginia before finally receiving it in 2010. They, along with many other tribes in Virginia and throughout the East Coast, are still waiting to be recognized by the federal government.

The U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs is the main method that native tribes use to establish their identity. The process can take years and is incredibly complicated and costly. But it’s worth the price: once a tribe is recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, its members feel legitimized. “Federal recognition establishes sovereignty and gives voices to tribal governments and members,” Brinson said. “It offers benefits such as federal money, casinos, and other opportunities for native people, but the biggest contribution of such a status is the right to claim an ‘authentic’ Native American identity.”

That right to claim an “authentic” identity gives natives a sense of empowerment, and, “empowerment is a survival mechanism for my people,” they said.

Brinson engaged in a literature review on the topic, tackling issues of using bloodline as a source of native identity; the struggles between Eastern and Western tribes as it relates to identity and recognition; and the role that colonization and the government play in developing native identities over the course of history.

However, the most revealing part of Brinson’s research came from personal interviews with natives who are engaged in the struggle of defining their identity today. “I interviewed the chief of my tribe, my cousin who is also part of the tribe, my step-mother who is Navajo, and the chief of the Pamunkey tribe,” they said. “Four themes I picked up from my interviews that revolve around identity as reference to empowerment were money, politics, history, and generations. All play a part in native identity development.”

Brinson concluded that federal recognition does provide empowerment to native tribes, but in their opinion, it is still not something that natives should strive toward because it is empowerment gained in the context of the federal government’s rules and regulations, not on the native tribe’s terms.

They likened the identity struggle facing Native Americans today with the following metaphor: “If you give a child candy, they think that it’s their candy and that they can eat that candy. But in reality, it’s not. It’s still the parent who gave them that candy and it doesn’t belong to the child.

“Just like natives being viewed as children, we think that we have sovereignty but it’s really not our sovereignty because we did not create it or buy it for ourselves. It was bought for us by someone else and they gave it to us. Empowerment or better yet, sovereignty, is never in the hands of the natives but those of the colonists.”