Issues of Identity

Harvard should require proof from Native American applicants

Universities “may consider a qualified student’s race as a factor in an admissions process that treats each applicant as an individual and weighs the capacity of each to contribute to the education and experience of the class as a whole.”

So wrote University President Lawrence H. Summers and Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe in an op-ed published in The New York Times on March 29, 2003. They expressed this sentiment in reaction to a Supreme Court case which questioned the admissions process at the University of Michigan (UM). Treating race as one factor among many, both Harvard and UM (which won the legal battle) seek to admit a diverse student body. With classes composed of a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds, each individual Harvard student benefits from the myriad perspectives their peers bring to the table. The logic is simple. But in practice, Harvard’s well-known policy of treating race as a factor in admissions decisions can tempt students into looking for every extra advantage on their applications.

This temptation appears to have reared its head among the Native American community at Harvard. More than a month ago, Erica A. Scott ’06, president of Native Americans at Harvard College (NAHC), and others questioned the validity of the applications of some admitted freshmen. Of 18 freshmen who identified themselves as Native American on their Harvard applications, only four are currently part of NAHC. More damningly, two freshmen even e-mailed Scott to say that they were not Native American after being contacted by the group in the wake of their acceptance.

Blatant lie, or mistaken identity? This issue is tied up in larger questions about what really entitles someone to claim he or she is Native American. Legally, U.S. citizens are Native American if they are part of a tribe or if they can prove themselves to be at least one-quarter Native American. Proving that you are of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, for instance, can be as easy as tracing your family tree back to a distant relative on an obscure tribal census taken in 1906. Other Cherokee Nations require a blood quantum—the proportion of tribal blood inherited from parents—of 1/32, while still other tribes demand up to one-half.

For all the fuss over blood quanta, blood ultimately has little to do with how “Native American” a person is. Half Creeks may make the personal choice to minimize their Creek identity and stress their other half. By the same token, Cherokees generations removed from the tribe may still cherish their Cherokee heritage.

With two “measurements” of Native American heritage—blood and personal choice—pinning down who is and is not Native American is no trivial task. But some determination must be made if Harvard wants to continue to take Native American ethnicity into account when making admissions decisions. No matter what admissions officials say, it’s clear that a non-white ethnicity can, in certain circumstances, be a positive factor in admissions decisions. The onus is on Harvard, then, to ensure that these decisions are made with full and accurate disclosure from all applicants.

It is not Harvard’s job to force Native American students to identify themselves or to sympathize with traditions that aren’t their own. Nonetheless, Harvard must require some modicum of proof for students claiming this identity; otherwise, the College risks undermining its admission process and the validity of its diversity statistics.

The muddled state of Native American identity means Harvard applicants who check the Native American box fall into one of three categories: 1) applicants with tribal affiliation; 2) applicants with no tribal affiliation but a strong association with their Native American heritage; or 3) opportunistic liars.

To cull out those in the third category, colleges like Dartmouth and Stanford require applicants checking the Native American ethnicity box to submit either a copy of their tribal affiliation cards or a letter explaining non-tribal Native American ties. Harvard should co-opt this procedure as well. If the ultimate goal of the College’s admissions process is to create as diverse a student body as possible, the College shouldn’t risk accepting applicants who are neither affiliated with a tribe, nor familiar with Native American identity. Presumably, there are other, similarly qualified Native American applicants who exhibit these traits—and who would thus add more to the diversity of the College’s student body—that the College could accept instead.