The Ethics of Saying You’re Native American for Scholarship Opportunities

There’s a story in my husband’s family that somewhere way back in their family tree, there’s a Native American grandmother.  Based on the area their family’s from I’d guess she was from the Seneca tribe.

I feel evil.  I feel awful.  But my first thought when I heard this was, “free college money for my kids?”

I looked into it a little bit.

There are several ways to get your education funded when you’re Native American.  Most tribes offer scholarships, but you must be a member of their nation.  This usually requires proving descent along with living on the reservation for a while.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs offers grants and scholarships.  Individual colleges also offer scholarships, and some states even require that colleges waive their student fees for Native American students.  If you were born in Canada and you’re at least 50% Native American/First Nation, you can go to US colleges and are eligible for the FAFSA as an eligible non-citizen, all without having to deal with INS.

In order to join the Seneca Nation, you have to prove your heritage, and have your line of descent be maternally unbroken.  So your mother’s mother’s mother until you reached the original, Seneca matriarch would be the one to link you to the tribe.  My kids are disqualified because it’s their father that’s (supposedly) descended from a (I’m assuming) Seneca great-great-times who knows how many-grandmother.

But, if I did the proper research, we could probably get away with ticking the “Native American” box on those college applications and seeing if the individual university offered our children any money.

But we won’t.

Because it is so wrong.  Taking advantage and only saying you’re Native American for scholarship reasons crosses that ethical line.  The reason those scholarships and grants exist is for the kids who are actually members of those nations.  They grow up with so many obstacles that my children will never face.  They grow up with a cultural identity that my children don’t.  To apply for those financial opportunities would equate to robbery.

That doesn’t mean I won’t research and do some genealogy to figure out who this Native American woman was, if she indeed existed.  I think all parts of my children’s heritage are important, whether it’s 1/2 or 1/64.  Because all of those family members going back were people, and who is going to dig their stories out of obscurity if not their own family members?

But when I find her story, I’m not going to exploit it to lower my children’s college tuition bills.

 

This guy is funny, and it wouldn’t be a waste of time to watch the whole thing, but the related joke is around 5:05 close to the end:

*Part of Thrifty Thursday, Friday Jet Fuel, and, of course, Financially Savvy Saturdays.*

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24 thoughts on “The Ethics of Saying You’re Native American for Scholarship Opportunities

  1. thebrokeandbeautifullife

    Yeah, this is tough. I’m 50% Ukrainian and I speak l fluently but I still identify as American. Though I think a lot of people who have at least 50% affiliation with a minority will use that if necessary. Can’t say I blame them.

    Reply
    1. femmefrugality Post author

      IMHO, 50% is a very different beast than a family story that may or may not have happened in the 200 years ago ball park.

      Reply
  2. evenstevenmoney

    I’m 1/64 Cherokee, my great grandmother was full blooded, I didn’t look for any scholarships it’s usually for close relatives, but I don’t think it is out of line in any way to see if your children would qualify, I think it would be a disservice actually.

    Reply
    1. femmefrugality

      If it was indeed the Seneca nation, my children don’t qualify as they can’t be citizens since it comes from my husband’s line and must be an unbroken maternal link.

      I guess I just feel that it crosses an ethical line; my kids have not been raised on a reservation or faced any inequalities that these nations do. I feel like the money should go to those who do face those social injustices.

      My kids will be applying for scholarships for sure. But I’m going to try to guide them towards the ones that actually fit them and their situation. Money is money, I suppose, but it feels a bit like stealing on this one.

      Reply
    1. femmefrugality

      Super interesting! And I think that’s where the difference lies… she is giving back to her nation. A nation that was alive in her family’s living memory. I’d like to dig up that memory for my kids, but I doubt they’d be using their education to further build the Seneca nation. Or maybe they will. Probably more out of social motivation than personal identity, though. We’ll have to see what kind of people they will grow up to be.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  3. May

    My SIL is 1/4 Aboriginal. We have asked her if she has ever considered pursuing it because I think she could but she identifies more with her European heritage. I would be all over it! Not because of the financial grants but because I think it would fascinating to learn about the culture and history.

    Reply
    1. femmefrugality

      I think that’s the largest part of this issue: identity. Coupled with personal experience, culture, and any persecution you may receive as a result. Definitely going to research for my kids…but will most likely discourage them from checking any boxes.

      Reply
  4. Poor Student

    I’m curious of how only people with maternal link can apply for the grants/scholarships… Is it like a cultural thing or is there a scientific reason behind this? Most likely if I were you I wouldn’t tick the box because I’d feel guilty, since the grants/scholarships are intended to help Native Americans who are having a hardship in getting education, and might not have the same opportunity like average people. Nevertheless, if you actually qualify and have a significant percentage of your blood to be Native American, then it’s fine. Also, I think it’s really cool to be descended from any exotic lineage!

    Reply
    1. femmefrugality

      Totally cultural. Women are very highly respected in all native tribes I’m familiar with. And we’re in agreement; the fact that this is family legend and not history means it’s diluted enough to not apply.

      Reply
  5. Kalen

    I know someone was is earning about $700/month from her tribe’s casino that she is part of thanks to her great-great-great….etc….grandmother being Native American. I don’t agree with it, but I guess it’s her choice.

    Reply
  6. Kirsten

    Yeah, good call on not going completely crazy trying to save money for college. It was good to do some research, just in case, and then let it go. I’m sure there are plenty of other scholarships and grants available that your kids do or will qualify for!

    Reply
  7. Savvy

    My professional organization gives a scholarship to a woman accounting student each year. A few years ago the recipient was a native Indian. Her goal was to use her accounting degree to go back and help mentor/teach others in her group. So many times you see these lofty goals on a scholarship application and you know they are just giving you a line. This young woman was the real deal. She was already very active in her community; performing volunteer work and mentoring. She had very specific ideas about what she was going to do. It was quite impressive.

    Now counter that story with my aunt – She thought my great-grandmother “looked” Indian in her pictures, so she went to the library to research our family tree. She was hoping her children would qualify for free tuition… I think what she found was they needed to be more than an eighth to qualify. BTW – great grandma was German.

    Reply
    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Ha ha this is exactly the contrast I’m trying to convey! Thank you! I really need to pick your brain about your experiences on that board sometime.

      Reply
  8. Alicia

    That’s so interesting to me about the maternal link being the chain to look back through for status. In Canada, it comes from the men.

    One of my colleagues told me this story about how she was half-Native (her mother was Native) and she wasn’t considered Native under the Indian Act until she married her husband (fully-Native). Then she had status.

    Reply
      1. femmefrugality Post author

        I can’t help but wonder that’s an example of cultural imperialism. I’m not familiar with all Native tribes, but the ones I have learned about all hold women in a very high place. I’m off to research. 🙂

        Reply
  9. Mel

    I don’t think it’s unethical to apply for the scholarships if you’re honest about your connection to that part of your background. Also, assuming your kids are pretty young, if you do find out more about their history, you may be able to connect them to it more – which is probably worth a lot more than a scholarship.

    Reply
    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Good point. Honestly, my husband’s heritage is so diverse that if that’s what they decided to identify with it wouldn’t be horribly out of line. Mine is a bit more defined. I will teach them about all of it. Not encourage them towards one for money. But if that’s where they find their identity, cool. Have to see if it’s even for real before I can tell them her story, though. Starting with what we actually do know.

      Reply
  10. Anne @ Money Propeller

    My coworker’s wife and kids are status natives (I had noooo idea and I even know his father in law!) Until very recently, she wouldn’t take advantage of any of the tax provisions, etc. despite owning her own business and a bunch of stuff like that. There is a lot of perception, social stigma and whatnot at play when it comes to utilizing the tax breaks that are available. (More complicated than a blog comment!) Suffice it to say, if/when the kids go to university, my coworker will be making absolutely sure they receive funding and grants!

    Reply
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