Belonging to a tribe or American Indian Indigenous group in the United States, even if one has already been enrolled or accepted into the community, is a lifelong endeavor. Belonging may be achieved by meeting specific criteria during one life stage yet one must continue to behave and act in ways that align with community expectations to maintain a sense of belonging throughout all life stages. This descriptive qualitative case study presents the findings of in-depth interviews, with five individual tribal members, two male and three female participants, ranging in age from 25 to 55, who are college graduates and tribal members. The study aimed to understand the different forms and ideas of belonging for tribal members, how the notion of belonging is understood and achieved over the life course, and how phenotypic arguments, blood quantum, the role of schooling and demonstration of tribal knowledge influences the extent to which belonging is earned and how that can change over time. The study sought to answer the following questions: How do tribal members define “belonging”? How and in what ways do tribal members learn how to become members of the community? And, what can tribal communities and tribal members do to foster a sense of belonging for members who have left to obtain professional or academic training and seek to return to serve the nation?
The study focused on participants the Gila River Indian Community, a tribal community in southwest Arizona with approximately 23,000 enrolled members, who completed a higher education degree and sought to return to serve as professionals and/or leaders at their tribal nation. Interviews were conducted off-reservation in the Phoenix metropolitan area within a 30-day window and held during the month of September
2015. Interviews were analyzed using three iterative levels of content analysis. Findings suggest there can be three methods of belonging within Gila River: belonging by cultural practices, belonging by legal definition, and belonging by both cultural and legal definition. However, the three methods of belonging do not automatically equate to being accepted by other tribal members.