Policy helps tribal members get birth certificates

AP News
Posted: Nov 14, 2014 8:14 PM
Policy helps tribal members get birth certificates

TUBA CITY, Ariz. (AP) — Alice Guy was born at home on the Navajo Nation in a traditional eight-sided dwelling surrounded by her family and aided by a missionary nurse. But she hasn't been able to prove that to the state of Arizona.

She's part of a generation of American Indians who never received a birth certificate and hit major roadblocks when they needed one later in life. In Guy's case, the paperwork required showed she has at least three names and, because of a hospital error, two birth dates.

The state is now making it easier for people like Guy to get birth certificates by placing emphasis on tribal records that establish four birth facts — name, date, place and parents. Under a new policy, only one other supporting document with identical information is needed. Previously, tribal members had to gather multiple documents.

The changes mean Guy might finally get a passport to visit her nephew in Italy or seek financial assistance from the government.

"With the new policy statement, the tribal members have clear guidance about what kinds of tribal documents to include in their application," said Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Like other American Indians whose birthdays precede 1970, Guy's birth never was registered with the state, and she never thought she needed a birth certificate. She grew up at a time when leaving the Navajo Nation was somewhat of a luxury, tribal members largely favored medicine men over hospitals, and few elderly tribal members spoke English.

Applying for a birth certificate later in life meant having to match up the same birth names, places and dates, along with parents' names, on multiple documents. Assistant state registrar Krystal Colburn said some tribal members believed they had to travel to Phoenix to submit the documents, but it can be done by mail.

Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler heard stories of people who have tried for years to get a birth certificate, abandoned the process or died still seeking one. Many of the complications were not their fault.

American Indians were granted full U.S. citizenship in 1924, sending federal workers across tribal lands to capture names and populations. Those with names in their own languages often were given new names that were easier to pronounce and that sometimes were changed further as people went to school or sought work off tribal lands.

Coconino County health worker Matilda Perdue said the amount of paperwork required by the state was overwhelming and didn't account for American Indians whose parents might have been illiterate and who used seasons, rather than a calendar, to mark the passing of time. Some Navajo Code Talkers, for example, lied about their ages to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, resulting in different birthdays listed on military records.

The new state policy took effect in late September, and Fowler is urging tribal members to take advantage of it. The policy isn't state law, so it's in effect for as long as the gubernatorial administration supports it.

State Sen. Carlyle Begay and Rep. Albert Hale said they are working to incorporate the policy into law but acknowledge they could face criticism. Begay said he doesn't want the discussion turned into an immigration issue or become centered on proving citizenship, particularly for southern Arizona tribes that have members on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"This was really a huge step to help resolve an issue to allow people to gain access to services they were entitled to," Begay said.

Humble said only tribal members who can prove they were born in Arizona can get Arizona birth certificates.

"We never, as a part of this process, relaxed any of our standards for tribal members," Humble said. "Rather, we took advantage of the fact that tribes had records that satisfied our requirements."

Guy and her husband, Claude, learned of the changes through a local newspaper. They were among a small crowd gathered in Tuba City recently to seek help from Perdue to get birth certificates printed on the spot or receive guidance on how to get one for the first time. The county started providing the service in 2006, and workers travel outside the county seat in Flagstaff to offer it in Tuba City and Page, Perdue said.

She easily alternates between Navajo and English, helping her better relate to those who travel to the office from the far reaches of the Navajo reservation. She also has helped members of the Hopi, Havasupai and Hualapai tribes.

Perdue sends Nelson Williams Jr. to the local hospital to get his medical records, and she helps Helene Nockideneh package documents to be mailed to the state health office. Nockideneh wants a birth certificate so she can renew her commercial driver's license and maybe travel outside the United States.

Perdue tells Guy and her husband to get an affidavit of birth from the Navajo Nation and then come back and see her.

"You're on the right track," she said. "You're going to get that birth certificate."