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Measuring Blood: The American Indian Blood Quantum

Question: What is a "blood quantum," and why do American Indians argue about it so much?

Well, the way the government defines whether someone is a "real" Indian or not is they measure their blood. They have some arcane way of calculating this by dividing the number of generations since all your ancestors were pure-blood by the number of marriages with people who aren't pure-blood. By their counting, I think I'm 7/8 Indian. Some of it is Muskogee instead of Cherokee, but they don't care about that. They're just trying to see how close we are or are not to white. We argue about this so much because nobody likes it. It's a really bad way to define somebody's culture and almost everyone agrees on that, but everyone can't agree on a better kind of system, so there's a lot of complaining and it doesn't change.

Basically, there are four problems with this. One, it puts pressure on Indians not to marry white people or their children will lose their heritage, and that bothers a lot of people. Two, it means that if some of your ancestors aren't in the records, you can be denied being an Indian. Three, it's wrong for outsiders to tell you if you can or can't belong to an ethnic group. Nobody makes African-Americans prove their entire family line and apply for some governmental Certificate of Degree of African Blood before they can get a scholarship from the NAACP or put "Black-owned" on their business if they want to. And four, most disturbingly: it guarantees the eventual extinction of the American Indian. By this standard, white is the default, and everyone is approaching whiteness. Someone who is 1/8 Indian is considered white, and that is the end of their Indianness-- they are white and their children will be white, forever. On the other hand, I am 1/8 white, but that doesn't mean that's the end of whiteness in my line. It keeps sitting there, just as it has since the 19th century when my white ancestors entered my family. Eventually one of my descendants will marry a white person again and hah! We will be 1/4 white. A person can get more white, but not more Indian. Do you see what I mean? Every generation, there are fewer people this system thinks are full-bloods, and all the blood quantums get smaller.

For my part, I think a mixed-blood Indian is just an Indian. Before white people came here, the tribes all mixed around a lot, and it didn't make anyone's culture disappear. You just belonged where your mother belonged, or, maybe some tribes did it where your father belonged. They didn't need to prove who they were. I'd personally like to see it that way again. But there's a problem with that, and it's resources. Indian tribes don't have a lot of resources now. There is hardly enough money for programs for the people we have. If we let in anybody who wanted to come? It would be very difficult practically. And it would be impossible to get federal benefits if we couldn't prove anything about blood, and few tribes are wealthy enough to get by without that. And, too, there are complaints from Indians that too much intermarriage and 'passing' and leaving the tribe is making us lose our culture. Certainly it is making us lose our languages. So a lot of people don't want any type of solution that would encourage more of that. That is why there's disagreement on this issue. Personally, I would rather see five non-Indians receive Indian status than one Indian be denied it. Not all Indians agree with that, but it's what I think. The white politicians, of course, want just the opposite.

Actually, the more I think about the non-Indians--or people with very, very tenuous Indian ancestry who know nothing about the culture--trying to be Indians, the more I think it's not so bad. I will admit, I can get very annoyed by wanna-be's. Especially, when I was younger they used to think I knew about drugs, and I could get them magic mushrooms or something. Now they just think I can get them a spirit guide. I guess that's progress. But anyway, my point is this: assimilation has devastated us. They took us and sent us to boarding schools as children to rob us of our languages. They made our religions illegal. They turned our culture into something for history class only. Now, some yuppie white girl finds out she had a Cherokee great-great-great-grandmother, or somebody says she did, and she wants to be a Cherokee. Well, why not? In the past, a lot of Indians had rituals where you could take the place of the dead. So if someone killed my son, maybe he could end our families' fighting by giving me one of his sons, to take the place of the one he killed. Maybe these "wannabes" have come to take the place of what we have lost. Why not accept them? Not make them citizens of our nations, perhaps, but let's take them in and teach them our ways and our languages and help them raise their children to be some of us. Maybe they do have a little bit of Indian blood and it's finding its way back to us. That's what I think. White people assimilated us. Why turn away those who want to assimilate back?


Websites on Native American blood issues:

There's a lot of Internet material on Indian blood quantum and mixedblood issues, here are some representative ones illustrating the problems our communities are facing with native identity today: Indians being disenfranchised or oppressed by blood certificate requirements that are too strict, deceitful non-Indians exploiting requirements that are too lax, mixed-blood people caught in the middle. A really good solution isn't going to come until our nations are empowered enough to make these kinds of decisions ourselves without having to answer to the federal government about it, in my opinion, but that does not seem likely to happen under a system that keeps splintering away more of us with every passing year. Catch-22.

Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood Application: Here's the legalese from the Bureau of Indian Affairs about how Indian identity
is officially determined by the government.
Blood Computation Chart: A tool from the White Earth Chippewa Nation showing the math behind determining blood
quantum percentage.
A Relic Of Racism And Termination: Article on the problematic history of the degree-of-blood test.
Blood Quantum Petition: Online petition to the BIA calling for an end to blood certificates.
The Crucible of American Indian Identity: Discussion of sovereignty and mixed-blood issues, with a detailed critique
of blood quantum rules.
Blood Quantum Questionnaire: Compiled responses from Native American respondents on the types of
problems posed by various Indian citizenship strategies.
Why Blood Quantum Matters, and Why It Shouldn't: Article by a mixed-blood Cherokee on the fallacy of equating
blood purity with cultural authenticity.
Denying Assistance to Mixed Bloods Perpetuates Genocide: Article on the problems faced by urban mixed-race Indians.
Wannabees and Cultural Appropriation: Links to several sites about cultural theft and exploitation and how this hurts
Indian communities.
Metis: Canada has approached this issue by offering a separate aboriginal status to people of both native and non-native
ancestry, known as the Métis. Here is our collection of links about these mixed-race Canadian people.

Books on Native American blood issues:

Here are a few interesting books on the topic of American Indian blood quantum and other mixed-blood issues:
(Our organization earns a commission from any book bought through these links)

The Dispossessed: Fascinating book about Native American cultural genocide and the struggle with mixed-race identity.
Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America: An interesting exploration of Indian racial identity and
cultural encroachment.
Genocide of the Mind: Terrific collection of essays by native authors on the erosion of Indian tribal identity including
some valuable insights into mixed parentage and assimilation.
Playing Indian: Lakota author Philip Deloria weighs in on issues of cultural and religious appropriation and the
"Indian wannabe" phenomenon.
Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Book discussing the difficult history of Indian mixed-blood issues.
Real Indians and Others: A Canadian Metis author explores the history and culture of urban mixed-blood Indians.
Africans and Native Americans: Book on the history and culture of mixed-race black Indians.
Black Indians: An American Story: Documentary movie on the lives of mixed-blood African-American/Native Americans.

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