On Blood Quantum and Tribal Membership

A big contention in the recent Baby Veronica case has been blood quantum.  For those who may not know, blood quantum is how many tribes determine tribal membership.  How it works is all your known relatives are cataloged.  Charts made by US legislation are consulted, which adds up all the “Indian-ness” (as defined by the US government) of these relatives, and you are given a quotient. The US decides you are 1/8th, 1/16th, 1/2, 3/4s Native American with these charts.  These various quotients determine whether you can be a tribal member, or are eligible for certain federal subsidies.

Racist organizations like the Christian Alliance For Indian Child Welfare, who would love to see tribes and their sovereignty undermined any way possible, have latched onto the idea of blood quantum.  They think blood quantum can justify their evil paternalistic urges to steal Native children from their cultures and homes.  “Well, he/she was only 1/200th Indian anyway…wouldn’t they be so much better among white, Christian, American capitalists?” is how the argument is usually presented.

Such reasoning is dead wrong.  Before tribes had blood quantum rules forced on them by the US government, they were typically multicultural entities.  Many tribes would intermarry with each other, and had sacred ceremonies that would make outsiders full fledged members of the community.  So even if a person were “1/200th” as Dr. Phil, the CAICW, and others like to scoff about, they could be a 100% member of whatever Native nation they came from.

Yet misunderstanding persists about blood quantum, even among our tribal communities.  Few know the history of blood quantum laws, or the ways these laws are used to marginalize Natives.

I don’t think blood quantum should be the prime litmus for tribal membership. Blood quantum is a system of classification invented by an outside bureaucracy, imposed without any consultation of Native people. Blood quantum is not something that originated in the mind of a Native American.  For this reason, I don’t think blood quantum is anything to be proud of.  Blood quantum is a racist label slapped on Natives by a colonizing government, rather than anything our ancestors would recognize.  Go back to the time before reservations, and no Native would know what you were talking about if you mentioned blood quantum to them.

Blood quantum simply did not come up until the United States needed a justification for treating Natives as inferior.  Blood quantum has highly racist origins. It started as a way of determining who would be subject to discriminatory policies, based on whether they had more than half Native blood.

In 1705, a law adopted by the Virginia colony defines “mulatto”, as anyone who was at least one-half Indian or one-eighth black. (source)

Blood quantum was never a preserver of culture, or anything that cared about the concerns of Native Americans.  Blood quantum always existed for the convenience and benefit of external government bureaucracies.  Blood quantum was how these government bureaucracies decided who would be treated inferior.  Blood quantum was born of a racist need to make certain persons into non-persons in this country.  Blood quantum helped the American empire shove an entire people into inferiority, into its underclass.  How much internalized oppression we’ve imbibed.  The colonizer’s system of discrimination, this blood quantum, has actually become a point of pride among some.

Blood quantum was a way to divide and conquer.  Tied in with allocation of treaty resources, blood quantum was a way to make tribes fight among themselves.  When resources are few, arbitrary divisions like blood quantum serve as systems of exclusion.  When the trickle of sustenance that falls from the federal government to the tribes is so small, not everyone can drink.  More than protecting culture, blood quantum has always been about resources — who gets how much of what, and who gets cut off from getting anything.  Systems of exclusion like blood quantum get those on the right side of the arbitrary division a portion of scarce resources.

Of course this is all engineered.  The US government is like man who throws steak to feed 4 dogs into a 30 dog pack.  Among such hunger, how could there be a result other than pandemonium and bloodbath?  The pack will tear itself apart, in the attempt to snatch some scrap for survival.

Substitute the pack for tribes, and this basically sums up the USA’s policy when it comes to Native Americans.  Introduce division, introduce infighting.  Take away all means of self-sufficiency, and make sure there is never enough in the ensuing dependency.  Make the material conditions ripe for discord, so we spend so much time fighting ourselves we never notice the robber barons taking our land, our minerals, our rights.  Push us toward fragmenting so much from within, we never notice the system of control marginalizing and diminishing us ever further.

Blood quantum is a bad metric on scientific grounds.  Blood quantum also violates treaties that define the relationship between the US government and Native tribes.  Blood quantum is also at odds with Natives being self-defined, sovereign people. A sovereign people should not have to consult charts made by an external government to say who can be a member. A sovereign people should be able to determine their own standards for who is considered a member among them.

Talking from the standpoint of genetics, the methodology of blood quantum is deeply flawed. There’s nothing scientific about it. Any meaningful tracing of ancestry using blood would involve DNA analysis, and a cataloging of various genetic traits.  DNA analysis cannot be done consulting unscientific charts made by racist bureaucrats before the advent of modern genetics.

When the blood quantum charts say a person has so and so quotient of Indian blood, it is a a meaningless statement. Having a chart and knowledge of a handful of relatives is not an adequate way of measuring genetics.  The blood itself would actually have to be analyzed. What traits a person inherits from their parents are not equal. It is not as if when two humans mate, half of one is poured in a jar, then half of the other is poured in, then it’s stirred, and a new person exists. What traits are dominant and recessive, what a person genetically inherits, is far more complex.  Blood quantum charts come from a time when hardly anything about genetics was known.  How could these charts possibly say anything meaningful about the genetic make up of a person?  They can’t, and don’t.

Blood quantum rules also tend to be a violation of many treaties between the US and the tribes. In most of these treaties, nothing about blood quantum is stipulated. It nowhere states in the treaties that to be eligible for these treaty rights, a person has to be of so and so blood quantum. So blood quantum is not only something that did not originate in the mind of Native Americans. Blood quantum is also a rule that goes outside treaties the US government is supposed to abide by.  Blood quantum is yet another case of the government sneakily adding something to what was already agreed upon.

Finally, blood quantum is most wrong because it enfeebles tribes to the point where they can no longer even define themselves.  Blood quantum makes tribes surrender the ability to determine their own identity to the US government.  Blood quantum is more of the same paternalism that has crippled everything to do with Natives in America.  America decided it knows what an Indian is better than the tribes.  Native communities were then made to conform to the American definition of Native with blood quantum laws.

Yet what makes someone Native should be something for Native communities themselves to decide.  This should not be left up to outside bureaucracies.  This should not be left to those looking for a way to divide and conquer us.  This should not be in the hands of those who would like to see us lose our land, our children, our very existence.  Blood quantum is a paternalistic American label and a system of control meant to diminish Native communities.  Blood quantum is nothing traditional.  How could it be, when our ancestors would not even know what it was, because they existed before the US tried to oppress us and define us with this label?

Lets stop glorifying their system of classification and accepting it as legit.


16 thoughts on “On Blood Quantum and Tribal Membership

  1. Yes…but the white world, the epitome of which was Scott brown, very racist white man, pointing at Elizabeth warren and saying “does she look like an Indian?” He lost and he is exactly why we as native people MUST fight for who we are and bring Veronica brown HOM

  2. It’s amazing how views on such arbitrary measurements as blood quantum and the “one drop rule” have changed based on the argument. A century ago both conventions were used to argue that having a low percentage of a minority ancestry meant that you were not white and therefore segregated from white society. Now blood quantum is being used to illustrate that not having a high enough percentage of a certain ancestry means that a person doesn’t have a connection to a community/culture. I agree that communities and cultures should be self-defined. Objective application of the definition will be a challenge; will the criteria be accepted for all or only for those determined a desirable addition? It will be interesting to see if Native communities begin to officially redefine the characteristics/requirements for membership and how they deal with the individuals that share common ancestry but were raised and living outside the culture. Escaping arbitrary measurements may prove to be a challenge.

  3. That there is “one drop” left in the bodies of any Native seems quite irksome to some folk, and so (ignoring the direct problems that will arise for the “adopted” individual) the Baby Veronica decision is but another step toward destroying all the North American Nations.

    As a ‘member’ of the adult adoptee community, I am unable to fully articulate my adverse sentiment regarding the “Christian” alliance (for anyone’s welfare except their own). Deeply entrenched in a “white savior culture”, they blind themselves to the predatory nature of their actions and their inactions. Rather than shed their own blood (I guess they assume they are saved because of a blood sacrifice they claim was made about two thousand years ago), they happily drink up the life’s blood of others, and the children of those others, in a manner befitting spiritual vampires.

    Perhaps it will someday be fully realized that “sovereignty” is neither a right nor a law, but “the doing of it”…

  4. It’d make as much sense as getting told that you’re 5/8ths “American.” Nations are cultural institutions, not genetic ones, and by right ought to determine their own membership. Just like America has its own immigration laws, so too should the Lakota, the Crow, and whoever else. The only potential downside I could see is some tribe might throw open their membership to white guys that “learned their ways in Boy Scouts,” but if that’s what they want to do, that’s totally their right.

    I wonder if blood quanta would survive a court challenge, given that it wasn’t mentioned in the original treaties. The courts seem a little more willing to call out the feds on their bullshit regarding the Native treaties these days.

  5. Although I belong to a tribe that require members to be 1/4 or more by blood from our own tribe, I find such rules totally non-scientific nonsense guaranteed to wipe out the tribe. You have 2 parents who each had 2 parents. By the time you go back just 20 generations when the white man first came in numbers to the new world, or about 400-500 years, each person had 2x2x2x……2 or 1,048,576 ancestors. For 30 generations it’s over a billion and for 40 generations (or 800-1,000 years) over 1 billion ancestors. To claim they were all from your tribe that may have had a few hundred or, rarely, a few thousand it astronomically impossible. Marrying outside your community has always been done throughout the world to avoid genetic defects from interbreeding.

  6. Oops, 40 generations (800-1,000 years back) each person had over 1 trillion ancestors. (I made the mistake of saying 1 billion)

  7. each Community must deceide membership..I can only only hope they do not fall into the trap of “disenrollment” living and deceased members on grounds of “Blood Quarium” for nothing more than greed for both political power and materialistic wealth for themselves alone…after all one little community should not go about claiming that it ALONE is represerantive of that particualr nation…certainly there are Native american descendants who have a lineage to “offical Nations” yet never were taught what it was ment to be part of the nation or whose ancestors had to pass either as white or African American…

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