Blood quantum: the Colonial tool of racial superiority and economic dependency Native communities can’t let go of

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Defining, measuring and labeling indigenous groups is an intensely political and debated process.

On one hand Native peoples are glamorised, objectified , sexualised , romanticised and endlessly imitated. On the other we are victimised, or vilified, as impoverished, imprisoned, addicted, pagan, fatherless, overweight + diabetic, dependent, complainers who go to college for free (period. No nuance or exceptions there). To borrow phrasing from Paul Mooney: everyone wants to be Native but no one wants to be Native.

In our communities we can be a little obsessed with whether people pass our preferred test for ‘Indian enough‘. (I’ve seen heated debates about why we aren’t introducing DNA testing to determine tribal membership).  And outside, we’re simultaneously seen as an ephemeral, ambiguous, concept that anyone can access,  and a minute but definitive resource  drain  on the general population. Entering the debate can be a black hole. So much so that I was (am) tempted to just screenshot comment sections from articles and social media instead of trying to write something up.

But, frankly I think that the debate could be helpfully simplified.

The fundamental question [is] how to define an ethnic or racial group in contexts where rewards or resources are involved?…..who can legitimately claim to be indigenous, when positive incentives to claim that identity exist. (Kukutai, 2004, pp. 87-89)

There is an incredibly pervasive undercurrent to this debate which assumes that there is a benefit – cultural, financial, and otherwise – that needs to be protected.

And how do you protect a group’s access to a resource? You make it smaller.

I live in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where indigenous identity is a combination of whakapapa, genealogy, and self identity. This is the official standard for Māori identity (Kukutai, 2004) – one I think we could learn from in the US.

In the US, the bottom line to Native Identity, the minimum required standard is federal proof of membership in a federally recognised tribe (there are plenty that aren’t, or that lost recognition) to claim Native identity. Socially you don’t have a lot of ground to stand on outside family and community situations without proof. Virtually all tribes use blood quantum – the degree of your Indian blood represented as a fraction – to determine membership.

Tribal ID

This is what a CDIB (certificate degree of Indian Blood), my CDIB, looks like. This is the Federally mandated proof of Native Identity I need to access any so called benefits afforded Native communities by the government. Not by chance the minimum degree of blood quantum for enrollment in my tribe is 1/4; meaning that tribal identity and membership are designed to disappear in three generations with intermarriage.

The thing is, fractional identities (the institution of using a fraction to represent identity and their associated verbiage; #halfcaste – don’t get me started) are a Victorian colonial construct representing Victorian ideas of race and the express political objective to erase native populations (Kukutai, 2007).

As an issue of race: it ensures that inferior indigenous identities, cultures, and histories are naturally and inevitably replaced by superior colonial ones (Meredith, 2000).

As an economic issue: smaller indigenous populations makes colonial seizure of land and resource more defensible, and eventually frees settler administration of what small fiscal responsibility they have to the Native population (Smith et al., 2008).

Fractional identities are a colonial structure with the express goal of perpetuating racial inferiority and indigenous erasure motivated by a desire to have less and less financial responsibility to Native communities.

Can I say that again?

Fractional identities are a colonial structure with the express goal of perpetuating racial inferiority and indigenous erasure motivated by a desire to have less and less financial responsibility to Native communities.

This is the history and rationale of blood quantum; of the fundamental way we ascribe Native identity in the US.

I think it’s time we start looking for a better way to think about who we are.

 

References:

Kukutai, T. (2004).  The problem of defining an ethnic group for public policy: Who is Maori and why does it matter. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 23, 86-108.

Kukutai, T. (2007). White Mothers, Brown Children: Ethnic Identification of Maori‐European Children in New Zealand. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69 (5), 1150-1161.

Teaiwa, K. (2012). Choreographing difference: the (body) politics of Banaban dance. The contemporary Pacific, 24 (1), 65- 91.

Meredith, P. (2000). A half-caste on half-caste in the cultural politics of New Zealand. In Maori un Gesellschaft, Eli Maor (ed.) Berlin: Mana Verlag.

Smith, L., McCalman, J., Anderson, I., Smith, S. Evans, J., Mcarthy, G., Beer, J. (2008). Fractional identities: the political arithmetic of Aboriginal Victorians. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 38(4). Pp. 533-551

 

11 comments

  1. Thank you Rachel for your whakaaro and analysis. It is one we are all grappling with. The physical and the metaphysical aspects of being indigeneous are intertwined. Your genetics are determined by many things before you arrived, they are a given; you have no choice in that. History powered you up! Then you are born into a culture – the metaphysical. Then colonisation comes along and things get really interesting particularly as when it eventually resurfaces as neo-colonialism (and you are still trying to work out what the heck did colonialism do to me) which is much more subtle and cunning. But I think you hit it on the head when you talk about how Māori chose to be indigenous or not. Today we make the choice and those who do, make it with mana and purpose. It is a gift and so begins a wonderous journey of discovery and exploration into the spiritual realm. Ngā mihi, mauri ora, mauri ora ra!

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  2. My case can be an example. Even though both my parents may have 4/4 Iñupiaq on their cards, I am only a 1/2. All because my mother was still legally married to a non-native and she didn’t list my real father’s name. My boys are a 1/4, due to their mother having no father listed on her certificate. Kinda make me wish that marriages were still arranged, like back in the day, just so my grandchildren would qualify. LOL

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  3. Wingapo,

    Rachel, thank you for your sourced and succinct summation on BQ! Fractionalism applies to rights as well as identity, as implied in the Majority Opinion drafted for the Baby Veronica Case by Justice Alito. Chief Justice Roberts also signaled he shared this belief that Sovereign rights are proportional to Blood Quantum in his questions and asides in the Oral Argument for the same case. Anti-Indian activists took all this as a signal that SCOTUS and lower courts would find “Fractional Rights” arguments persuasive against Sovereignty.

    BQ is a suicidal policy.

    I founded and moderate /r/IndianCountry, the most active Native American community on Reddit, the 9th most popular website in the US. I shared your link there and you’re welcome to contribute; the platform belongs to indigenous voices. I shared this blog entry there and you’re welcome to do the same.

    Anah.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a grandson of a Northern Cheyenne, I am 1/4 Cheyenne (Tsitsas). We are on the Dawes List as a tribe that made peace with the US Government. I am also a Grandson of a Sauk, who’s tribe is not on the Dawes List because no treaty was signed with the US Government, in fact, the Sauk and Fox (Now called ‘Meskwaki’) were on the side of the British in the War of 1812. The tribes on the Dawes List are entitled to a Reservation and all the Benefits given to Indigenous Peoples by the Government of the United States. (The Meskwaki own their own land and their own Casino and receive nothing from the US Gov.)

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  5. I love that you mention social situations and self identity as potential aspects of affiliation. It helps me make more sense of my own place among people who have given me words and contexts for living which are far more relevant for me than my own cultural heritage.

    In Hawai’i it is much the same in regards to BQ. There are registered Hawaiians, who run the whole gamut of cultural practitioners to Hawaiian by ethnicity alone. And there are Locals whose families are several generations on the islands and therefore Hawaiian by it being their home. Then there are plenty who call themselves “Hawaiian at heart.” These seem rather typically to be transplants who fell in love with the islands and do a few token (potentially appropriated with no understanding) Hawaiian-style things. But then there are people like me, absorbing everything I can from the most authentic Hawaiian sources I can find about things which should have been alien to me by all logic, but are helping me learn, grow, and live in ways that my birth culture left me only confused and unfulfilled. I don’t ever call myself Hawaiian to other people because of blood quantums, but my spirit is very closely tied to this place, and I have been welcomed in to places and ways that imply I don’t need to consider myself a haole in their midst. It’s hard to know how best to honor that sometimes, without looking like I am trying to claim something I’m not.

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    • My sister had this to say, “My [Kiowa] ancestors were Crow (RedOtter), Spanish (Penah), and one of my favorite non-relative beadworkers of all time Millie Durgan was [white]. It genuinely grates my cheese to hear natives upholding blood quantum like it was some kind of old way- when it was designed by the U.S. government to put a deadline on the ‘Indian problem’ ”

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  6. I am a “half breed”… my mother was native and my dad was Ashkenazi (just like Robbie Robertson!!)…I have never really been welcomed into either group. Around my Dad’s side of the family, I look native. When I go to the Rez…I look too white. My mom comited suicide when I was growing up, and we found out that she was Native afterwards. Imagine the shock…all we knew that she was raised by “Vovo Iris”, a very formidable proper British Lady, whom we were sent to live with in England for a brief time. Apparently her husband abandoned her and she had a relationship with a local Native man…and this was in the 1930’s! She bore two children by him but since she was married, the children were listed under her husband’s name. To be told this right after a funeral…was a shock too much to handle for a teenager. Then within a month of my mother’s passing, Vovo Iris died – so my avenue for getting more information was gone. This info ruined my uncle. Became an alcoholic & lost his marriage and children. Anyhow, I digress here. I know I am Native, get all the racist remarks directed to me because of my looks, am discriminated against as well….but to the Government I am “white”. I self-identify as Aboriginal…the Haudenosaunee have a history of rebelling against the Government….but the Federal government holds the purse strings…and I am left in no-man’s-land. Lost ,with nowhere to place my heart. A non-status urban mixed breed, with all of the discrimination and none of the benefits.

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