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.
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?
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