Reviews | For Indian tribes, blood shouldn’t be everything

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Los Angeles

AMERICA’s first Quantum Blood Law was passed in Virginia in 1705 to determine who had a high enough degree of Indian blood to be classified as Indian – and whose rights could be restricted accordingly. You would think that after all these years, we would finally be able to launch the concept. But recently, casino-rich Indian tribes in California have been using it themselves to dismiss members whose tribal lines, they say, are not pure enough to share the benefits.

What is surprising is not that more than 2,500 tribal members have been disenfranchised for seemingly vile reasons. (It’s human – and American – nature to want to concentrate wealth in as few hands as possible.) What’s surprising is how much Indian communities have continued to use a system of membership by the blood imposed on us in violation of our sovereignty. .

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government entered into treaties with Indian nations that set aside tracts of land for tribal ownership and use and guaranteed rents in the form of money. , goods or medical care. Naturally, the tribes and the government needed a way to ensure that this material ended up in the right hands. Quantum blood, and sometimes linear descent, was a convenient way to solve this problem. For example, if one of your grandparents was on the tribal rolls and you had a certain amount of blood—say, you were a quarter Navajo—the government also counts you as Navajo.

But it had another benefit, at least for the government, which believed that within a few generations, intermarriage and miscegenation would wipe out Indian communities and the government would be off the hook. “As long as the grass grows or the water flows” – a phrase often used in treaties with American Indians – is a relatively permanent term for a contract. “As Long As Blood Flows” felt significantly shorter.

The Indians themselves knew how artificial this category of tribal membership was and could use it to their advantage. Before my tribe, the Ojibwe, established the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota in 1867, Chief Bagone-giizhig lobbied to exclude the half-breeds from the lists – not because they weren’t Indians but because, most likely, they formed a class of competing traders. . Bagone-giizhig has sworn to steal the White Land blindly. Whether he’s right is a bit beside the point – he probably wanted to blind rob it himself.

Something similar happened after the passage and subsequent amendment of the Dawes Act of 1887, which established an allotment process under which large lands held in common were divided into smaller parcels for Indians. individual. Although surplus land could be sold, pureblood Indians were prohibited from selling. But the whites wanted the land and sent a genetics researcher. In a short time, the number of Thoroughbreds registered at White Earth Reservation dropped from over 5,000 to 126.

After Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, effectively ending land allotment, blood quantum provisions remained entrenched in Indian communities. They determined whether you could vote or run for office, where you could live, whether you would receive pensions or assistance, and today whether you receive a share of casino profits.

The quantum of blood has always been about the “stuff,” and it has always been about the exclusion. I know full-blooded Indians who have lived all their lives on reservations but cannot be drafted because they have blood from many different tribes, and I know non-Indians who were drafted by accident or by stealth simply because they will get something out of it.

Things were different before. All tribes had their own ways of determining who was a member – usually based on language, residence, and culture. In the case of the Ojibwa, it was a matter of choosing a side. Especially when we were at war in the early 19th century, with the Dakotas – our neighbors (many of whom were our blood relatives) – who you were was largely a matter of who you killed. Personally, I think it’s a more elegant way than many to find out where you belong.

Who is and who is not an Indian is a complicated question, but there are many ways to answer it beyond genetics alone. Tribal enrollees could be required to have a certain level of native language proficiency or pass a basic civics test. On my reservation, no school child is asked to read the treaties that have shaped our community or learn about the branches of tribal government or the role of courts and councils. Or tribal membership could be based, in part, on residency, on some period of naturalization within the original treaty area (some tribes consider this). Many nations require military service – tribes don’t have armies, but they might require a year of community service.

Other nations are heeding these things, and in doing so they are reinforcing something that we, with our fixation on blood, have forgotten: bowing to a common goal is more important than rising from a common place.

Of course, just staying alive and Indian for the past 150 years has been one of the hardest things imaginable. Respect for blood is respect for the integrity of this survival, and lineage must remain a measure of tribal enrollment. But not the only one. After surviving this long and coming this far, we need to think more about who we want to be in the future and do something more than just measure our teaspoons of blood.

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