Skip to main content

All About Indian Blood (and Kidneys, and Hearts): Organ Donation and Native People

Does donating or receiving organs go against Native culture? Gyasi Ross ponders which box to check on his driver's license form.

No, this is not about blood quantum. 


1) When I was at Haskell Indian Nations University, formerly “Haskell Junior College,” it was very common for us Haskell students to donate blood to supplement our social lives (the terminology was “plazzing,” abbreviated for “donating plasma”). LA’s!! I’m terrified of needles—like, legs get weak and pass out terrified—so I never did. Still, I was jealous of the money that my fellow students would get in return for their precious plaz. At the time, I didn’t really see any metaphysical/religious implications for donating blood—if I wasn’t so damned scared of needles, I would have gladly “donated” at the time. Now, I’m not so sure…

2) In this amazing/disgusting book called “Never Let Me Go,” Japanese/British author Kazuo Ishiguro explores a world in which human clones are created for the express purpose of creating “spare parts” for humans. Gross concept, yet one that is probably the next business venture for Wal-Mart or Dick Cheney. And if it sounds paranoid, I’ll go along with that—but in a Nation whose Industrial Revolution was literally built on trading African bodies and where Native human scalps were once a commodity and government doctors forcibly tied Native women’s fallopian tubes, is it really that paranoid?

Last week one of my dear childhood friends passed—met him when I first moved off the Blackfeet rez. He was this beautiful and gentle Hawaiian brother—schooled in Native Hawaiian culture and respectful and desiring to learn about other Native cultures as well. I was fortunate to know him and I’m thankful that he helped to make me sharper and better rounded, especially as it regards Indigenous cultures other than my own. That was big—we’re not in this thing alone; there is a beautiful and vast Indigenous diaspora. Thank you Big Mike, as well as his family, for teaching me that. Rest well brother.

Although his passing affected me deeply, that is not the point of this piece. Instead, one of the discussions that happened was whether or not big brother Mike was an organ donor. Fortunately, it was moot—there was never any need to cross that bridge. 

Still, the question had the potential to open up a horrible wound during the family’s time of grieving, a generation gap. Mike was a very giving soul—it made sense that he would want to give of himself even after he passed. He was just that type of brother—of course he wanted to save someone’s life. Yet, his family also has strong familial and cultural beliefs regarding this sort of invasion—it would have traumatized the family. 

And that made me think of what I would want in that situation; I’d like to think that I’d want to save somebody’s life if I had that ability. But I also don’t want my family to be confused by what’s going on or traumatized by the notion of my body not being intact. Further, I can’t only think of what I want—what’s the cultural context? That is, outside of my own personal perception, what do my people believe about being an organ donor or even being an organ recipient? What do other Native people believe about these fairly modern scientific breakthroughs? 

Photo: iStock.

Is it the Native way to give or receive blood and organs?

I’ve heard Native people who believe that you must enter the afterlife whole and intact—the parts of you that are not your own will not be allowed to enter. This would be a considerable disincentive to giving or receiving any body parts that aren’t your own—I don’t want to be missing my kidney in the afterlife!!! But I also want my blood in the afterlife…and if I received a blood transfusion or someone was kind enough to save my life by giving me a kidney …well then, that’s cool for now, but there’s a problem a little bit later, right? I couldn’t hold my pee too good without a damn kidney. 

And that gets messy. Yech. 

In either event…my point is not to dissect all of the individual Native beliefs—there are religions that refuse medical service entirely and/or handle snakes to show their faith. There’s a reason why these are beliefs and not science—I respect both and think both have a place in our lives.

"I’d like to think that I’d want to save somebody’s life if I had that ability. But I also don’t want my family to be confused or traumatized."

Still, my incredible friend’s services made me realize that I need to get my own affairs in order. What does that mean? Well, I have to figure out how I feel about these things and whether or not I’m cool with going against cultural belief and potentially traumatizing my family further during a very, very vulnerable time. I’ve always been an organ donor on my driver’s license and it made sense at that particular time—now with a family, that’s not a decision that I can make completely by myself. 

I have to consider them.

At this exact moment, I’m voting for “no” on the “organ donor” question, although I reserve the right to change my mind in the future. It’s a beautiful sentiment—service, helping someone out and hoping they would do the same for their fellow human being. PLUS, if someone in my family needed an organ, I’d DEFINITELY want someone to donate to them if they could. Still, after seeing the trauma/difficulty for my friend’s family during that time, I’m not exactly objective about the process right now—I wouldn’t want anyone feeling guilty. Guilty consciences and/or unclear instructions after a loved one passes sucks and most Natives die intestate or without a will.

What would be really cool and helpful is if Tribes exercised their governmental authority by stepping in to help individual members prepare wills and living wills—these legal devices are fairly new to us and so it makes sense that maybe Tribes, as the governing bodies, would want to step in and educate their members about this important topic. Hell, dying intestate or without a will is one of the reasons why Native land bases are so chopped up and fractionated. 

It’s an important need.

In either event, I’d LOVE to hear from you all about your people's beliefs about being an organ donor, organ transplants, blood transfusions, plazzing, etc.—do these practices go against your people's beliefs? What if a family member was dying and needed someone to donate an organ to him or her to keep living? Would you be so firm in your beliefs then? 

Please share—I’m not sure where I stand right this second, so I look forward to your responses even more than usual.

Peace. RIP Big Mike.

Photo: iStock.

Is it the Native way to give or receive blood and organs?

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi