Blood quantum wins at Flathead; membership decline predicted


Current members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana voted overwhelmingly Jan. 18 to maintain a one-quarter blood quantum requirement in their membership statute.

In a heated referendum that would have abolished the blood quantum requirement (established in 1960), proponents of a change to direct descendancy rule pointed out that the blood quantum cut off separated members within Indian families and engendered severe heartbreak. The Split Families Support Group campaigned hard for their position, arguing that too many descendants suffer unjustly by being disenfranchised from their tribal roots. As their group name implies, they pointed to the many families that are split by the blood quantum rule. Their resounding defeat, and the bitter divisions sparked by their proposal, gave an indication that such a change, as visionary as it may be in many cases, will be a difficult one to sell to much of Indian country.

Opponents of the measure argued that to lessen the blood quantum requirement would "lead to extinction." They expressed great concern over the likely competition for tribal services and the potential depletion of fish and wildlife resources in the event of a significant growth in residents of the reservation. Great concern was also expressed about the viability of tribal culture and language among people who have decreasing degree of Indian blood. Blood quantum supporters on Flathead argued that traditional tribal culture and language would be dissipated by extending membership, which could have easily doubled under a successful referendum. Proponents of the Salish Kootenai measure stressed the view that all offspring should be automatic members; that this is their birthright. They pointed out that there is no evidence that offspring of reduced blood degree would be less involved with traditional culture.

It is a difficult subject. On the one hand, ethnicity and race and indeed nations nearly always arise from a common foundation. Among Indian tribes, traditionally, various degrees of culture and ritual are interwoven into the families, the clans and the geographic communities. Then, again, culture, oral tradition, ceremonial life and language may or may not run along these lines, and there are many examples of adopted or removed tribal relatives who have taken up serious duties in tribal ceremonial life. Nor do strong bloodlines guarantee cultural survival. As Navajo journalist Valerie Taliman wrote recently, "Commitments to core beliefs are fundamental."

Blood quantum restrictions were strictly put into play by the federal government as a way to restrict Indian land distribution in the late 1800s. Only Indians of at least one-half Indian blood quantum were allowed to receive portions of their own lands. The rest of the land passed over to the U.S. government for distribution to its own citizens. Thus more than 100 million acres were taken from tribal ownership and changed title under the General Allotment Act. Blood quantum has been controversial ever since. The federal government has used it effectively for over a century, particularly to deny services to tribes as membership declines. Blood quantum is not required of any other group in North America, critics charge, often comparing the practice to the racist eugenics philosophies of Nazi Germany.

Certainly each Native nation has the right to decide for itself how it will determine its requirements for citizenship. The Salish and Kootenai have just exercised that right. We acknowledge their choice and fully support their sovereignty in that regard.

But there is another serious implication to their decision.

For at least two decades, demographers of Indian country population trends have pointed out the potentially destructive nature of racial blood quantum as a requirement for tribal membership. As "out-marriage" rates increase among tribes (between 60 and 70 percent of all Indians marry outside their tribe, mostly to non-Indians), it becomes obvious that it is only a matter of time before the Indian population of most tribes is reduced out of existence. This is true at Flathead, where the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council commissioned a demographic study. The results were not encouraging: under current "out-marriage" rates and given the present blood quantum requirement, tribal enrolment will peak at around 7,000 members and will subsequently decline.

On the practical level, what defines a Native nation? Is it race? Is it culture? Or is it political and legal standing as a distinct people of the world?

We submit that the best definition of tribal status is political or governmental, not racial or even cultural. Continuity of ethnicity is important, and tribes must do everything possible to educate their citizens to the fundamentals of their tribal heritage, culture and language. This is a requirement for any responsible nation of the world. Most nations in the modern age accept this reality; work with it and grow stronger because of it. Thus personal choice is possible, and also personal responsibility.

"Marry an Indian" will be the instruction of many a Native grandmother when instructing her offspring. In those societies guided and defined by blood quantum percentages, this will be the standard approach and required parental advice.