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The Challenge of Mixed-Blood Nations

Countries with indigenous nations usually also have mixed-blood nations composed of people of indigenous descent and other nations or races. In an increasingly shrinking world where ethnicity is a quantity in flux, it is sometimes difficult to get a handle on how they relate to one another. The two groups would seem to be natural allies. But the reality isn’t that simple.

To begin with, much depends on the relations of the mixed bloods to the larger nation state. Take Canada, where the mixed-blood community is called Métis, a French word meaning—well, mixed blood. The Métis historically have had friendly relations with Indian communities. But currently they claim their own history and culture, a hybrid of European and indigenous community. Some Métis identify and live with tribal communities, while others do not. These separatists believe themselves to be a distinct nation or ethnic group from the indigenous nations and from Canada. Métis communities in Canada have separate land claims and negotiations with the Canadian government.

Meanwhile, in Latin and South America, as well as in Africa, people of mixed blood usually do not strongly identify with indigenous nations. They tend to reject indigenous ways in favor of national culture. Mestizos, for instance, are persons of indigenous ancestry who have taken up national culture and do not live in or engage with members of indigenous tribal communities.

This disengagement, in fact, can be quite vehement. Mestizo nations like Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and many others segregate their indigenous communities and maintain hostile and repressive political and cultural relations over indigenous nations. As for assimilated Mestizos, they can generally be relied on to embrace the values and lifestyles of modern market economies and broad national culture while openly rejecting their indigenous counterparts.

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In the United States, the situation is particularly complex because there is no official designation of a mixed-blood nation. Mixed-blood individuals, if they qualify as a member of a tribe, can choose tribal membership. Many tribal communities have blood quantum criteria as low as a quarter; some, like the Cherokee, allow membership if a person can prove lineal descent on one of the official Cherokee rolls collected by the federal government. As it is, mixed bloods who do not qualify for tribal membership may be U.S. citizens, but they do not have indigenous rights.

Recognizing these issues is vital because census data over the past two decades suggests that there are at least several million people in the U.S. who are of mixed indigenous and other race descent and who are probably not tribal members. Many mixed bloods consider indigenous ancestry as one ancestral line among several nationalities that came to the U.S. Mixed bloods can be of English, German, Japanese or any number of other nationalities, as well as being descended from an Indian tribe.

During the period of forced assimilation, from the 1890s to 1960, many mixed bloods undoubtedly rejected Indian identity and the communities and cultures that went with it. They were likelier to hide references to an indigenous lineal background. But with the rise of the various ethnic movements of the 1960s, many individuals have proudly claimed Indian descent, even if they don’t have direct contact or cultural participation in a tribal community.

Indeed, in the past few decades, mixed bloods in the U.S. have been more understanding toward indigenous identity and the issues confronting tribal communities. While millions of U.S. mixed bloods are not tribal members, they are proud of their Indian ancestry. You can often find them on the front lines of political activism as allies and supporters of indigenous rights and issues. It can safely be said that today, Indian mixed bloods in the U.S. have formed an ethnic group that often identifies with indigenous needs.

Thus, Indigenous Peoples and mixed-blood communities might, at first glance, appear to have much in common. But depending on the country and its history, their interests aren’t always congruent. Indigenous mixed-blood relations can be cordial, even warm. Or they can be fraught with tension—or worse.