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Who is ‘Indian’ Varies by Definition

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Part 2 of 5

NEW TOWN, N.D. – The cultural landscape of North America is rich in terms used for the descendants of its original inhabitants, and many of them target blood quantum: “full-blood,” “white Indian,” “Lakota Iyeska,” or “mixed-blood,” in one of several meanings of that word. There may be as many other terms as there are tribal nations.

It’s one part of a sometimes confusing attempt to define who can be regarded as “Indian” in the community or even inside the tribe and, accordingly, who is eligible for membership, social acceptance or tribal benefits.

People regarded as “Indian” aren’t necessarily enrolled, and those enrolled aren’t automatically regarded as “Indian” along the divide where ethnicity, history, law and politics alternately define the individual and the collective.

Add the federal bureaucracy to the mix, and defining who is “Indian” becomes daunting, as, added to ethnicity, are the myriad ways you can – or cannot – qualify for various federal services under trust, treaty and other obligations.

On the other hand, the federal Census will count you as an Indian person if you say you are.

As a noted American Civil Liberties Union lawyer put it, a person can be “Indian under tribal law but not under federal law, under federal but not tribal law, under tribal but not state law,” and so on.

Stephen L. Pevar believes the general trend is away from higher blood quantum as a tribal enrollment requirement and toward a lower quantum as a matter of survival.

Not that that’s necessarily all good: “The two arguments are: If you don’t (lower blood quantum requirements), you run out of members; on the other hand, traditionals may think there may be an accompanying loss of culture,” he said.

Usually absent from the legal definitions are specific cultural qualities of family, tribal ways, language, upbringing, and the various ways many people measure Native-ness.

Sovereignty dictates tribal nations determine their membership, and in some ways that determination has shaped and has been partly shaped by federal Indian policy. Tribal recognition and federal services have become intertwined.

“Blood quantum” has been code for competence, entitlement, authenticity, acceptability and a host of other attributes.

Early on, although references to blood quantum appeared in some treaties, whether one was “Indian” was more often tied to whether a parent, usually the father, was a U.S. citizen, according to historians.

Part non-white residents of Virginia and then elsewhere were tagged as legally inferior in the 18th century, and, in 19th century Virginia, anyone of one-fourth Native descent was considered “Indian.” The designation prefigured some Indian agents’ use of blood quantum standards when compiling rolls under the 1887 General Allotment (Dawes) Act and linking individual control over allotments to blood quantum.

Today, federal programs and services may or may not consider blood quantum directly in defining those eligible for the Native- specific services included in the U.S. Code and Code of Federal Regulations Title 25- “Indians.”

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Definitions differ through many of the 100-plus separate parts and sub-parts of the laws and regulations and often call for tribal enrollment which can, of course, include blood quantum as a requirement that differs from tribe to tribe.

Some examples: For health care according to the CFR online, IHS says you are “Indian” if you are a member of an Indian tribe, are Alaska Native, or considered to be an Indian by the secretary of the Interior, with some additional considerations, including those for contract care. For adult education programs, “Indian means a person who is a member of, or is at least one-fourth degree Indian blood descendent of a member of, an Indian tribe,” and eligible for BIA services “because of their status as Indian.”

Also from the federal rules, according to the Cornell University Law School’s online Legal Information Institute: For Indian preference in employment, “Indians” are persons of Indian descent who are members of any federally recognized tribe, descendents of such members who were living on a reservation on June 1, 1934, all others of one-half or more blood of tribes indigenous to the U.S., Alaska Natives, and certain others.

For services under Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention, “Indian means any individual who is a member of an Indian tribe.” Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, “Indian as applied to an individual means a person who is a member of an Indian tribe or for purposes of this part is certified by an Indian tribe as a non-member Indian artisan” in accordance with certain provisions.

Blood quantum in pan-Indian cultural settings retains importance, at least at some pow wows where one-fourth Native descent is required to contest dance and where proof of tribal enrollment may also be requested. Some pageants have similar qualifications.

Of course, quantum counts at a time when many tribes are revisiting enrollment requirements, but it sometimes has troubled roots in individual families.

One Three Affiliated Tribes member, no longer young, still remembers how, as a fifth grader in day school at Twin buttes, N.D., she listened to the school’s principal “giving information about how much Indian blood all of us were.”

The principal said the woman’s aunt was of full tribal descent but her mother was three-fourths, a contention the woman knew could not be correct because they had the same mother and same father. Contacted recently about the issue, the tribal enrollment officer told her the blood quantum involved remained that way on the tribal rolls, which continued to reflect information recorded in 1936.

She’s going to continue pressing to try to get the issue resolved, but it’s not uncommon for siblings with the same parents to have been recorded with different blood degrees, perhaps because of subjective judgment on the part of those preparing the rolls.

Tribal nations pressed to resolve blood quantum issues have developed a number of strategies, including DNA testing, allowing “borrowed blood” from other tribes or bands to count toward quantum requirements for enrollment, and denoting enrollees, regardless of “blood” degree, to be of 100 percent quantum of that particular tribe to ensure the tribe’s viability into the future.


Part 1 – The Human Face of Enrollment Wars

Part 3 - Tribes Target Grandchildren in Planning

Part 4 - Native Status May be Affected by Diversity Issues

Part 5 - ICWA: Individual and Tribal Survival at Stake