In the Spirit of Our Ancestors

Ruth Hopkins

What does it mean to be an American Indian? For some, the answer is simple: one is American Indian if they possess a specific degree of Indian blood. This standard definition originates in the federal government’s enactment of blood quantum law. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the U.S. government used blood quantum, the degree of Indian blood a given individual possessed, to establish not only who was American Indian, but who was eligible for benefits under treaty law. Since then, Tribes have modified rules of membership under their inherent powers as sovereign nations. While degree of blood required for enrollment by Tribe may vary, the majority of Tribes still adhere to some form of blood quantum law.

In order for the standard ‘blood quantum law’ definition of who is American Indian to hold up, one must accept that identifying as an American Indian is based on blood as it pertains to race. Here, the ‘blood quantum law’ characterization of who is American Indian falls apart, because it is possible for one to be American Indian by blood and race, but not be a Tribal member, and therefore not be legally recognized as an American Indian. By definition, only federally recognized Tribes are legally recognized by the federal government; consequently, one who is not a member of a federally recognized Tribe, despite bona fide native ancestry, may not necessarily be defined as American Indian by the federal government. Furthermore, blood quantum law used in the determination of membership in federally-recognized Tribes has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as a political classification, not a racial one.

Blood quantum law is also defective pursuant to actual blood lineage. An individual may possess blood from several federally recognized Tribes, but not qualify to enroll in any one Tribe if the blood quantum they possess from that specific Tribe is less the amount needed to enroll, and if that Tribe does not allow blood from other Tribes to count toward the blood degree required. Also, someone may qualify for Tribal membership by blood but choose not to enroll. Others have relinquished membership, or been disenrolled. Furthermore, there are reports that when some Tribal rolls were established, natives were told that they may only classify themselves as either full blood or half blood. As a result, some bloodlines from these Tribes may be inaccurate.

Defining Native identity by blood quantum alone is also a mathematical dead end. Because of Tribes’ ever-shrinking populations, it will become impossible for them to maintain full blood pedigrees without inbreeding. As human beings, we are not bred like cattle to guarantee pure bloodlines. If Tribes rely on blood quantum alone to define membership, extinction will occur.

As Native people, our blood ties are undeniable. Much of the DNA that comprises our genetic code is tightly packaged in chromosomes found within the nucleus of cells, but mitochondria possess their own DNA. Mitochondria are microscopic organelles in our cells that convert food into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), energy used to power cellular functions. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), represents a small fraction of the total DNA in cells, but because it is passed solely from mother to child, it’s become instrumental in the genetic study of ancestry. Studies of mitochondrial DNA has shown that approximately 95% of all indigenous people in North, Central and South America are direct descendants of six women, referred to in scientific circles as the “founding mothers.”

Even so, before the federal government’s implementation of blood quantum law, one’s native identity in terms of Tribal membership was not solely based on blood ancestry. Membership was more dependent on one’s adherence to the Tribe’s culture and belief system, speaking the native language, and by being an active part of their society. Tribes adopted members without blood ancestry and absorbed prisoners and captives. Intermarriage between members of various Tribes wasn’t uncommon.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “If our native ancestors visited us today, would they recognize us as their own?” At first, because of our physical appearances, we may think not. Today’s natives exhibit varied skin tone, eye color, hair length, and manner of dress- but would our ancestors define us purely by western society’s stereotypical view of what it means to be American Indian? Probably not. They would want to know if we are acting as living conduits of our native heritages by passing cultural knowledge onto the next generation, while working to insure that our native nations thrive. They would recognize us by our shared language and value systems, observance of tribal culture and beliefs, and preservation of relationships with extended family, Earth, and our Tribe.

As natives, if we fail to adapt to the reality of change amongst our tribal populations, we will cease to exist as nations. It is up to us to define what it means to be American Indian. The time for real, meaningful dialogue on Tribal membership and native identity is now. Rather than focusing solely on bloodlines, we must act to safeguard our distinct cultures, languages, familial relationships, and belief systems, because the essence of our identity as Natives is whether or not we are living in the spirit of our ancestors.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at cankudutawin@hotmail.com

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softbreeze's picture
Thank you so much for this article. I am approximately 1/4 native by blood. I am actually in the process right now of having my DNA tested to find out my maternal ancestry that goes way back, as well as my blood quantum for my native american ancestry. But, as I told one of my daughters, it makes no difference to me how much or how little native blood I have. THIS IS WHO I AM AS A HUMAN BEING. These are my values, my beliefs, my life. Many people, especially whites, are very judgemental towards me because they don't want to accept that someone who looks very Irish, would choose to identify and live their life as a traditional native american. I completely agree that it's vital for us as a people to create our own definition of societal membership, and not allow someone else to choose it for us. Thank you again.
froggy57's picture
This line of thinking could very easily lead to a new line of us against them... Natives who live on the res, or who speak the language etc, being more 'pure Indian' than others. There is only one way to determine indianess.. I think I just made that word up.. :o) And that is blood quantum. Anything else is just a political opinion. You go to your church, and I'll go to mine. That being said.. I like the article and I thought it was interesting. Peace.. nothing but peace.
rezzdog's picture
What I like about this line of discussion is that we have to look back to our traditions, our habits as a people. How did we, do we, deal with change. As for the Haudenosaunee, we have always had a long history of adoption. Naturalization into the Nation or clan, or community. It never had anything to do with blood. Blood is not memory, though there is such a thing as genetic memory. And, that genetic memory understood the importance of cross breeding so as not to incur the kind of inbred social norms that the Monarchies of Europe adopted. Simply refer to Czar Nicholas and his family for the problems inbreeding bring unto a nation. As editor of the Op/Ed pages, I encourage this discussion, and I am very impressed with the comments these discussions brought to the surface, both good and bad. Think as we discuss.
raeven's picture
There is another group of people who have no identity; the "lost birds" or "split feathers". My mother was half Penobscot and my father was Mi'Kmaq (Micmac). They died when I was an infant and my maternal grandmother, who was white, gave me to a white family to be raised. My grandmother would not speak to me of my parents and told me to enjoy my life with my adopted parents - I was "better off". I loved them, but often felt uncomfortable when they felt they had to explain why their dark hair, dark eye daughter was so different compared to their fair skin and light hair and eyes. Lost birds rarely find their way home and often live in a "limbo world".
thechief's picture
We have to be honest about our governments. The role of government is provide infrastructure, proctection and order to its citizens. Tribal governments aren't equipped to do these unless they are receiving federal subsidies or gaming revenue. Tribal governments would be more legitimate if they taxed their members to provide services to members. If that were the case, open the rolls up to everybody that wants to be a member because they will be paying for services. Instead tribal governments are just groups that are in charge of dispensing inheritance or treaty rights to tribal members. So, just like an inheritance, it will eventually run out. Unless tribes find a way to make tribal members responsible to their government. I think tribes should start by paying to support their spiritual leaders or traditional chiefs. Its sad when the traditional chief can't make ceremonies because he has to work at the smoke shop.
softbreeze's picture
The blood quantum standard was something imposed by the federal government. As far as I know, this was never a traditional standard used prior to the implementation of federal indian law. If we were to judge by blood quantum alone, it would mean that native americans rights to marry whomever they want would be taken away from them. It would mean that if someone native american falls inlove with someone from another race, marries them, and has children with them, that their children's national citizenship would be taken away from them. I think people should have the right to marry whomever they want, and not have their children's rights taken away from them. Also, there is the issue of "pan-indianism". I am of the Abenaki Nation. For hundreds of years, my nation traded and intermarried with the French fur traders. The history of my people is unique from yours and every other native american nation on this continent. If my forebears saw fit to marry french people, who were assimilating with the Abenaki culture and customs, who is anyone to tell me or my people that we are not Abenaki? There is a difference between being a descendant of a national and cultural group, actively practicing the traditions of that culture, and being a descendant of a group, but no longer speaking the language, or practicing the culture. It is no different than the hispanics, who are very much native american by blood, but for the most part have assimilated into the Spanish culture. I respect your right to determine membership in your nation, and likewise I would also appreciate others respecting our right to determine membership in our nation as well. Peace to you also.
frybreadpower's picture
Great article and definitely a subject over ripe for more discussion. Just as families die out, Tribes will and should if they do not change they membership rules, but especially if they do not encourage members to marry within the tribe or other tribal members. One of the first things Tribes could do would be to account for other tribal blood in membership determination. Most Tribes just dilute the quantum requirements and thereby extend membership to individuals with less tribal blood when they should be first be including all documented tribal heritage(blood). This does not discourage marrying non-Indians. I believe several of the Six Nations have a membership policy that encourages "keeping it in the group' by only extending membership to children with tribal mothers but not with tribal fathers (only). This is a good policy which has helped them survive several hundred years of non-Indian contact more than other tribes. In may not "grow" the tribal blood quantum but I believe it may discourage tribal women marrying non-Indians. Would appreciate cites when including references to studies, articles, etc..
duwaynesmith's picture
Ruth, Your discussion regarding who is an American Indian is one that will continue to surface more and more, I believe. Intermarriage with non-Indians is an important part of this discussion, as is the issue of the increase in the number of Indian people living in urban areas. Cherokee scholar and demographer (UCLA) Russell Thornton has stated, "Intermarriage with non-Native Americans may continue to undermine the basis of the Native American population as a distinctive racial and cultural group . . . continued urbanization is likely not only to result in increased intermarriage as more and more Native Americans come in contact with non-Natives, but also to diminish further the identity of Native Americans as distinctive tribal peoples tied to specific geographical areas." (In CHANGING NUMBERS, CHANGING NEEDS, published by the National Research Council, 1996). Sociologist Eva Marie Garroutee, enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, has written an interesting book (REAL INDIANS, published by the University of California Press, 2003) that explores the issues surrounding Indian identity. Also, anthropology professor at the University of Texas, Circe Sturm, has a book (BLOOD POLITICS ) which explores the racial perceptions and identity among members of the Cherokee Nation. These books address this controversial issue. Some, like Native scholar Taiaiake Alfred from Canada, have argued that Indian or Native people should not marry outside of their own tribal group. This may be more difficult as Indian people continue to move to urban areas.
softbreeze's picture
It seems that if people full blood native people marry someone from another tribe that is also full blood, that their children would be only half-blood for their particular tribe, even though they would be fully native by race. Which brings us back to the point in that this is about ethnicity and culture, not race. Also, if some are going to take the position that native people can only identify as native based on race alone, then that would mean that only full-bloods could identify as native, not half-native and half-white. But, the fact of the matter is, you guys do recognize half-bloods. So, how do you explain that? I mean, if you're recognizing people who are half-white, then that means that you accept mixed bloods. So, if you accept people who are mixed blood, then why should it matter how much or how little they have, if they identify culturally as native? Just trying to understand.