‘Real’ Indians, the Vanishing Native Myth, and the Blood Quantum Question

Dina Gilio-Whitaker
The following is an excerpt from a book project by Dina Gilio-Whitaker. The tentative title is There Are No Real Indians Anymore and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. The book is co-authored with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; Beacon Press, scheduled for fall 2016.

Of all myths associated with American Indians no myth is as pervasive as the myth of the vanishing Indian. We are all familiar with many of the other myths that were invented over the last 500 years and thanks to the work of Native activists, writers, intellectuals, and their allies we have begun to dismantle some of them in meaningful ways.

Take for example the myth of Columbus as the discoverer of America. Campaigns over the last couple of decades in the United States have led to changes at the level of local and state governments to repudiate the veneration of Columbus as a hero and instead recognize indigenous peoples on October 12. Despite the fact that it is still a national holiday it seems entirely possible that the day will come when it will be no longer.

In another example, with each passing year we see more and more media coverage on the mythic nature of the conventional Thanksgiving narrative. Not all Americans may understand the nuances of what makes this story largely a myth, but with each passing year there seems to be a growing sense in the general public that there is little truth to the story they grew up with.

The vanishing Indian myth, on the other hand, is far more intractable because it has so many different manifestations. The reason for this is because of the inherent nature of the settler state, which is to eliminate the Native. This it does in a huge variety of ways, and because it is woven throughout the social fabric of the settler state it is well concealed.

Even before the United States was created European immigrants counted on the disappearance of the indigenous population because they wanted the land, and so they narrated the reality they wanted to see as soon as they got here. It’s recognizable through every era of post-contact North America and has been written into every aspect of American history. First Indians were disappearing due to mass epidemics. Then they were disappearing through slavery. They were disappearing by being pushed out of their territories. They were disappearing through massacres and other acts of violence.

By the end of the nineteenth century when the vanishing Native myth reached its crescendo and most Indians had been contained on reservations, disappearance took the form of culturecide by assimilation. Thanks to the boarding school system which killed the Indian but saved the man, Indians throughout the twentieth century were disappearing through trauma and identity murder. Trauma—from shame induced by the boarding schools, for example—caused many Native people to deny their heritage in order to survive racism, contributing to what I call identity murder.

Identity murder is one of the most common (and insidious) modes of Native disappearance today. It takes many forms within American culture, and is always based on definitions of the “real” Indian. Real Indians dress like Indians. Real Indians live on reservations. Real Indians have reservations. Real Indians are full blood. Real Indians are at least half blood. Real Indians are enrolled. Real Indians know their language. Real Indians practice their ceremonies. Real Indians have dark skin and long black hair.

The list goes on, and it isn’t based on any sense of logic.

These impossible criteria are markers of authenticity and those who fail to meet them are deemed inauthentic, either in the minds of individuals or in governmental institutions. They are effectively eliminated as Natives.

Blood quantum is perhaps the biggest determinant of Indian authenticity, but even those who are full blood can be deemed not real based on some stereotypes or legal definitions of what real Indians are. All Indians are subject to being judged for their authenticity, and even despite high blood quantum or enrolled status they can be deemed inauthentic simply by virtue of the fact that they live in the modern world.

Because after all, the real Indians were the ones who dressed in buckskins and hunted buffalo and deer for their living, and didn’t speak English. And they’ve been gone a long time.

Non-natives, whether they know it or not, are conditioned to determine the authenticity of Native people whenever they encounter them, especially those that live in places where Indians are highly invisible, like large cities or in states with low Native populations. Because they have been indoctrinated with the idea of the vanishing Native their whole lives, the assumption that there is no such thing as real Natives anymore is like a software program constantly running in the background. So when they meet someone who claims to be Native, the unconscious impulse is to automatically determine the truth of the claim.

They do this by asking how much Indian blood you have. And depending on your physical characteristics, they’ll either say that “you look it,” or that “gee, I don’t see it.” Your authenticity as a Native person is thus based on your appearance, not on who you actually are.

For you non-Native readers, keep this in mind. Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions. When you demand to know how much “Indian blood” someone has, whether you realize it or not you are presuming the untruth of their identity claims, which is why the question can be so offensive. But most Native people don’t mind talking about who they are, so instead ask what Native nation they are from. That opens the door for a broader dialogue without subtly accusing them of a fake identity.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.

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Claireschwartz's picture
A wonderful read. I always wonder how we can resist this notion of the vanishing Indian. Finally, an article that points out the problems with BQ. I hope in the book project, you investigate how it is not just non-natives who ask about BQ or tribal affiliation/nation (I find both just as offensive). In fact, outside of my own native community, it is almost always fellow natives who ask these questions, or flat out tell me I am not native. I don't think a BIA card makes me native, but it's often the only way to shut these disrespectful people up. It feels dirty to have to prove who you are Period. But, to have to do so when these stupid questions are being asked by someone claiming native heritage as well is a travesty. Proof that colonization really works.
Lightfoot92's picture
Fantastic article about a major issue in Native communities everywhere. My tribe, by itself, has issues with this systematic belief in what does or does not validate being Native. Sadly, in my own tribe, and even worse, within my own family. The younger generation is now the group of 16-30 year olds, all of mixed heritage with Native and other ethnic backgrounds, but no full bloods in this generation, unfortunately. My tribe requires that you must prove you are a descendant to at least 1 tribal member who was listed on a legal tribal roll in 1880, when our land and federal status were being illegally forced away from us. So blood quantum has no say in how to be enrolled, yet some tribal members do have more Native blood in their veins than others. This leads to insults, some intended as jokes, and some meant to sting or discourage. Some tribal members who are still 1/2 or 3/4 Native may insult or exclude tribal members who may be 1/4 or less. Even worse, many of these people with higher blood amount are still a cousin in some way, to the tribal members who are maybe just 1/8 or 1/4. It is causing dissension in the social structure of the younger generations of my tribe. My tribe is seeing the members who are now in that 16-30 year old age bracket taunting each other over their non-Native side of the family's roots and always putting one another down for having more non-native relatives. I am 1/2 but have never faced any harrassment from the few remaining full bloods and 3/4 blood tribal members, because they are my father, aunts, uncles, and my father's first cousins. I am now in my early 40's and I see the tribal members who are younger than me marrying further and further out of Native blood. Its causing ugly and unnecessary rivalries among people who may have the same great grandparents, but one of them saw a continuing marriage to other Natives and the other person's side married into black or white blood. As these generation of Natives belittle one another over 1 having more or less Native blood than the other, despite them being at least distant cousins, non-Native outsiders are right there to help force labels on how one must qualify as Native and how some don't. Many tribal members may be 1/4 Native and 3/4 African American and they physically have more "traditionally" black features and may be ridiculed by their cousin who is still 1/2 Native and looks "traditionally" more Native. Its sad to see the next generation of potential leaders not learning to embrace one another, but rather cut each other down. Hopefully someone will rise up and lead the way past leaders have done.
MomE's picture
I am not Indian I am a Mixed Mutt. But my grandchildren I believe are. Their Great grandmother and grandmother are both of the Chippewa tribe in SSM, MI. Their Grandmother was born and raised their and their mother as a young girl lived their also. My Grandchildren have had people tell them that they are not based on the fact that one of them is blonde and blue eyed it appears their are tribes that believe if you are not full then you are so to say diluted.My grandson does have the very distinguishable traits but I don't know if they will ever learn the value of their heritage when they are treated this way.
Michael Madrid's picture
Anyone who believes in the vanishing Indian has never been to Arizona or New Mexico. Sherman Alexie himself once said, "New Mexico is just like one big Rez." What most people don't realize is that we walk among them. We're just not wearing buckskins, loin-cloths or feathers.
Michael Madrid