Native officials: Using blood quantum to determine citizenship is problematic
April 18, 2018
RENO, Nev. — The issue of using blood quantum to determine tribal membership is a sticky one for Native American tribes.
Blood quantum is used to define bloodlines and ancestral heritage as a basis for tribal enrollment and citizenship. It's an important issue for the Federal government, since enrollment identifies Indians as members of a federally recognized tribe, and many tribes receive different benefits based on the size of their enrollments. Today there are more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes in the contiguous U.S. and Alaska. These tribes often receive funding and services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs through compacts, grants and contracts.
It's also important to tribal members, as it provides a concrete means for the federal government to meet its moral and legal trust responsibilities to members of Indian County. The issue of identification, therefore, is necessary; however, detractors of the blood quantum classification system say it's nothing more than a racialized fiction foisted upon tribes by the federal government beginning with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
Under the act, tribes created provisions for enrollment by degree of Indian blood (blood quantum) or through descendancy, which often refers back to the Indian Census Rolls of the early 1900s. Census takers who visited reservations at that time documented residents by blood type and skin color. Nevada's 27 tribes of Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone Indians determine their own criteria for tribal membership.
The Walker River Paiute Tribe, for instance, uses descendancy, while the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony uses the blood quantum method. For the RSIC, members must have at least one-quarter degree of Indian blood from one of the state's three tribes and have resided on colony lands for at least one year.
The snag, however, is that at some point as bloodlines diverge through marriage and other factors, using blood quantum to determine Indian citizenship becomes problematic.
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No such thing as 'Indian blood'
Gabe Galanda, principal with the Indian Country law firm Galanda Broadman in Seattle, works as a Native civil rights lawyer. Galanda also is a member of the Round Valley Indian Confederation of Northern California. Galanda says the blood quantum classification system is extinguishing people of Native American heritage.
"In 1934, the U.S. government declared that you are a Native American if have one-half or more degree of Indian blood and reside on a reservation," Galanda says. "That superimposed this racialized fiction of 'Indian blood' as well as a classist notion of residential requirement that we are still saddled with today."
The system has led to common use of terms such as "on-reservation" or "off-res" and "urban" Indians, Galanda says, which highlights differences rather than emphasizes commonalities amongst tribal members. Additionally, he notes, tribal members often identify by blood type – whole-blood, half-blood, quarter-blood or mixed-blood. The problem, Galanda says, is that there's no such thing as "Indian blood."
"There is human blood," he says. There is Type A, Type B, Type AB, and Type O, and there is a correlation between some of those types of blood and certain ethnicities. But biologically speaking, there is no such thing as 'Indian blood.'
"I believe we are in a period of reeducation and reawakening in terms of what it means to belong as an indigenous person to a tribal community and to American at large," Galanda adds.
The system has its flaws, but it's still a necessary evil, says Stacey Montooth, public relations officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Use of blood quantum for enrollment is common practice among the nation's 573 Indian tribes, Montooth notes. They key is that tribes stay consistent when determining enrollment criteria.
"Once a tribe exercises its sovereignty and declares its membership requirements, the application of the rules must be consistent," she says. "It's been 150 years since our ancestors were forced to give up our traditional lifestyle and were confined to reservations. Tribes had to implement a method to determine membership, which is a fundamental, God-given right of our sovereignty. Blood quantum, residency and descendancy are all flawed, but our past tribal leaders had to start from somewhere. Our obligation as current leaders is to apply our policies and procedures evenly."
Blood quantum creates 'racialized fiction'
The ties that bind peoples of Indian descent run far deeper than bloodlines and residency, however. Galanda says that prior to the implementation of the blood quantum system tribes were kinship societies. Belonging was measured first and foremost by familial relationships, culture, ceremony and relations.
Although it's necessary to establish Native American citizenship by some metric or another, Galanda acknowledges, tribes need to reconsider methods of identification in order to preserve their future.
"Tribes should pause to reconsider who we were before Colonialism and Federalism and go back to those ways, or modernize and harmonize those ways of kinship with the federal metrics of belonging to create a more hopeful future," he says. "If we continue to identify by race, at some point we will look in the mirror and say, 'I don't belong.' If we continue to use race as the metric, at some point we will not measure up.
"We have to reexamine every aspect of what it means to belong," he adds. "We have to redefine indigenuity as we know it today and ask whether we are using the tools of the colonizer to essentially colonize ourselves. That tool is the racialized fiction that is blood quantum."
Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, says that no matter how much or how little a person's bloodline, it is their inherent sovereign right to identify as Native American if that's their origin and heritage. Blood quantum makes sense, Torres says, when tribal members want ensure bloodlines remain strong. However, the only way to get pure native blood is to marry another native, and that's not a feasible option since in Indian Country most natives are interrelated.
"If you are one-eighth, or one-sixteenth, that's saying you are not quite Indian enough," Torres says. "We shouldn't use that outlook. We should be empowering our people to qualify for all the services they are entitled to by being Indian. It is their right to do that, and we should not take that away from anybody.
"If you are of Native descent, you are Native. It doesn't matter if you are light, dark or in between. We are all one nation, and we should be empowering each other to grow in numbers and be strong. Blood quantum is excluding tribal members, and that is not what we want."
Rob Sabo, a former reporter for the Northern Nevada Business Weekly, is a Reno-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to First Nation’s Focus.
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