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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Blood and American Indians: Part 2

November 5, 2012

Tags: American Indians, Native Americans, blood quantum, Elizabeth Warren, Who is Indian


Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, finds herself caught in the dilemma of “blood quantum.” Most white Americans don’t know what this term means, but it is the hottest issue in Indian country, because it raised the question, “Who is Indian?” Warren just doesn’t have the “paper,” the “proof” of her Cherokee/Osage ancestry.

Whites imposed “blood quantum” on Indian identity in the nineteenth century, and through Elizabeth Warren, other Americans know more about it. As Native resistance to American conquest unleashed brutal battles across the West, the federal government settled conflicts through a series of treaties. Through the Dawes Act in 1887, tribes gave up millions of square miles of Indian land in exchange for some land (reservations), health care, education, and other benefits. The U.S. broke up Indian lands into 160-acre allotments given to individuals who lived on reservations and could document that one-half of their blood was pure Indian―”blood quantum.” A list of such individuals constituted the enrolled tribal members, and they and their descendants received proof of identity, a “white card” — a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.

Navajos and other tribes still use “blood quantum” to define tribal membership, but the amount varies from half to less than that. Others tribes rely on other tests, such as fluency with Native languages and culture, or community connections. Finally, some Indians refuse to participate in the “blood quantum” definition, because of its racial underpinnings.

For many Indians, marriage outside the tribe, especially to non-Indians, dilutes “blood quantum” and endangers native identity and tribal sovereignty―who is American Indian? Already, half of the four million American Indians come from mixed ancestry. In New Mexico, Zonnie Gorman, a lecturer and writer, fears that her family could lose its place in the Navajo Nation. Her mother was white, her father Navajo, so she is half Navajo. Her children’s father is non-Indian, so they are one-quarter Navajo, still enough for their Navajo identity. They also went to school on the reservation and culturally are Navajo. But if they marry non-Navajos, their children―Zonnie’s grandchildren―could lose tribal membership.

Some tribes have disenrolled members, with devastating results. In 2007, the Cherokees voted overwhelmingly to end citizenship for Black Freedmen. These are the descendants of freed Black slaves once owned by the Cherokees in their homeland in the Southeast, freed Blacks married to Cherokees, and their mixed-race children. All had been forcibly removed along with the tribe to Oklahoma in the 1830s. The vote deprived nearly 3,000 enrolled Black Cherokees of tribal membership―and their benefits. The issue is still alive with a series of law suits and Congressional action limiting millions of federal dollars for the Cherokee Nation.

“Blood quantum” is a bitter legacy of conquest and colonialism, because it uses race to define people’s worth. Elizabeth Warren’s lack of “papers” has effectively wiped out her ancestry.