At a gathering for graduate students in a local bar, the inevitable, icky question of funding came up with people I was meeting for the first time from other departments. My roommie and I explained how ours worked, and part of this involved discussing the nature of graduate fellowships. I clarified that most of our fellowship students are on one of two that last five years each, while I was a unique case with my two-year-master's-diversity one. Another guy said he was on a Ph.D. fellowship for diversity because he's Hispanic. I said I'm Native American. He squinted his eyes and asked me, skeptically, "How Native American?"
"Wait, what?" I asked.
"How Native American are you?"
I stared, slack-jawed. Some other gals at the table started to say something like, "Now hang on, it's not like I get asked, 'How woman are you?' and I say, 'Uuuuuh, 98%!'"
"Well," he went on, entirely unphased, "I ask because there was this girl at my undergrad that's 1/32 Cherokee and had a full ride for it. I mean, the girl was as white as white can be, but she claimed this random, distant relative, and got free college, it seemed really unfair."
I knew exactly what he was doing- implying that since I'm pale with dirty-blonde hair, I must be a total poser, milking the system unfairly, etc.
So I puffed up and said, "You want to test how Native American I am? My grandpa was beaten by a priest for speaking Lakota at school, that's how Native American I am."
(Granted, it was actually my great uncle, but I was pissed- same generation, at least.)
"What?" he asked, confused. I repeated and he asked, "I'm sorry, speaking what?"
"Luh-coe-tuh, you know, my tribe's language?"
"Oooh, LAKOTA!" he said, as if he just now got it.
"YES!" I said, "Lakota. Sioux, Oglala Lakota Sioux, like Crazy Horse?"
"Yeah..." he said, but his eyes squinted again. "So your grandpa?"
"For speaking Lakota?"
"Yeah, exactly, so don't you dare go implying I have no connections to-"
"Well," he interrupted with, "so you got the diversity fellowship, that's great. Mine was a doctoral one, so it was for academic merit and diversity."
So we went from implying I'm "not Native enough" to having no actual academic credentials because I am "Native enough" in a few seconds.
Now, this dude would prolly have gone off the rails if I asked "how Hispanic" he was. And would have thrown the table at me if I suggested he didn't deserve his fellowship because the only real reason he had one was because he's a minority. But I'm not that kind of person. So I refrained.
I kind of wish I hadn't.
The above conversation is one indigenous persons in this country have over and over again, even if they have darker skin than I do. It comes in different forms and in different contexts- it could be from institutions testing their credentials; from non-indigenous persons they meet; or even from other indigenous persons themselves. This comes down to blood quantum.
Remember how that guy said, "...1/32 Cherokee..."? I'm sure you've heard people talk of their heritage that way before- "I'm 1/2 Irish." "I'm half Muggle." You know, as a way to highlight whatever portion of their heritage they wish to highlight.
With indigenous ancestry, there's an entirely different connotation.
Blood quantum is the shorthand way of saying "Amount of Native American blood in a person needed in order to 'count' as Native American." Blood quantum laws were set by the federal government and then adopted and modified by individual Nations as a means of controlling tribal membership and rosters. The federal government doesn't mind it, and there are always fights about it in Indian Country. Because yeah, resources are limited, so there needs to be a way of figuring out whose claims of ancestry are "legit" and whose aren't. But at the same time, there are so many problems with it, it's rather deplorable. But nobody can really come up with anything else. So it doesn't change.*
Why is it problematic? Well, remember how I said that guy would have flipped his shit if I had questioned his authenticity? Yeah, that doesn't really happen to any other ethnic/racial minority. It stemmed from cause to discriminate, oh sure, but the opposite happened with Blacks with the "one drop" rule, and now it stands as a means of affirmative action-esque policies. No other minority group has to provide government documentation in order to proclaim that as their identity. None. Period. Nor do they have to pass a gorram background/blood check. I think this is something that gets taken for granted by other minorities. And I don't think anyone asking, "How Native are you?" (because again, we get asked this all. the. time.) intends to bring this baggage up, but by invoking the question, they do. And coming from a white person, it feels like, "Fuck you, it's your ancestor's fault you'd even feel the need to ask that." When it comes from a minority, it feels like, "And I bet you've never had to answer the same question, have you? Must be nice." Even if they mean well, as if they just genuinely are curious, blood quantum is an underlying, unspoken presence in the conversation. And other people just do not understand this. The authenticity of claims of indigenous heritage is brought into question daily by the government. And that leads to general questions from everyday people, like that guy in the bar.
Another reason is you have to prove it through documentation of your lineage. So if there's a missing spot on the family tree, PRESTO! go home, you don't count. Have a nice day. It's really easy to get kicked off the roster because of some bureaucratic error, rather than because you actually are not qualified.
Another reason it's problematic is the rules themselves keep changing. A few years ago, for example, the Cherokee Nation declared it would no longer allow people descended from slaves to count. A whole huge group of people were taken off of the Cherokee roster as a result. And yes, there are economic issues to consider, and they claimed they were doing so in order to keep resources in the hands of people whose blood ran Cherokee, but the Freedmen are descendants of people immersed and bred within the Cherokee Nation's culture. What the Cherokee did itself isn't my main concern, though, but rather why. The fact is, they were having trouble with their rosters and dealing with blood quantum, and kicking some people off the dole made that easier to do. And other tribes change their rules all the time as their resources shrink and as their lands are encroached on more. Never mind whether those people getting kicked off identify in their heart of hearts as that tribe- it's the bottom line taking precedent over some people because others are suffering.
And that relates to the next reason it's problematic. Again, the rules began with the federal government. And it's entirely colonialist for a government to tell the people it has conquered the rules for identifying as part of that group. The tribes carried those rules over because they didn't have any other model to go off of- legal documentation to prove status? Entirely foreign to indigenous peoples in North America. I don't know how other tribes work, but I know back when this shit was made into law, my people, the Lakota, would accept you if you wanted and earned it. There was no document to sign, you just had to prove you lived Lakota, loved Lakota, breathed Lakota, and would die Lakota. The document thing may sound easier, but it's not- it's a lot more exclusionary to say a person's blood has to be pure enough than to say their heart does. And again, the government doesn't set these rules for any other group, so the only people whose cultures are being defined all have brown skin and have been sequestered onto Reservations.
The main reason this is problematic, though, is that it's an institutionalized, bureaucratized form of modern genocide.
Think about it.
If a person has to pass a threshold of "Indianness" in their blood before being allowed to claim it as their identity, it's only a matter of time before Native Americans will die off. Even if we keep "breeding" with each other, the way the blood quantum laws are so finnicky with some tribes, if you're a mix of enough stuff, even if it's more Native stuff than white, if you can't claim enough of one tribe's blood, you're out. I'm not into inbreeding, and we shouldn't have to resort to that sort of thing in order to retain the "purity" of our blood just so that the government will be happy. I see no reason why mixed bloods shouldn't count, so long as they believe it in their hearts.
My mom has a saying, "It only takes one generation." Hers was the first generation to grow up off-res on her dad's side. And she is 100% city girl as a result. In one generation, the language, the skills, the culture- pretty much gone in her family. I have more "Native heritage" than her because I learned how to do things like start a fire and grow vegetables from my friends and "family" out in Washington- and they're white. Her sister and one of my cousins are sort of going back to their roots, so to speak (I think my cousin is trying to learn Lakota, and she works on the res now), but the only way for my cousin's kids to officially count would be for her to marry someone with HELLA more Native blood than she has- and her fiance isn't at all Native American, so that's not happening. So she can immerse herself and her family on the res all she wants, the government isn't going to give two shits unless she bangs a Real Live Indian.
"Why should you let the government decide? If you want to be Indian, be Indian!" you say. Again, I point you to the uniqueness of blood quantum laws. They do not exist for anyone else. So the government has already said our identities need to be codified and quantified, ours and ours alone. There's no blood test to be American- but there's a test to be Native American. Which is pretty fucking ironic, given all of the ridiculously hypocritical nativism arguments being spouted by white people afraid the Mexicans are going to ruin the country. You want Homeland Security to secure your borders, do you?
I think that image is pretty telling- notice how those Apache warriors have guns? That's escalation. It shows how we aren't dying off, we're adapting.
And I say all this as someone that doesn't "count." I'm 1/16 Lakota; that's not enough. My mom's generation is the first to be raised off-res, but the last to make blood quantum.
"It only takes one generation."
With the birth of me and my siblings and cousins came pretty much the death of the Lakota line in my family. Unless by some miracle I meet a nice guy that happens to be Lakota- because call me selfish, but I'm having enough trouble with men as it is, so I'm not about to limit my search to Lakota men.
But as resources shrink, as demands increase, blood quantum laws are going to get stricter and stricter. And there may be some ridiculous reversal where they all of a sudden get really loosey-goosey, but in all honesty, I don't think a swing like that would work. I think there are too few of us left for it to make a lasting difference. And anyway, individual tribes would have to disappear. Hell, they kind of already are.
We are not dead yet. And yeah, Indian Schools stopped running a while back, the last being Stewart Indian School, closed in 1986. So our culture isn't technically illegal any more. But legacies of direct violence such as war, rape, and forced removal, as well as indirect violence, such as discrimination and blood quantum, are doing their job, and I worry that within a few more generations, there won't be enough of us left to hold onto our lands, to keep our cultures alive.
I wonder what I'm going to tell my children. And it frightens me, and it saddens me, and I mourn for the identity they won't really be able to have. Because how can I tell them they're Native when they're two generations away from "counting" and every signal they get from the entire United States culture is telling them that? How can I tell them they're Lakota when I already have asshats like the one in the bar going after me? When they're prolly going to look whiter than I do?
It's prolly a good thing I'm single and am nowhere near having my own kids yet, otherwise I'd have to more seriously think of this shit, and I'd prolly have a huge meltdown.
I get angry when people ask "how" Native American I am. And I get hurt. And I'm not really sure how to end this, except to ask anyone reading to think next time they start to ask somebody claiming Native ancestry "how much" that ancestry is. Because it's bad enough we live with the knowledge we're being measured by the government every day. It's bad enough we know there are government-sanctioned practices acting as the norm today that are gradually killing us off.
We don't need you reminding us.
*I realized after writing this I was almost uncannily channeling this gentleman here, so I figured I should give credit where subliminal credit is due.