Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Blood Quantum

Andrea Appleton has a great article in High Country News about blood quantum, or the standard that Native American peoples use to determine who is a member of their tribe. This idea, which came from U.S. government attempts to classify Indians, is causing all sorts of problems for Native peoples.

Who is an Indian? How much blood do you need? Should DNA even matter? What about language? What if you are part-white? These are all core questions in this debate.

Not surprisingly, Native Americans intermarry with other peoples in large numbers. In part, this is because a lot of the tribes are really small and if you don't want to be marrying within your family, you are forced to look outside your tribe. Many Native Americans spend a good bit of time off the reservation, interacting with both other Indians, as well as the rest of the population. Naturally, this leads to people from different backgrounds falling in love, having kids, and getting married. What to do with these children? If they are half white, are they Indian at all? If they are half of one tribe and half of another, which do they belong to? What if their parents are also of multiple tribes? You can see how complex this gets.

The sad thing is that it's often all about money. Appleton concentrates on the Fort Peck Reservation in eastern Montana. This remote place is desperately poor, without access to a casino or any reasonable economic options for that matter. Official members of the tribe, people who have the proper blood quantum, receive the most economic benefits. At Fort Peck, this is pretty small. But it's even worse with peoples who do have casinos. Here you see situations where corrupt tribal leaders are throwing as many people out as possible because only full members of the tribe partake in the financial windfall. In California, New England, Washington, and to a lesser extent, New Mexico, you see these battles take place. It can be pretty disgusting.

It's also disturbing that people of two tribes are forced to choose between their identities. They often go for the tribe with the most economic benefits, a natural decision. But it has consequences too. I knew a guy in New Mexico who was one half a member of a New Mexico pueblo and one half a tribe from Minnesota. He chose the Minnesota group because they could offer him more opportunities. But that meant his child could never play a full role in the pueblo. This tore him up, but what could he do?

One of the saddest parts of this issue is watching people internalize a colonial structure and then allow that structure to define their peoples. But with limited economic opportunities, an existence as a minority in their own land, and centuries of racism, it's hardly surprising. I certainly have no solution and can come to no better conclusion than to say that Indian-white relations are still really complicated. In fact, they probably never will not be complicated because ultimately, Europeans are the conquering colonial power and they aren't going anywhere. It's sad to see this situation continue to affect people in profoundly negative ways.