By: Maryam Salazar
“Who is your family?” In Native communities, this is an all too familiar question asked by other members of the Tribe to orient themselves and their relationship to each other. It also allows an individual to orient themselves and their identity within their own community. However, the federal government instead requires Tribes to utilize blood quantum, a tool of sordid origins, to determine membership within a federally recognized tribe.
Blood quantum cannot be explained without first exploring why the federal government interferes with who can become a member of a Tribe. Indian Tribes are situated uniquely with the federal government. This unique and historical relationship has resulted in a well-established legal obligation and trust responsibility of the United States federal government to Indian Tribes. The Department of the Interior has been appointed responsible to issue a Certified Degree of Indian Blood in coordination with a Tribal official, usually a Tribal Enrollment Office.
There is a long and painful history of the United States pushing to rid themselves of this trust responsibility, including with attempts of socialization of Tribal citizens into Anglo-American culture. The emergence of blood quantum surfaced during what is considered the allotment period. Under the General Allotment Act, land was assigned to male Tribal citizens, with blood quantum usually, and excess lands were sold to non-Tribal citizens creating “checkerboard reservations.” Tribal citizens and non-Tribal Americans now lived within the boundaries of a reservation. The purpose of the allotments was to take land from Tribes and dismantle Tribal governments in furtherance of assimilating Tribal citizens into American society. Then, the Indian Reorganization Act was crafted to mitigate the damage caused by the allotment era, and with that, the authority of Tribes to define their own citizenship requirements, as long as they had one.
Blood quantum remains highly controversial. It measures the amount of “Indian blood” an individual has and is used to determine whether or not said individual, or their children, can become a member of a Tribe. The federal government placed this requirement on Tribes in an effort to stifle their membership numbers, with the goal of eradication. For example, if an individual with a certified “full blood” status, has children with a non-Native person, any of their children will now have “half-blood” and it continues each generation until they no longer meet a minimum Indian blood requirement. The accompanied loss of any Indigenous identity because of blood quantum is obvious when an individual is rejected for membership to their respective Tribe. As Tribes continue to uphold blood quantum requirements to control Tribal membership, Indigenous identity and belonging to their community is jeopardized.
Because of its dark beginnings, blood quantum perseveres as a topic of touchy debate throughout Indian Country. Although blood quantum restricts who can become a member of a Tribe, one caveat exists that Tribes are able to enforce their sovereignty by applying blood quantum on their own terms and deciding which approach works best for them. Tribes across the United States have taken different approaches to implementing this Federal requirement. Many Tribes still utilize blood quantum, while others have turned to lineage. Lineal descent allows membership to individuals that have an ancestor on the base roll and does not require any quantification formulas to be applied. Minimum percentage of “Indian blood” used by Tribes vary as well. For example, some tribes require a minimum of 1/4 of that Tribe’s blood, and other Tribes, require a minimum of 1/4 of any Indian blood, so long as the individual also has that Tribe’s blood. These are creative ways Tribes have worked around this requirement, however, continuing to use this tool of genocide lacks discernment. The harm caused by blood quantum is felt by many and is shown in diverse Indigenous families, in which there are some members of the Tribe, and others that do not meet the blood quantum requirement. Conflict exists between the sovereignty to define citizenship requirements and releasing blood quantum. True sovereignty must be questioned if Tribes uphold this colonial tool meant to eradicate Tribes’ very existence.
This legal definition of Indian status sometimes finds itself at the forefront of the determination of Indigenous identity, and in the background are other historical and community-internal criteria such as kinship, maternal clans, and a number of years lived in an indigenous community. This non-exhaustive list of alternative identity establishment provides insight to the true mechanisms of Indigenous identity on the ground. It provides ways individuals are recognized by their people when blood quantum fails to include individuals, but community instead welcomes them. Tribes have the authority to change the way blood quantum is implemented. The answer to why Tribes continue to use blood quantum, instead of these mentioned historical criteria, or even lineal descent is complicated. One small piece of the puzzle, and where I believe the answer lies, is within the Tribal membership. Unless citizens of affected Tribes decide to take act and move away from blood quantum, it will continue to dwindle numbers and internalize within Indian children that they are not Indigenous enough.
Maryam has a Bachelor’s in Social Work from Northern Arizona University and a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Southern California. She is a 2L at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and in the Indian Legal Program. Maryam is interested in water law and the intersection with Tribal Nations’ self-sufficiency of the rivers and waterways on their reservations. Her personal interests include playing volleyball, painting, and finding new hiking spots with her two daughters.