What does it mean to be an American Indian? For some, the answer is simple: one is American Indian if they possess a specific degree of Indian blood. This standard definition originates in the federal government’s enactment of blood quantum law. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the U.S. government used blood quantum, the degree of Indian blood a given individual possessed, to establish not only who was American Indian, but who was eligible for benefits under treaty law. Since then, Tribes have modified rules of membership under their inherent powers as sovereign nations. While degree of blood required for enrollment by Tribe may vary, the majority of Tribes still adhere to some form of blood quantum law.
In order for the standard ‘blood quantum law’ definition of who is American Indian to hold up, one must accept that identifying as an American Indian is based on blood as it pertains to race. Here, the ‘blood quantum law’ characterization of who is American Indian falls apart, because it is possible for one to be American Indian by blood and race, but not be a Tribal member, and therefore not be legally recognized as an American Indian. By definition, only federally recognized Tribes are legally recognized by the federal government; consequently, one who is not a member of a federally recognized Tribe, despite bona fide native ancestry, may not necessarily be defined as American Indian by the federal government. Furthermore, blood quantum law used in the determination of membership in federally-recognized Tribes has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as a political classification, not a racial one.
Blood quantum law is also defective pursuant to actual blood lineage. An individual may possess blood from several federally recognized Tribes, but not qualify to enroll in any one Tribe if the blood quantum they possess from that specific Tribe is less the amount needed to enroll, and if that Tribe does not allow blood from other Tribes to count toward the blood degree required. Also, someone may qualify for Tribal membership by blood but choose not to enroll. Others have relinquished membership, or been disenrolled. Furthermore, there are reports that when some Tribal rolls were established, natives were told that they may only classify themselves as either full blood or half blood. As a result, some bloodlines from these Tribes may be inaccurate.
Defining Native identity by blood quantum alone is also a mathematical dead end. Because of Tribes’ ever-shrinking populations, it will become impossible for them to maintain full blood pedigrees without inbreeding. As human beings, we are not bred like cattle to guarantee pure bloodlines. If Tribes rely on blood quantum alone to define membership, extinction will occur.
As Native people, our blood ties are undeniable. Much of the DNA that comprises our genetic code is tightly packaged in chromosomes found within the nucleus of cells, but mitochondria possess their own DNA. Mitochondria are microscopic organelles in our cells that convert food into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), energy used to power cellular functions. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), represents a small fraction of the total DNA in cells, but because it is passed solely from mother to child, it’s become instrumental in the genetic study of ancestry. Studies of mitochondrial DNA has shown that approximately 95% of all indigenous people in North, Central and South America are direct descendants of six women, referred to in scientific circles as the “founding mothers.”
Even so, before the federal government’s implementation of blood quantum law, one’s native identity in terms of Tribal membership was not solely based on blood ancestry. Membership was more dependent on one’s adherence to the Tribe’s culture and belief system, speaking the native language, and by being an active part of their society. Tribes adopted members without blood ancestry and absorbed prisoners and captives. Intermarriage between members of various Tribes wasn’t uncommon.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “If our native ancestors visited us today, would they recognize us as their own?” At first, because of our physical appearances, we may think not. Today’s natives exhibit varied skin tone, eye color, hair length, and manner of dress- but would our ancestors define us purely by western society’s stereotypical view of what it means to be American Indian? Probably not. They would want to know if we are acting as living conduits of our native heritages by passing cultural knowledge onto the next generation, while working to insure that our native nations thrive. They would recognize us by our shared language and value systems, observance of tribal culture and beliefs, and preservation of relationships with extended family, Earth, and our Tribe.
As natives, if we fail to adapt to the reality of change amongst our tribal populations, we will cease to exist as nations. It is up to us to define what it means to be American Indian. The time for real, meaningful dialogue on Tribal membership and native identity is now. Rather than focusing solely on bloodlines, we must act to safeguard our distinct cultures, languages, familial relationships, and belief systems, because the essence of our identity as Natives is whether or not we are living in the spirit of our ancestors.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org