Blood Quantum: A Question of Preservation

Photo Library of Congress
Photo Library of Congress

For much of American history, blood quantum, a legal measurement of heritage, has determined rights and privileges of minority citizens. It may sound archaic, but many Native American tribes still determine membership based on blood quantum. This because unlike other ethnic groups in the United States, American Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations and the US government requires proof that one is a member of those tribes before one can legally be considered Indian. The history of blood quantum in the Native American community is long and complex, and still sparks controversy, especially because of its continued usage. There are many reasons why blood quantum is still a part of Indian life, but recent signs show there is both a willingness and a desire to put an end to it usage. 

A Brief History of Blood Quantum

Blood Quantum started in England as a way to determine inheritance. Before the laws of primogeniture–where the oldest surviving male son inherited everything by default–all surviving relatives inherited property according to the strength of their familial relationship. For example, a wealthy baron might have children with his wife as well as illegitimate children and half-siblings, all of whom would have a claim to portions of his estate. 

When English settlers colonized the New World, they brought blood quantum laws and used them to determine land and legal rights of Native Americans and slaves or former slaves. The first blood quantum laws in the US date from the early 18th century. However, blood quantum was not applied unilaterally in colonial America–important to note for the very fact that it was applied unilaterally in the 20th century. 

Instead, as with cases of inheritance in England, blood quantum was a tool used to determine the application of special laws regarding Indians (ability to sign contracts, receive state support and the like) on a case-by-case basis in a court of law. That’s not to say the laws themselves were fair, just that blood quantum was only an issue when these legal matters came into question. “Blood,” or how many of the individual’s ancestors were Indian, sometimes was ruled insignificant in the face of cultural association–in Inhabitants of Andover v. Inhabitants of Canton in 1816, the court ruled that though a woman didn’t have any Indian blood, culturally she was an Indian because she grew up with her tribe. 

Blood quantum was also applied when the US government signed treaties with Indian tribes to determine land rights and legal benefits–not tribal membership–and the Indians defined themselves as either “full-blood” or “mixed-blood.” The federal courts hesitated to apply blood quantum unilaterally because it was clear the Indian definitions of mixed-race were different from tribe to tribe and didn’t conform to the US government’s.

All that changed after the conclusion of the Indian Wars (which saw skirmishes as late as the 1920s but were effectively over after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890). Indian who were moved onto reservations and were dependent on the government had their legal rights determined by blood quantum. The more “white” one’s blood was, the more legal rights one could claim. Rights like signing or witnessing contracts were denied to full-blooded Indians because they were wards of the government and therefore not considered competent. In effect, full-blooded Indians were considered children under the law.

Because most Indians in the late-19th and early-20th century weren’t allowed to sign contracts, they couldn’t sell the land the government gave them after the Indian Wars. But after several years, the government wanted that land opened up for possible sale. Not just because the land might then open up for white development, but because as fully competent owners of the land, American Indians would also have to pay taxes on it. Congress’ solution, first applied to the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma, was to break the land up into allotments, assign the allotments to individual members of the tribe, and then use blood quantum to declare American Indians either mixed-blood or not Indian, thus opening up their allotments for sale. 

How did Congress determine who was and wasn’t “Indian”? By using the blood quantum declarations in 19th-century treaties as well as anthropologists to study individuals’ facial features to determine their race. Not surprisingly, these measures dramatically reduced the population of the Native community. At the White Earth Reservation, for example, the number of registered full-blooded Indians went from more than 5,000 to 126.

Congress had an even greater purpose than opening up land, however. It should be noted that American Indians weren’t the only minority who faced blood quantum laws at this time–in the South there was the “one drop” rule, which meant that a person with one drop of African blood was considered black. Compare that to American Indian blood quantum, which fractured an individual’s racial heritage and considered one “white” if one was less than a quarter Indian. Why the difference? Because the purpose of African American blood quantum was to maintain a population of second-class citizens; the purpose of American Indian blood quantum was to eliminate “the Indian problem.” 

 “If you pass it to where they are quarter blood Indians you are going to have all kinds of people coming in and claiming they are quarter blood Indians and want to be put on the government rolls, and in my judgment it should not be done,” said Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana in 1934. 

He explained they [the government] were trying to get rid of the Indian problem “rather than add to it.”

It was generally believed that through intermarriage and racial mixing, in a few generations there would no longer be any Indians. With the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, sometimes called the “Indian New Deal,” Congress eliminated Indian land allotments altogether and used blood quantum unilaterally to define who had rights to financial benefits from the government for being Native American. Senator Wheeler did not get his wish: in the end, the limit was set at 1/8th blood quantum.

Modern Blood Quantum

Today, tribes are allowed to set their own rules for membership, and most of them still use blood quantum. Considering the history of blood quantum, why would they? The answer is complex and has to do with a mix of influence from the government and the difficulty of altering institutionalized policies. 

Starting with *the Indian Reorganization Act, tribes were recognized as “domestic dependent nations,” meaning they were allowed to make their own laws, but were not given full sovereignty as a foreign nation might have. Indian nations were given a selection of constitutional documents they could use to describe the powers of their own government. All the tribes who ratified the IRA included blood quantum requirements into their constitution.

One can reasonably conjecture this was due to the influence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Paul Spruhan wrote a case study on how the Navajo Nation, who didn’t ratify the IRA and didn’t have a constitution until 1953, adopted blood quantum as a requirement for membership. It all started when the local Bureau of Indian Affairs officials suggested the Navajo might want to limit their membership to prevent people from exploiting their natural resources. The BIA officials then suggested a 1/4 blood quantum requirement for membership. This was eventually added to the Navajo constitution, and remains a part of it today, even though it was originally meant to be a temporary measure.

Why did the Navajo accept the BIA’s judgment about blood quantum and people trying to steal their resources? As with any group membership, they were trying to keep certain people out as much as they were trying to keep other people in. Spruhan suggests the Navajo wanted to exclude “Mexican slaves,” descendants of Navajo who where kidnapped by Spanish colonists and raised by them, and a group with whom they had a history of conflict. The Cherokee Nation instituted a similar measure to deny tribal rights to “Cherokee Freedmen,” or descendants of slaves of the Cherokee who were adopted into the tribe after the Civil War abolished slavery. 

In 2011, California tribes reorganized blood quantum requirements to dis-enroll a large number of people from the tribe so the remaining tribe members would receive greater shares of casino profits.

These are isolated incidents, of course, but they’re the most extreme examples of the effects of blood quantum, which to some extent requires conformity and the exclusion of those who don’t adhere to government policies. Even if one is an American Indian and hates the concept of blood quantum–which many, aware of its racist roots, do–refusing to join a tribe or leaving a tribe because of blood quantum requirements can have long-reaching consequences. Not just for an individual, but for their children and grandchildren, they are permanently removing themselves from their nation on simply a matter of principle. Noble, perhaps, but not very practical.

As with any institutionalized practice, once blood quantum is established it’s extraordinarily difficult to undo, as the Navajo Nation’s example illustrates. So while many people dislike blood quantum because of its history within the tribes, they’ve learned to live with it.

The real problem with blood quantum isn’t merely its racist roots, however, but the fact that it defines something amorphous–culture and identity–in terms of fractions, and does so in an inconsistent way. For example, if you are a member of a tribe the US government has decided is extinct–which is more common than you’d think—your ancestry with that tribe is no longer considered a valid qualification for blood quantum. Similarly, if some of your native heritage is not found in the US but Canada or Mexico, that “fraction” of your heritage won’t be counted in US blood quantum. Blood quantum also cuts out people who marry members of a tribe or those who are adopted into tribes, a long-standing American Indian tradition. In fact, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and many of the US founding fathers were adopted into the Iroquois Confederation, and portions of the Bill of Rights are taken directly from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.

Many artists have commented on the fracture of identity caused by blood quantum. Sherman Alexie, a famous American Indian writer, wrote a poem that addressed it directly called “13/16.” In it, Alexie alludes to how people are reduced to fractions rather than whole people. The famous artist James Luna also addressed his fractured identity as both Mexican and Native American in a series of photographs that literally split the two sides of himself in half with stereotypical hairstyles and fashion. Chickasaw artist Kristen Dorsey created blood quantum earrings in the shape of a drop with numbers and bar codes on them, commenting on how viewing people in terms of their blood fractions rather than their heritage dehumanizes them. 

In all of these cases, artists try to express that human identity is more complex than being either a Native American or not; they have many different heritages, all of which make them who they are.

With such a history of blood quantum, it is no wonder that even people like Paul Spruhan wonder if it will always be a part of the Native American community. 

The answer is that there is momentum building to eliminate blood quantum: last year Hawaii unanimously voted to end blood quantum requirements in their state legislature. In January, the White Earth Nation in Minnesota proposed altering their constitution to eliminate blood quantum requirements. This is something that every American Indian nation decides for itself.

The issue of blood quantum in the American Indian community won’t be solved overnight, especially in the face of federal requirements concerning Indian nations and definitions of “Indianess.” But perhaps the more salient point is that blood quantum was intended to eliminate American Indians altogether, and they’re still here. Blood quantum may be an issue, but it’s not a lynchpin issue. Whether it continues or not Native American culture and tradition will persevere.

by Tasha Brandstatter


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