Commentary on David Treuer NYTs Op/Ed on Indian Blood Quantum

Here is the op/ed. It’s a great one, and well worth reflection.

A note of commentary … from a lawyer. This is a bit of an odd opinion in that I’m not sure what the position is. Treuer never rejects blood quantum as a minimum qualification, though he does rightfully criticize it as a primary marker of tribal membership. He seems to be suggesting that tribal membership is much more than blood quantum, a point upon which we can both agree. He writes:

Indians themselves knew how artificial this category of tribal membership was, and could use it to their own advantage. Before my tribe, the Ojibwe, established the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota in 1867, Chief Bagone-giizhig lobbied to exclude mixed-bloods from the rolls — not because they weren’t Indians but because, most likely, they formed a competing trader class. Bagone-giizhig swore they would rob White Earth blind. That he was right is a bit beside the point — he probably wanted to rob it blind himself.

This is an outstanding point, and brings us back to why and how blood quantum can be used and abused, even by Indian tribes, such as those in California and elsewhere who are disenrolling members for what appears to be reasons based purely on greed (who knows, really?). In fact, any membership/citizenship criteria throughout history has used for bad purposes.

As for the point of the op/ed, Treuer suggests additional markers of what tribes could and should use for tribal membership criteria:

Who is and who isn’t an Indian is a complicated question, but there are many ways to answer it beyond genetics alone. Tribal enrollees could be required to possess some level of fluency in their native language or pass a basic civics test. On my reservation, no schoolchild is asked to read the treaties that shaped our community or required to know about the branches of tribal government or the role of courts and councils. Or tribal membership could be based, in part, on residency, on some period of naturalization inside the original treaty area (some tribes do consider this). Many nations require military service — tribes don’t have armies, but they could require a year of community service.

This is where I’m curious. So, does this replace blood quantum? Or does some blood quantum requirement remain? I’ve rather vaguely proposed a kind of hybrid (here and here), but one that still heavily prioritizes a minimum blood quantum but still allows for non-Indians that meet political criteria to enjoy significant membership benefits. Would Treuer agree that a person with no blood quantum, but who is fluent in Anishinaabemowin, participates in ceremonies, and has lived perhaps his or her whole life on the reservation, qualify for tribal membership? Probably not, and neither would I (absent the political elements I would require), but “why not” is a question for which we as Indians don’t have very good answers.

Regardless, what makes this a great opinion piece is this statement:

Other nations take these things into account, and in doing so they reinforce something we, with our fixation on blood, have forgotten: bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place.

What exactly is the common purpose of an Indian nation? My belief is that the Great Lakes Anishinaabe tribes have arrived at a broad, common understanding for existing, albeit one that is very abstract. It’s more than greed (maybe because there’s only so much money) and it’s more than being “more Indian than thou.” My guess is that the tribes engaging in the ugly disenrollment practices have no common understanding of their purpose. That much seems clear (at least to me).

Treuer’s views are very important to me, because I see a disconnect in what tribal membership means. As a lawyer, I see tribal membership as largely political (that is, you can be a nonmember and still be an Indian). Treuer (and I hate to put words in his mouth) sees tribal membership as less political and more cultural (though with significant political aspects, see the civics test). What is often missing in virtually all discussions about tribal membership in any tribal community is whether one or the other should win out, and how they can be mixed.

Weird thing is, in both my tribe and I believe Treuer’s, it is politically impossible to change the membership criteria anyway.

9 thoughts on “Commentary on David Treuer NYTs Op/Ed on Indian Blood Quantum

  1. Original Pechanga (@opechanga) December 21, 2011 / 2:41 pm

    That would mean that the son of two Italian immigrants Espera DeCorti, renowed actor for his portrayal of Indians, as IRON EYES CODY would be Indian because….. he played himself as Indian for years?

    Versus, in our family’s case, our Native ancestor, who lived with the tribe, got land on the reservation at it’s beginning, had family, a continual link and was related to the ancestors of tribal chairman who disenrolled us ..we aren’t “real Pechanga Indians?’

  2. Kelley Folsom December 21, 2011 / 4:09 pm

    I’ve been dealing with this issue for quite some time myself. I am abenaki and have been actively participating in the traditional culture for the last 20 years or so. I recently had a DNA test through AncestryByDNA and found out that I am 72% European, 25% Subsaharan African, and only 3% Native American. This was quite a shock to me, since I had thought I was 25% Native American. I find that alot of people both Native and Non-native, want to classify me as non-native, because my native blood quantum is so low. I point out to them that regardless of my percentage, the test does prove I am of native descent. But, people just don’t want to accept that. But, they will identify me as black, even though the majority of my genes is European. Why is that? It seems like a really ridiculous standard has been set for native americans that no one else seems to be held to.
    I also point out to them that native american is a race, and that abenaki is an ethnicity. It is a culture. It is MY culture. It is the culture of some of my proginators, and therefore who is anyone to tell me that I cannot follow it or identify with it? I don’t remember asking for anyone’s permission, let alone opinion to identify my own culture. I think the controversy is because there is still such an intolerance of native american cultures and religions in american society. It’s so sickening to me that this way of life has been crushed to the point where people who are traditionals like me can hardly be public about it for fear of the ridicule and quite honestly, harrassment we have to deal with. There is a law in America that states that there is freedom of religion. That should be all there is to it. Period.

    Thanks for listening.

    Soft Breeze

  3. Micheal December 21, 2011 / 9:10 pm

    The issue I have with blood quantum testing is that it does not test for actual parentage, but allele dominance. Our blind trust in science and technology should not replace our belief and practices.
    Who qualifies for “membership ” in any ethnic group is a difficult question, and harder to answer in an egalitarian way. My wife’s great-grandmother is Choctaw, grew up off of a reservation in Arkansas, married a son of Irish immigrants, and their children never lived with any Choctaw tribe. It would be understandable that my wife would not be a full member Choctaw, as her maternal grandmother and mother did not live as Choctaw, but her blood quantum would show what ever allele dominance that was passed down. It is possible that her grandmother was less than 50% by blood quantum, just because of the question of allele dominance.
    How I didn’t muddy the waters too much.

  4. Kelley Folsom December 22, 2011 / 9:12 am

    What you’re saying about the DNA testing is true. They explained to me that when a couple is of mixed ancestry, that each of their children could inherit different admixtures. For example, if one parent is 50% native and 50% european, and the other parent is 100% european, and they had 3 children, that one child could inherit the full 50% native, another child might inherit 25%, and another child might inherit only 3%, like myself. So, it’s true, the DNA testing doesn’t really tell you much about how much native blood your parents or grandparents have, only how much you inherited.

  5. NON DNA NDN December 22, 2011 / 1:27 pm

    Membership should be based on how many smartberries you have! Duh.

  6. Kelley Folsom December 22, 2011 / 2:49 pm


  7. Mochuk808 September 15, 2012 / 2:51 am

    You shouldnt feel so conflicted your culture is yours and remains without question. BQ simply defines who among our ancerstors were indian and who among them Remained indian married in and stayed indian. BQ and culture speak to 2 different things. When defining a tribe natives in many tribes agree that BQ is a basis/starting pt in defining tribal members. No one need ask permission to celebrate that. If one wishes to be a Tribal Member then BQ is a basic.

  8. Mochuk808 September 15, 2012 / 2:55 am

    blood quantum should start with the full blood and the non-indian. Their child will be the 1/2. You must place yourself in that where you belong generationally. If you are too far away or cannot determine BQ starting with that ancestor then you really shouldnt evn bother. No DNA test tells real indians who or how much they are b/c you already know and you have living relatives with both parents indian i.e. your grands and parents. If this is not the case then again dont evn bother with BQ its not meant for you.
    This rather then the allele testing is the BQ. We are not and should not be confused with quantifying dominant and recessive inherited genes as BQ.

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