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.

NPR Story on the Treuer Brothers

From NPR:

Fresh Air from WHYY, April 23, 2008 · Brothers David and Anton Treuer are members of the Ojibwe nation from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. They are working to preserve the Ojibwe language, one of the few Native American languages in use.

Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe language and oral tradition at Bemidji State University. He is editor of the Oshkaabewis Native Journal and Omaa Akiing, a collection of Ojibwe tales by Leech Lake elders. Anton is also the author of Living Our Language: Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories.

David Treuer is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Minnesota. He is author of a number of books, including the novel The Translation of Dr Apelles: A Love Story.

Indian Literary Frauds: David Treuer on “Going Native”

From Slate:

In 1930, shortly after the studio release of his movie The Silent Enemy, Buffalo Child Long Lance’s Indian identity began to crumble. He was a celebrity by that time, having boxed Dempsey and dated movie stars, but he was not, it turned out, a full-blooded Blackfeet Indian who had been raised on the plains, as he had claimed. He had not hunted buffalo from horseback as the prairie winds blew through his hair. And his name was not actually Buffalo Child Long Lance. His real name was Sylvester Long. He was from Winston-Salem, N.C. He was African-American. And his father was not a chief but, rather, a janitor.

Margaret B. Jones, the author of Love and Consequences, is hardly the first person to have invented an Indian self and a past. Her memoir tells of her upbringing as a half-white, half-Indian foster child by a black family in South Central L.A. In fact, Jones’ real name is Margaret Seltzer, she did not grow up in South Central, she’s never been a foster child, and she’s no more a Native American than Sylvester Long was.

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Treuer in the LA Times

From the LA Times:

Native American languages are dying out with the elders.

By David Treuer, Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 3, 2008

Photo illustration by Mark Todd

Only three Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada are expected to survive into the middle of this century. Mine, Ojibwe, is one of them. Many languages have just a few speakers left — two or three — while some have a fluent population in the hundreds. Recently, Marie Smith Jones, the last remaining speaker of the Alaskan Eyak language, died at age 89. The Ojibwe tribe has about 10,000 speakers distributed around the Great Lakes and up into northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba. Compared with many, we have it pretty good.

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