Updated: Sep 27
“Until 1934, blood quantum played no real role in determining tribal citizenship. Referring to someone as “part” Indian is based on a European idea of indigeneity meant to perpetuate genocide.”
It was chalking up to be an average afternoon of light reading, until I came across a headline that changed my life:
As a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, one of those “five civilized tribes,” I sat in my chair completely still. Then, I sprang up and sprinted to my sister’s room, shouting the exciting news.
“Now, we can marry anyone we want!” Our children could be Chickasaw no matter what.
You see, for most tribal nations, one must possess a specific “purity” of “Indian blood” in order to obtain tribal citizenship. This is calculated by adding up all the “Indian blood” in a person and dividing by two for every generation. This system is called blood quantum.
For example, if my mother was ¼ Indian, and my father was ½ Indian, then my blood quantum be ⅜ Indian: a little less than my mother. Many tribes have a minimum blood quantum requirement for determining citizenship.
Because of this, my sister and I were told that we must have children with another Chickasaw, or else our children would lose their culture. In fact, my family spread a rumor that we were the last in our bloodline who could keep our Chickasaw citizenship.
Blood quantum became the dark cloud looming over every romance. No matter who I dated, maintaining Chickasaw citizenship was my primary worry. So, when I discovered that blood quantum had been called off, it was incredibly liberating. I had a non-Indian girlfriend at the time, and it felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.
In actuality, the Chickasaw Nation does not use blood quantum to determine citizenship. It was just a family rumor. The headline actually referred to land ownership requirements, a legal milestone, but not one that directly applied to me.
Unfortunately, I was raised with the pain that most Native American youth live with every day.
Biologically speaking, there is no such thing as “blood quantum.” Biological traits are not split in two when one has children. Determining tribal membership through blood quantum only makes sense if you believe that someone’s behaviors, culture, and claims to nationhood are based on race and racial purity. This is a highly problematic concept that Europeans brought with them across the Atlantic. Tribes did not use blood quantum to determine citizenship until the mid-20th century.
So, why do blood quantum laws exist?
Blood quantum laws were invented to further genocide against Native people.
They were first implemented in the Virginia colony, 1705. Anyone who possessed ½ or greater Indian blood was deemed to be a legally inferior human, and could have their civil rights stripped away. Colonists saw Native Americans as an obstacle in their path to North American domination, so removing these rights was a crucial step in solving the Indian problem.
After its colonial inception, references to blood quantum were made sparingly throughout the early 19th century. It wasn’t until the Dawes Act of 1887 that the federal government heavily relied on blood quantum. Through the Dawes Act, the United States abolished tribal governments and broke up communal, tribal lands into individual land allotments. Then, land allotments were given to those who possessed a high enough degree of blood quantum.
Land allotment policy crippled Native American tribes. President Theodore Roosevelt called land allotments, “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Land allotment is responsible for removing 90 million acres of land away from Native American people. Corrupt government officials stole or withheld land. Additionally, the federal government brutally forced Indians to assimilate into White society, so blood quantum requirements became increasingly difficult to maintain.
For the Chickasaw Nation, a ½ blood quantum was required to keep an allotment, until 2017, when the law was overturned. This was the landmark decision I had read about.
To decide blood quantum, White government officials had the final say on one’s true “Indian blood.” If the commission didn’t believe a self-reported blood quantum, they used physical appearance to determine if someone was “purebred” enough to claim an allotment. Thus, many blood quantums were recorded incorrectly.
To remove Indian people, the government decided to remove their land, and consequently attempted to remove their culture. The fact that Native American tribes exist today defies all European logic. It is a testament to the strength of non-European notions of belonging.
Until 1934 though, blood quantum played no real role in determining tribal citizenship.
Tribes had many different ways of claiming someone as a citizen, none of which put emphasis on “race,” an idea which European colonists enforced. Tribal citizenship requirements included:
Being born within a tribal nation’s borders
Being adopted into a tribal nation (for members of other tribes and Europeans)
Lineal Decent (being related to someone who was a tribal citizen)
Tribes gave the same considerations and responsibilities to everyone who became part of their nation, no matter how they claimed citizenship.
Then, in 1934, The Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribal governments to exist once again. It also brought blood quantum into center focus. The act advocated for the end of land allotment and for the adoption of tribal constitutions, modeled after the United States. Although the Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribes to set their own membership requirements, it strongly encouraged the use of blood quantum. Setting strict blood quantum requirements saved the government from annuity payments for stolen lands and from giving aid to tribal nations whose economies they destroyed. The Dine (Navajo Nation) did not adopt a constitution with a blood quantum requirement until 1950.
Some Native American people support blood quantum. It is seen as a way of preserving Native culture from European dominance and destruction. One should not question the desire to prevent this from happening again, or a tribal nation’s inherent right to self-govern and set its own citizenship requirements.
Race is a social construct, but it has real and important implications. However, this does not change the fact that blood quantum was invented by Europeans to destroy Native Americans.
There are many, modern implications to blood quantum policies.
Tribal nations use a CDIB to determine blood quantum. A CDIB, or Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, is a federal application supplied by The Bureau of Indian Affairs. This application helps an individual calculate blood quantum before the Bureau of Indian Affairs certifies the count. Tribes use the CDIB to determine if someone meets their minimum blood quantum requirements.
This process results in some heartbreaking situations. A CDIB may require parental verification for blood quantum counts, and two of my friends cannot become members of their tribal nations simply because their fathers refuse to sign paperwork.
Even if one is a citizen of their tribal nation, their CDIB reminds them that they are less than “fully” Native American. It also sends a message to Native youth that they shouldn’t fall in love with someone who is not Native American, or they are at risk of destroying their culture for generations to come.
But love isn’t something we can control. No one can consciously decide whether or not to fall in love with someone. In a country that’s 98% non-Native, and with 78% of Native Americans living off reservations, there is an extremely high chance of a Native person falling in love with a non-Native person.
According to census data, Native American people are just as likely to marry a White person as a Native American person. Approximately 60% of Native American people are married to someone who is White. The exact reasoning for this is much more complex than White people making up the majority of the United States’ population. For centuries, it has been economically, politically, and socially beneficial for Native American people to marry non-Native people, Whites especially.
Congress estimates that by the year 2080, only 8% of Native American people will possess ¼ or more “Indian blood.” While this finding stems from toxic ideas of indigeneity, it serves as a good indicator of how many could lose their tribal citizenship. And that’s the primary intention of blood quantum: “to breed Indians out.”
Last, blood quantum has made us think of Indians as a single race when tribal nations are as different from each other as countries in the world. The differences between Chickasaw culture and Dine (Navajo) culture, for example, are radical.
Blood quantum has also given rise to non-Native people claiming fictitious Native American ancestry.
There are people like Senator Elizabeth Warren who claim to be Native American without actually being Native American. In fact, there are so many people in the United States who falsely claim to be Cherokee that anthropologists have a name for the phenomenon: “Cherokee Grandmother Syndrome.”
On the surface, “Cherokee Grandmother Syndrome” might seem like a way return to a system of kinship instead of blood quantum, but this could not be further from the truth. Fictional Cherokee grandmothers do not offer cultural, or strong kinship connections. They are nothing but a fictitious and distant biological claim. It is a way for non-Natives to feel better about atrocities that their ancestors committed, or it provides a bit of genetic excitement at the idea of something exotic. These people do not have a claim to nation.
The Cherokee Nation Secretary of State made a statement against Elizabeth Warren asserting a false Cherokee identity. Warren does not meet the requirements for being part of the Cherokee Nation. She is neither kin to a person listed on the Dawes Act Rolls (which is what the Chickasaw Nation also requires) nor has she been adopted into the tribe.
It is disgusting that she continues this charade. Warren undermines tribal sovereignty every day by asserting that she knows better than the entire Cherokee Nation. She mimics her White ancestors by ridiculing a tribe’s inherent power to decide who is Indian.
So, how did Senator Warren respond to the Cherokee Nation’s statement?
By taking a DNA test. Warren reduced indigeneity down to a double helix.
Her test revealed no more “Indian DNA” than what the average American has. But this shouldn’t matter because there is no record of kinship, only myths. Of course, this didn’t stop Warren from taking advantage of minority opportunities during and after college.
And no, a DNA test cannot make you indigenous. DNA tests rely on stereotypical traits that a surveyed Native American population may or may not share. Further, claims of kinship, culture, or nationhood cannot be derived from DNA.
One should not be surprised by Warren’s insistence. From personal dealings with “Cherokee Grandmother Syndrome,” people resist surrendering even a miniscule part of their identity. The Cherokee Nation has made a statement against all people who claim to be Cherokee without being a member of the Cherokee Nation. People trivialize what it means to be a Native person when they make these claims.
Indigeneity and White Privilege are separate. Native American people may also benefit from White Privilege.
This should go without saying, but a Native American person with a White complexion will be able to reap the benefits of White privilege. As someone with a pale complexion, this idea was a difficult duality to reconcile. Then, I realized that there wasn’t anything to reconcile. Both are true at the same time. I have a White complexion and unjustly reap the benefits of White privilege. But that doesn’t mean I am any less Chickasaw. To claim that a tribal member who has pale skin is “less Indian” would undermine the power of tribal governments and perpetuate the European-settler idea of indigeneity. At the same time, I will never grasp the experiences of Native American people, or anyone, who does not receive White privilege, even if they are family. This is the most important point, one of which I must remind myself each day.
The issue of affirmative practices for White Native Americans is nuanced. Affirmative action for White Native Americans helps to correct a historical narrative of genocide and forced assimilation into White society. On the other hand, White Natives unjustly benefit from White privilege and could steal opportunities away from a person of color. As a White Native American, my opinion should not matter. It should be decided by Native people who do not receive White privilege.
Harmful notions of indigeneity are ingrained in society.
Native Americans are the only people in society who must prove their heritage. Somehow, it’s not looked upon as racist and insensitive to ask someone “what percent Indian are you?”
TLDR: It is never appropriate to refer to someone as “part” or “percent” Native American or ask them questions relating to these racist concepts.
Unless you are Native, you should not ask a Native person to prove their heritage, refer to them as any “portion” of Native American, decide if they are actually Native American, or tell them how much Native American you think they should be. This attacks tribal sovereignty and mimics the United States’ history of non-Natives deciding who’s really Indian.
Acknowledging this is a big step in changing how the public views tribal sovereignty. Only then can legislation be radically improved or overturned to benefit tribal nations.
Berry, Christina. “Blood Quantum – Why It Matters, and Why It Shouldn’t.” All Things Cherokee, 13 July 2018, www.allthingscherokee.com/blood-quantum/.
“Beyond Blood Quantum.” All My Relations, www.allmyrelationspodcast.com/podcast/episode/49fcb76f/ep-10-beyond-blood-quantum.
“Can a DNA Test Make Me Native American?” All My Relations, www.allmyrelationspodcast.com/podcast/episode/33235119/ep-4-can-a-dna-test-make-me-native-american.
Hurst J. and Taylor R. “Fraction of Indian Blood Worth Millions in Business : Transit: Critics Cite 1/64th-Cherokee Contractor as Example of Abuses, Laxity in Program for Minority Firms.” Los Angeles Times, 27 Dec. 1990, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-12-27-mn-9946-story.html.
“Love in the Time of Blood Quantum.” All My Relations, www.allmyrelationspodcast.com/podcast/episode/46bd8b84/ep-11-love-in-the-time-of-blood-quantum.
al-Gharbi, Musa. “DNA Is Irrelevant – Elizabeth Warren Is Simply Not Cherokee.” The Hill, 19 Oct. 2018, www.thehill.com/opinion/white-house/412321-dna-is-irrelevant-elizabeth-warren-is-simply-not-cherokee.
Schmidt, Ryan W. “American Indian Identity and Blood Quantum in the 21st Century: A Critical Review.” Journal of Anthropology, vol. 2011, 2011, pp. 1–9., www.hindawi.com/journals/janthro/2011/549521/.
Smithey, Emily P. “Transformation of Early Nineteenth Century Chickasaw Leadership Patterns, 1800-1845.” University of Mississippi, 2014. egrove.olemiss.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1369&context=etd.
Tallbear, Kimberly. “Genetics, culture and identity in Indian country.” Seventh International Congress of Ethnobiology, 23-27 Oct. 2000. www.iiirm.org/publications/Articles%20Reports%20Papers/Genetics%20and%20Biotechnology/ISEPaper.pdf
Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40, 2012. clas.osu.edu/sites/clas.osu.edu/files/Tuck%20and%20Yang%202012%20Decolonization%20is%20not%20a%20metaphor.pdf.