What is an Indian? Blood Quantum

If you’ve been reading my series on “What is an Indian,” you can well imagine by now that defining what an Indian is relies on many different but related factors, including how much Indian blood one has. This is called “blood quantum.”

For some quarters in Indian country, you must be a full-blood in order to rightfully call yourself an Indian. For others, merely being of lineal descent is sufficient regardless of how much Indian blood you have in you. This is significant information because it plays out in the future… The federal government withdraws federal recognition of a person as “Indian” when they reach below one-fourth Indian blood.

So how did it get that way, you ask? Here, in the book “The State of Native America,” M. Annette Jaimes gives as good an explanation as any I’ve come across:

In precontact times, of course, all natives of this continent were ‘full-blooded Indians,’ although the meaning of this is a bit nebulous. Insofar as indigenous North Americans defined themselves in terms of specific socio-cultural and political membership – that is, as Mohawks or Muscogees or Gros Ventres – rather than in terms of a racial category, the issue seems moot. This is all the more true in that ‘intertribal’ marriages were always rather common; meaning that ‘mixed-bloodedness’ – at least in traditional Indian terms – has always been normative. Traditional native societies were able to accommodate the regular influx of members of other indigenous nations, often adapting certain aspects of the newcomer’s material and philosophical life to their own needs, without becoming culturally diluted. The mainstay of this timeless equilibrium had to do with the cohesion of Indian societies as discrete socio-cultural blocs, primarily because of the linkages of these blocs with specific geographical settings. “All this changed with the European invasion, introduction of the concepts of race as the definitive dimension of cultural membership, and obliteration of the traditional relationships between native peoples and the lands they occupied. (Page 40)

Russell Thornton also frames the matter of blood quantum:   

During the twentieth century population recovery of American Indians there has been an increasing amount of mixture between [Indian] and non-Indian peoples. Data documenting this may be obtained from the 1910 and 1930 U.S. census of American Indians… In 1910 only 56.5 percent of American Indians enumerated in the United States were full-blood – 150,000 out of 265,683 – with the blood quantum of 8.4 percent (22,207) not reported… In the U.S. census of 1930, however, 46.3 percent – 153,933 out of 332,397 – were enumerated as full-bloods and 42.4 percent (141,101) were enumerated as mixed-bloods, with the degree of Indian blood of 11.2 percent (37,363) not reported. Thus, whereas American Indian population size increased by slightly over 66,000 from 1910 to 1930, the number of full-blood American Indians increased by only 4,000; most of the increase was among mixed-blood Indians. (Page 40)

The federal government’s withdrawal of federal recognition as an “Indian” when they reach below one-fourth Indian blood constitutes what is known as “statistical extermination of Native North America.” (Page 41) 

I think this is a racist policy of the U.S. government as do many in Indian country. Once recognition is withdrawn because you no longer qualify as an Indian under federal guidelines, benefits like vocational training opportunities along with vital health care will be stopped. Obligations of the federal government promised by treaty, which never included the condition that Indian people had to maintain a quarter or more Indian blood, are now creeping into the equation.

The real question is, where will the defining stop? Whichever way you look at blood quantum – being a legitimate or illegitimate way of defining “Indian”- being characterized or categorized according to the amount of blood you may or may not have sets the stage for disagreement among Native people. In a time when unity is needed among Native people more than ever… as we face the ever changing landscape that makes up our collective future… this issue is definitely somewhat of a barrier to unity among Indian nations. Defining ourselves by blood quantum not only further divides tribes but serves to play into the hands of those who want to terminate tribes. We must be careful about this issue it is always best to error on the side of caution.

So what is an Indian? Each Indian person you talk to might give you a different answer. So ask, and you will know.

And now you know the rez of the story.

Doksha (later). . .

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  1. Linwood Estes
    Posted January 17, 2015 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    My wife and I are both of Black Foot, Irish, and Creole heritage. How would we define our Blood Quantum and we also have a 2 year old toddler.

    • Posted January 23, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Linwood, thanks for your question and for following the NRC Blog. For questions about blood quantum, the best place to start is with the tribal enrollment office. They would be able to guide you on process, resources and requirements for tribal enrollment. Best of luck!!

  2. Linwood Estes
    Posted January 17, 2015 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    I have found this web site to be the most informative so far on Native American Heritage.

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