Blood Quantum

A complicated system that determines tribal membership threatens the future of American Indians

  • LeRoy Comes Last, a full-blooded Lakota-Sioux, with his Northern Cheyenne wife, Sabrina, and their grandson, Ryan Padraza Comes Last, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana. Ryan is a full-blooded Indian, but according to Fort Peck rules, his "blood quantum" is only three-quarters -- the tribe doesn't recognize his Northern Cheyenne heritage.

    Anne Sherwood
  • “Indian No. 16” by Fritz Scholder, 1967, oil on canvas, 71 x 71 inches, from the collection of Robert E. Herzstein. This painting is among the pieces currently on exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, in both Washington, D.C., and New York City. See for more.

    Fritz Scholder
  • Fort Peck Reservation housing and dryland farms along Highway 2 near Poplar, Montana.

    Anne Sherwood
  • A student enters Brocton High School.

  • Herman Pipe Jr. checks the Chelsea Presbyterian Church near Poplar.

    Anne Sherwood
  • Roberta Garfield and some of her extended family in front of her home in Poplar. Garfield, who is half Sioux and a quarter Assiniboine, has 24 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, at least a dozen of whom don't qualify for tribal membership.

    Anne Sherwood

Page 2

You're standing in the blood quantum line
With a pitcher in your hand
Poured from your heart into your veins
You said I am
I am
I am

Now measure me
Measure me
Tell me where I stand
Allocate my very soul
Like you have my land

Excerpt from "Blood Quantum,"
a song by The Indigo Girls

In a fluorescent-lit room in the basement of Fort Peck Community College, Bernadette Wind writes a series of phrases in Dakota on a whiteboard. (Dakota is one of the two dialects most commonly spoken on the reservation; the other is Nakoda.)

"Tuwe katoto," she says aloud, adding pronunciation symbols above some of the letters. "Tiopa kin yugan." Somebody's knocking. Open the door.

Students straggle in and sit at the back. A young woman undoes her ponytail and combs her fingers through black hair that nearly reaches the floor. Another opens a can of soda. Someone's cell phone rings over and over.

Wind, a jocular woman in oversized glasses, turns to face her small class. "When I was a little girl, people always came to visit," she says. "The kids weren't supposed to hang around, but I would hide and listen to them talk, tell stories, tease each other." She gestures toward the board. "What we have here is a basic conversation when somebody comes to visit you."

Wind is not fluent in Dakota, but she is as close as many people come these days. She says she grew up listening to her grandparents speak it, but was never encouraged to do so herself. Well into the 20th century, many Indians -- including Wind's grandmother -- were punished in school for speaking their Native tongue. As a result, they often did not encourage their own children and grandchildren to learn. "I don't know everything," Wind tells her class, "but what I know I want to share."

Still, her desire is only half the equation. Thirteen people are registered for Wind's class, but tonight, only six have shown up. Nakoda, the Assiniboine dialect, was also offered this semester but was cancelled for lack of interest. While powwows, sweat lodges and Sun Dance ceremonies are still regularly held at Fort Peck, the more traditional members of the tribe tend to feel that something intangible is slipping away.
And some of them see that as all the more reason to keep the enrollment requirements as they are. In fact, Herman Pipe Jr., a 66-year-old who's three-fourths Sioux, would like to see the required tribal blood percentage raised to one-half.

"White-minded Indians have no respect for the culture or the land," says Pipe, who's retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "But those white Indians have always had the power on the reservation because the big people in Washington don't like talking to Indians."

Such resentment against mixed bloods is not uncommon in Indian Country. Terms like "breed," "quarterpounder" and "droplet" are still thrown around, despite the dwindling supply of full-bloods to throw them. The animosity against "white Indians" is nothing new. In 1916, for instance, a Fort Peck member named Big Foot told a government official: "The squaw-men (non-Native men married to Indian women) and the mixed-bloods should not be allowed to share in what is coming to us old people." 

These days, Fort Peck member Jerome First, a 71-year-old full-blooded Sioux, has similar complaints. "When I was growing up, the whites didn't like the Indians here," he says. First says he was called a "red nigger," and was refused service at restaurants. "Then these half-breeds found out the Indians were getting homes and other things and suddenly they wanted to be an Indian." For elders like First and Pipe, opening up tribal membership to those with a high ratio of white blood seems like a kind of surrender -- welcoming in the enemy.