As an adult, Ryan will face a dilemma that is increasingly common in Indian Country. If he marries outside of his tribe -- whether with a non-Native or, say, a full-blooded Chippewa -- his children will have a blood quantum of only three-eighths at Fort Peck. And depending on his children's marital choices, Ryan's grandchildren may not be enrolled at all. The only way Ryan can avoid watering down his Fort Peck blood is to marry within the tribe. But that will not be easy: He's related to many of his fellow members.
Thousands of Native Americans are not enrolled in their tribes because their bloodlines have become diluted over the years, as is happening with the Comes Last family. Even some full-blooded Native Americans lack enough of any one tribe's heritage to qualify for enrollment. And there are many mixed marriages: Studies show that about 60 percent of Native Americans marry outside of their ethnicity, a higher rate than any other group. Demographers predict that by 2080, 92 percent of Native Americans will be more than half non-Native. Already, a new generation is finding it is not "Indian" enough to enroll. Though its members may live on the reservation, participate in tribal ceremonies and even study their ancestral language, they are not eligible for a range of federal and tribal benefits, from subsidized health care and tribal voting rights to job preference and the right to gather eagle feathers. And, on a more intangible note, many simply feel they do not belong.
As more and more children are born with blood that doesn't measure up, tribes across the West are taking a look at their enrollment requirements. In the process, deeper questions -- about culture, about identity, about the future of the tribes -- are coming to the surface. Underlying them all is one with no easy answer: What exactly does it mean to be an Indian?
I cut myself into sixteen equal pieces
kept thirteen and fed the other three
to the dogs
Excerpt from "13/16," a poem by Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian Sherman Alexie
In a basement office at Fort Peck Community College, financial aid director Lanette Clark clasps her hands on her desk and composes her thoughts. She has long dark hair and high cheekbones that disappear behind big round cheeks when she smiles. Clark has three grandchildren, none of whom are enrolled at Fort Peck. They're just under one-eighth Assiniboine, shy of the tribe's requirements.
Next fall, Fort Peck's voters may weigh in on a proposed change to those requirements. It would allow applicants who are at least one-eighth Fort Peck Assiniboine or Sioux and at least one-eighth of any other federally recognized tribe to be accepted as members. Even if the initiative were to pass, it probably wouldn't help Clark's grandkids, because their father is not currently enrolled anywhere. Clark plans to vote for it anyway, but she is against any further lowering of the requirements, even for the sake of her grandkids. She says that loosening the standards even more, as some tribal members advocate, would be irresponsible.
"I kinda get mixed feelings," she says. "For my own selfish reasons, I could say, ‘Yeah, let's lower the blood quantum.' But I think looking at it for the whole tribe right now. …" She shakes her head. "Financially, we can't even manage what we have."
Though Clark is one of the few willing to argue against her family's immediate interests, many at Fort Peck fear the financial impacts of easing the enrollment requirements. The tribe's resources are already stretched thin, the argument goes: The more members, the less each will have to show for it.