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 3

Yet traditionally, before the federal government shackled resources to race, most tribes regarded ethnic boundaries as fluid. Social kinship, not biology, was the tie that bound. Marriages between neighboring tribes were often arranged to strengthen political alliances, and a child born of such a couple would become a full member of either the father's or the mother's tribe. Some tribes, like the Tlingit of the Northwest, married outside their clan as a general rule.

By the 18th century, tribes were absorbing non-Natives as well. The Comanches, who were famous raiders, captured and adopted Mexicans and whites, as well as members of other tribes. Quanah Parker, the tribe's last great chief, was the son of a white woman and a Comanche warrior.

"Indian people have always been looking for outside genetic material, way before Europeans showed up," says Wayne Stein, a Native American studies professor at Montana State University. "Indian people were probably the best farmers in the world in the 1400s -- and farmers understand genetics."

I'm left to defend
one lonely drop of blood.
I might terminate
if I get nosebleed.

Excerpt from "Cheeky Moon," a poem by
Ojibwe Indian Marie Annharte Baker. ("Termination" was a policy of the 1950s in which the federal
government sought to dissolve the Indian tribes.)

Roberta Garfield's modest tribal housing unit on the east edge of Poplar is a cheerful bedlam. Neighbors, relatives and pets walk in and out like extras in a musical. A teenager in basketball shorts rummages through the fridge. In the living room, a couple of kids sprawl on the couch watching cartoons over the crackle of a police scanner. A girl pours herself a glass of milk and departs, cradling a tower of Oreos. A tangle of small dogs bursts in and has to be chased out again. In the middle of it all, Roberta Garfield, a comfortably plump 73-year-old with a proud, direct manner, sips a cup of tea. 

"People say, ‘Why do you give so much away?' " she says, gesturing at her raucous household. "And I say, ‘So I can have enough.' My grandmother always said if you stop sharing, you'll never have nothing."

Garfield -- who is half Sioux and a quarter Assiniboine -- is equally generous about tribal membership. She has seven children, 24 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Of these, at least a dozen can't be enrolled. Garfield has become one of the vocal few who advocate using lineal descent as the enrollment standard at Fort Peck.

Robert McAnally is another; his support is fueled by the fact that his two sons are only associate members.

"You know, being an Indian is not in your quantity of blood," he says. "DNA is not transferred through your blood. Personality is not transferred through your blood. What makes a person an Indian comes from your heart, your mind, your soul, your practices."

Some Natives have proposed using such cultural benchmarks -- knowledge of the tribe's language, residence on the reservation, participation in ceremonial activities -- as criteria for membership. But even this method has pitfalls. "Who within the tribe gets to decide what's culturally appropriate and what's not?" wonders Kim Tallbear, a Native American scholar at UC Berkeley. "Instead of the blood quantum police, then you'll have an office that polices culture?"

Garfield has no desire for such measures. "I would never force anyone to live the cultural way," she says. But she's convinced the lineal descent approach is the answer to preserving her culture, including the generosity she sees as one of its hallmarks. "We can't teach our culture to kids who don't have a heritage," she says. "And we get away from our Native American culture when we start weeding people out."

Garfield notes that people with European heritage tend to view their ancestry through the lens of lineal descent. "I don't think that when Germans intermarry they lose their German descent," she says. "That's what we need to remember, too."

But some traditionalists say the lineal descent approach leads to a loss of tribal identity, benefiting those who have no connection to Native American culture and who carry none of the burden of its history. The Cherokee Nation is a common target of ridicule in Indian Country because the tribe uses lineal descent. About 250,000 people are enrolled, and some have such a small fraction of Cherokee blood that the denominators are in the quadruple digits. "So your grandmother was a Cherokee princess?" goes the joke. (The tribe has no system of royalty.) The lineal descent method has also led to other problems for the Cherokees. Lawsuits and reams of bad press have come of the Nation's decision to oust the Freedmen, descendants of the tribe's African slaves. The Freedmen say their ancestors are on the early rolls, so by the rule of lineal descent they are Cherokees. But the tribe has repeatedly voted them out, citing their lack of Indian blood.

The lineal descent system sometimes rests on a shaky foundation. The "base rolls" that list the original members of a tribe are often flawed. In the 19th century, federal agents sometimes determined how Indian a given person was simply by examining their skin and hair. Some Natives likely exaggerated their white ancestry because it brought privileges, and others resisted registering with the federal government altogether.

Yet from a purely mathematical perspective, those tribes that require their members to have a certain proportion of tribal "blood" will either have to change their ways soon, or else calculate themselves out of existence. At this point, the alternatives are limited. The tribes can lower the percentage of blood required, create subcategories of membership or choose to include the blood of other Indian nations in their calculations. But none are permanent solutions.

"They're kicking the can down the sidewalk," MSU professor Wayne Stein says. "That's all they're doing."

The lineal descent method is perhaps the only way to preserve the tribes far into the future, as Indian blood proportions dwindle over generations. And if it comes down to closing the doors or letting in too many people, Garfield argues that the most generous option is the latter. 

"We have to claim our grandkids," she says. "I have to give the same amount of love to all my family. I can't say I'll only give you an eighth."

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