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September 15, 2011

Will current blood quantum membership requirements make American Indians extinct?

N01278 Blood quantum is a term used to define bloodlines relating to ancestry. For example, a person with one Indian grandparent and three non-Indian grandparents has one-quarter Indian blood. For American Indians, intermarriage between tribes, however, reduces specific tribal blood quantum.

The concept of documented blood quantum began in Europe and surfaced in the Virginia Colony in 1705. However, Native blood quantum was not widely applied in federal law until the 20th century. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act provided a means for federally recognized tribes to form constitutions and statutes to define their own membership criteria. As a result, the majority of federally recognized tribes began using set blood quantum requirements, lineal descendancy, or roll descendancy as criteria for tribal membership. Many non-federally recognized bands and tribes adopted blood quantum requirements to determine their tribal membership as well.

Tribes that use blood quantum criteria require tribal members be at least one-half to one-sixteenth blood of their tribe. A Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) is issued to tribal members as documentation of tribal membership. Tribes that use CDIB’s have the right to close membership or disenroll members because of lack of blood quantum. Tribes that use roll descendancy, established though treaties, may have tribal members on their rolls with no Indian blood at all—people who are tribal members, but who are not American Indian. Issues of roll descendancy, including closing membership and disenrolling tribal members, are currently being debated in the courts.

A colleague and I were discussing tribes that use blood quantum to determine their membership. She said, "Tribes that do this are setting themselves up for extinction. Eventually intermarriage will wipe fixed blood quantum out.” I totally agree with her: under the current blood quantum of my own tribal membership, my future grandchildren will not qualify to be members. As an American Indian and tribal member, this concerns me.

My colleague said her tribe recently opened up their membership for new members including new babies, people who moved out of state, etc. In order to become a new member each person seeking enrollment had to answer, historical, cultural, and family questions that pertained to the tribe's identity. For newborns, their parents had to answer these questions.

It was this tribe’s belief that if prospective members were connected to their community roots, they would know the answers to the tribe’s questions. Individuals who moved away and did not maintain any connection to their tribal community were not able to answer the questions and were refused membership, regardless of blood quantum. Perhaps this is one alternative that tribes will consider to replace blood quantum requirements.

During the NMAI Living Earth Festival this summer, I asked a Native Hawaiian woman how Native Hawaiians view blood quantum in their culture. She responded, "To the majority of Native Hawaiians, blood quantum is not an issue. We know our family bloodlines, and they are recognized by other Native Hawaiians. This is what makes us Native Hawaiian. I think blood quantum is an issue to Native Americans because of their relationship to the United States government. Native Hawaiians are not recognized by the United States the way federally recognized tribes are. Therefore, I think it is due to the government that Native Americans have to be concerned about blood quantum." To me there are many truths in my Hawaiian sister's feedback.

Do you think current tribal blood quantum requirements need to be amended or terminated? If so, or if there are other aspects of this topic that interest you, I hope you’ll be able to attend the symposium Quantum Leap: Does “Indian Blood” Still Matter tomorrow (September 16) at the museum in Washington, DC. If you can’t be here, please follow the discussion via live webcast. You can also submit questions via email to NMAISocialMedia@si.edu. One of my colleagues or I will make every effort to pose your questions to the panelists. If you can't join us tomorrow, you're welcome to continue the conversation here via the comments.

For more information on tomorrow's program, including the panelists taking part, please see the symposium guide.

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI cultural specialist

Above: Three Nanticoke schoolboys, 1911–14. The boy in the center is from the Street family. Indian River Hundred, Delaware. Photo by Frank G. Speck. N01278


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Isn't it interesting how the Spanish "pure blood laws" of 1484 influenced the Casta paintings in the New World which lead to the blood quantum system of the USA? Isn't it interesting how the Nazis used the blood quantum system for ridding Europe of Jews? http://www.jstor.org/pss/2540627

Before colonization, my tribe adopted people into our tribe without respect to origin. It is still part of our living culture to adopt relatives without respect to blood relations and origin. It is in our best interests to reject the blood quantum system concerning the history and continuous intent of such "pure blood laws". Allowing an external force to our communities to define our identities and define how our descendants can be treated is a cowardly act. As it is commonly said, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Tribes have all the information regarding the history of how "pure blood laws" have been adversely used against human beings. To continue to accept such blood quantum definitions for our identities brings shame upon us all for being so gullible that "pure blood laws" are intended for our benefit.

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