Blood Quantum

By John Marcus, Communications Specialist

What is blood quantum and why does it matter? If you are not a Native American, the question probably doesn’t carry much weight. Maybe similar to the question, “what is your zip code?” Everyone knows a zip code is used to deliver items or services. To a certain extent, that is true for why blood quantum is even a discussion. It is part of the delivery system to federally recognized American Indians.

Living here in Michigan we are right next to the Canadian border and blood quantum is also an issue there for similar reasons, some of which I will explore here. Please don’t expect this blog to be the definitive contribution to this subject, only my personal views and a contribution to a very large discussion.  In fact, I expect quite a few opinions and maybe a few corrections to come my way, but that’s fine. Important topics should have discourse.

Blood quantum is part of a system created by the U.S. government to deliver or distribute goods and/or services. This is the result of treaty obligations between the Native governments and the incoming governments. The earliest treaties were to resolve direct physical conflict. To put it in clearer terms, we will stop fighting if both governments agree to these things. Decades passed and more of the Native American resources were wanted by the American government resulting in additional treaties to enable that.

Familiarity with the weight of the phrase, blood quantum, derives from either you, your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents having been enrolled with a tribe around 1934 and it would have been peppered throughout your family discussions. On the other hand, you may have read up on this topic previously so you’re familiar with it on a certain level. It is around 1934 when congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act and this is when you really start seeing the ¼ blood quantum eligibility becoming a part of the language coming out of congress. If both sides of the previously mentioned role constructs were on it, you are 4/4 blood quantum. These days that is very rare. At least it was until the Red Lake Tribal Council made a recent resolution, but more on that later.

Nevertheless, to some the very mention of blood quantum will get their defenses up. To them, it is an attack on their spirituality. They want to follow the ways of  Native Americans because initially movies, books, or other media within american culture, introduced them to the concept. Then they start digging deeper into the native ways by finding media that has more authenticity, as in content credited to native americans. Add to this, they start researching their own family genealogy and see a glimpse of possible Native American heritage or while growing up someone in their family told them that great-grandma or great-grandpa had been married to a full-blooded indian, and now you have the makings for someone that truly believes they are Native American: they just can’t prove it.

Their next steps include interactions with like-minded people. If as a reader I am describing you, then American Indian Health & Family Services can help you end your search for spirituality. Sorry to pitch shamelessly for where I work (haha), but all our activities, even the sweat lodge, are available to you. You will be welcomed to come and share your appreciation for a way of spiritual life that has survived eons. Though our “services” from our behavioral health department and our medical clinic would not be as easily accessible to you because we do request you to bring your tribal identification card and certain rules apply to the use of it. If you don’t have a card, you can still use our medical clinic or behavioral health services, but you’ll want to talk to our billing department to find out if we accept your insurance, the associated co-pay or other options available to you, including a sliding fee scale based on your income. Ok, enough about AIHFS.

My experiences with blood quantum are as follows. I am enrolled with the Sault Ste. Maria(SSM) Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Michigan. Their approach uses descendancy instead of blood quantum. Meaning, if you can establish you are related to someone on their rolls from a designated time, then you are eligible to enroll. Since the SSM weren’t federally recognized until1972, this approach could reflect blood quantum was already an issue for Native Americans less than 40 years after congress began including it in their language.

I am eligible to enroll in Canada, but have not followed up with any paperwork. I’ve gone to the website and found it convoluted. My canadian cousin told me I should come down to the office and do it in person.

I’m not enrolled with the Taos Pueblo tribe of New Mexico even though I am ½ blood quantum. I visit my pueblo relatives at least once a year and they will casually bring up enrollment every now and then. They’ve always treated me like family, with or without a card, and that’s what I’ve valued most.

This brings up a rule that may be across the board with all American Indian tribes: you can’t be a member of more than one tribe at a time. I think I first heard this in the 90’s and unexpectedly I had a mini-identity crisis and was angry about it! While growing up my family always told me I had multiple tribal identities. I still will tell people all my tribes and then specify the one where I am enrolled.

Next, I’d like to share an experience about the tribe where I’m not “officially” enrolled.  This happened when my father passed away in 2016. As part of his funeral, I participated with the pueblo side of my family just as if I was a tribal member. No one asked me if I had my “card” or if I was enrolled at Taos Pueblo. To me that is what matters the most. Are you allowed to do the ceremony like a tribal member, if yes, then the system is working. It’s not perfect and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it is or ever has been.

On Tuesday, October 8th, the Red Lake Tribal Council passed a resolution to change the blood degree of members. They voted, by  7-3, that every member enrolled on November 10th, 1958 would now be considered full-blood, or 4/4 blood degree. They said it was a great first step, but they need to figure out how to end the current practice of mathematical genocide. It will be interesting to see how the Department of Interior reacts to this.

Then, in Canada, there’s this example within the Fort William First Nation. In 1987 they scrapped the status requirement for membership. Subsequently, a non-native person by blood, but adopted by a member, was granted tribal membership.

Taking all the preceding into account, the biggest determining factor of how you view blood quantum appears to be whether you are seeking goods and services or spirituality. In the pre-contact days, a tribe could ban someone. That person lost access to everything: goods, services, spirituality and family. That was the right of that tribe though, to decide who should and shouldn’t be a part of their people. That right still exists and is a benchmark of sovereignty. Each tribe has their own way of creating their enrollment requirements and certification. If they decide blood quantum is a determining factor then we have to respect their decision. However, if you are seeking spirituality then usually you can bypass the formal blood quantum requirement and find people willing to help you on your path.

I’d like to wrap this up with another interesting development. There is now a movie out called Blood Quantum and it is directed by Jeff Barnaby. Jeff identifies as a “rezzed out hillbilly, Mi’g Maq expatriate.” His words, not mine, although I wish I could take credit for them, (haha)!   The actors are mostly First Nations or Native Americans. This was just released in 2019. I watched the premier pre and post interview on YouTube.

In it the director said it is a zombie movie, but also it is meant to make you think about the idea of how blood quantum is affecting our Native communities. I’ve not been able to find it, but I look forward to watching it when I do!

Zombie movie, blood quantum info from IMDb

With that, I’ll leave you with a final thought to mull over. What is worse, mathematical genocide for tangible elements or a zombie-like apocalypse of our spiritual being?