It Matters, and Why It Shouldn't
universal question many mixed-blood Native Americans are asked
every day. How many times have you mentioned in passing that you
are Cherokee to find your conversation interrupted by intrusive
questions about percentage? How many times have you answered
those questions? Well stop! That's right -- stop answering rude
Have you ever been
talking to someone who mentioned that they were part Hispanic,
part African-American, part Jewish, part Italian, part Irish,
part Korean, etc.?
Have you ever
asked them what percentage?
answer is no, because if your answer is yes then you're rude. It
would be rude to ask someone how Hispanic they are, but we
accept that people can ask us how Cherokee we are. This is a
double standard brought about by our collective history as
Native Americans, and is one we should no longer tolerate.
The history of
blood quantum begins with the Indian rolls and is a concept
introduced to Native Americans from white culture. Throughout
Native history blood has never really been a factor in
determining who was or was not included in a tribe. Many Native
American tribes practiced adoption, a process whereby non-tribal
members would be
adopted into the tribe and over time become
fully functioning members of the group. Adoption was
occasionally preceded by capture.
Many tribes would
capture members of neighboring tribes, white settlers, or
members of enemy tribes. These captives would replace members of
the tribe who had died. They would often be bestowed with some
of the same prestige and duties of the person they were
replacing. While the transformation from captive to tribal
member was often a long and difficult one, the captive would
eventually become an accepted member of the tribe. The fact that
the adoptee was sometimes of a different ethnic origin was of
little importance to the tribe.
until the federal government became involved in Indian
government that quantum became an issue. One of the attributes
collected on a person signing one of the many Indian rolls was
their quantum. However, this was highly subjective as it was
simply a question that the roll takers would allow the people to
answer for themselves. I know for a fact that this was known to
be incorrect because my own ancestors' quantum is recorded
incorrectly. My great grandmother and her sister are listed with
generationally different quanta even though they were sisters
with the same mother and father and have the exact same quantum.
In this day
and age, however, quantum is important in many ways. In order to
become a registered member of any federally recognized Indian
Nation you must first get a CDIB (Certificate of Degree of
Indian Blood). This CDIB is issued by the BIA and simply states
that the United States government certifies that you have a
degree of Indian blood and are a member of a given
federally recognized tribe. Once you have a CDIB you can become
a recognized member of that tribe. Without a quantum you cannot
become a registered member of a tribe.
many Indian tribes include their own quantum restrictions. The
Eastern Band of the Cherokees requires that you be 1/16 or
higher to join, and the Keetowah band requires a blood quantum
of 1/4 or higher. The Cherokee Nation, on the other hand, has no
quantum restrictions. The majority of the Cherokee Nation has
1/4 or less Indian blood.
these numbers it is important to remember that the Cherokee were
in direct contact with white settlers prior to the American
Revolution. Many prominent Cherokee families included
intermarried whites very early on. The Ward family - descendants
of Nancy and Bryant Ward (an Englishman) -- is a good example.
My own ancestor, Granny Hopper (daughter of Old Hop), married a
Scottish trader (McDaniel). The Cherokee people has been
intermarrying with whites for over two hundred years, so many
families have some very confusing fractions to spit out every
time someone asks, "How much Indian are you?"
people today would like to see the emphasis on blood quantum
fall by the wayside. Blood quantum is a sterile, inhuman way of
calculating authenticity. When you ask a person how much Indian
blood they have, you expect an answer. If they answer your
question with a small percentage or if they refuse to answer,
question their authenticity as an Indian.
Never mind -- that blood quantum is completely irrelevant to
the Cherokee people have believed that if you're Cherokee,
you're Cherokee. If you're not, you're not. Percentage doesn't
matter. In addition, many people now make a distinction between
quantum Cherokees and cultural Cherokees. How Cherokee you are
is more determined by how you live, how active you are in the
tribe, how you grew up, and what you know of Cherokee history,
culture, and language.
while it appears harmless, has had a very negative effect on
many Indian Nations. In many cases the issue of quantum has
divided full-bloods and mixed-bloods, causing resentment. The
issue also divides tribal members and non-members on the issue
historical and cultural perspective, the idea of blood quantum
is dangerous. Blood quantum is a scientific, government-approved
method of determining blood purity and race purity. One of the
most frightening examples of a government's interest in blood
purity comes as recently as the Twentieth century in Nazi
Germany, when Hitler wanted to create an Aryan master race. The
consequence was that millions of people were killed because they
were not Aryan. While Nazi Germany is an extreme example, blood
quantum is nonetheless a clinical, inhuman, and careless way to
determine the ethnic authenticity of a person. We are not Gregor
Mendel's cross-pollinated pea plants; we are people.
and cultural identity are tied to our family history, our
surroundings, our own hopes and expectations, and our
self-identity. To measure our "Indianness" by a
percentage is to completely eliminate the human element. And to
allow others to judge us based on a number is to continue a
a quiet protest against the reliance on blood quantum to measure
Indian authenticity. The next time someone asks you what
percentage Cherokee you are tell them that they are asking a
rude question and don't answer -- because the answer doesn't
you are Cherokee or you're not.