Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America
November 20, 2022 7:03 PM   Subscribe

Blood quantum requirements first imposed on Native Americans as part of the push for assimilation continue to threaten the future of many tribes:
Tailyr Irvine interviewed Indigenous residents in Missoula and on her Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. They share their deep personal, social and political concerns about the blood quantum system, which can impact Native Americans’ most personal decisions—including with whom they have children. Through seven intimate stories, Irvine shows how blood quantum requirements are increasingly putting pressures on Native Americans’ lives.

The Smithsonian's Sidedoor podcast uses the collection to review the lasting impact of this ugly part of American history.
In order to protect themselves, tribes took up the very same tool that had been weaponized against them by the federal government, and they made it their own.
posted by adamsc (11 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Not having any experience dealing with this system of tribal membership personally, from this outsider's view, the explanations I've always heard seemed kind of gross and utterly broken. And that's from the individuals point of view.

Even more gross, it seemed in the interests of some portion of tribal governance to keep and enforce the system. The effect made it look like being in a family that demands loyalty or banishment.

People obviously find a way to make their peace with it. But it would cause me a great deal of discontent.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:14 PM on November 20

Relatedly, this week's Amicus podcast covers the history of the Indian Child Welfare Act and this month's supreme court hearing on Haaland v. Brackeen, which seeks to declare ICWA unconstitutional.
posted by pwnguin at 8:14 PM on November 20 [3 favorites]

the All My Relations podcast has a couple of episodes about this

Beyond Blood Quantum
Love in the Time of Blood Quantum
posted by kokaku at 5:21 AM on November 21 [1 favorite]

I want to recommend David Treuer's "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee" for understanding modern Native history. Blood quantum (works opposite for Blacks, where a single drop made you Black), treaties, sovereignty, and other issues are all explained in a historical context.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:54 AM on November 21 [3 favorites]

Jews had to figure this out because of the Wars of the Diadochi. Matrilineal descent doesn't dilute.
posted by ocschwar at 7:57 AM on November 21 [1 favorite]

What a great set of very personal stories.

Blood quantum is also enshrined in US law in Hawai'i; you have to be 50% Native Hawaiian to qualify for access to Hawaiian Home Lands. I'm willing to believe these laws were originally enacted with at least some good intention, to reserve the benefit to Native Hawaiians. But now 100 years later the effect can be terrible; the problem of not being able to pass your home off to your children because your spouse is the "wrong" race is particularly awful.

A similar issue is going to come up if we ever manage to have a reparations program for slavery in the US. It seems reasonable to expect beneficiaries to somehow prove their family history includes people who were enslaved. But the reality of a system for that will be terrible. Even if it's based on something more reasonable than literal blood quantum.
posted by Nelson at 8:15 AM on November 21 [1 favorite]

Oh hey. Hi, that first little girl is just like me. My family all up the matrilineal side is part of one of the tribes here in AZ. But because my Grandma had some of her kids (my Mom included) with a part Italian guy, and my Mom married a guy of German decent, I'm not eligible to be part of the tribe. I can't really say I've made my peace with it, since every time I think about it too long I get mad.

I grew up knowing that once I turned 18 I would no longer be able to access the healthcare or services my Mom got. It made questions like, "Do you want to go to the closer tribal high school or trek all the way out to the closest city school?" pretty easy to answer. If the tribe wasn't going to want me as an adult, I didn't feel any urge to learn about it as a kid. I hope some of the parents profiled in the article, who want to have their kids raised in their native tribal culture don't end up with kids like me. It would break their hearts.

Now here I am, half of a high-earning couple, liberal, interested in national politics, married to a dude so white he glows. My Mom's tribe will never benefit from my money, time, or passion. Kid Objects is lighter skinned than me and probably going to be white passing in life unless she's out and about with me. She'll end up learning even LESS about that part of her heritage than I did.

Blood Quantum is an awful system, designed to tear down a people over time. I know it appeals to a lot of my older relatives 'us vs them' mentalities they have after growing up in the era of forced Indian schooling. But I'll never understand how my Grandma can look at a 1/3 of her grandchildren and 1/2 of her great-grandchildren and know they'll never be members of her tribe, and just be OK with that...??
posted by sharp pointy objects at 9:56 AM on November 21 [20 favorites]

The comment at the end about having to marry out to avoid inbreeding -- blood quantum must be especially destructive for the smallest tribes. Some of the California tribes are less than a hundred people.
posted by tavella at 10:07 AM on November 21 [2 favorites]

I just finished a recent book called Born of Lakes and Plains: Mixed-Descent Peoples and the Making of the American West that touches on some of the history of blood quantum and the racial categorization of mixed-descent folks during the 18th and 19th century. "Enjoy" is not always the right word for how I feel a history that deals with American racial stratification but this book was well written and I came away more informed about the subject.
posted by gentlyepigrams at 10:09 AM on November 21 [2 favorites]

sharp pointy objects: I’m sorry. I was listening to that podcast yesterday and just couldn’t stop thinking about those families with such painfully sharp splits.
posted by adamsc at 3:37 PM on November 21 [1 favorite]

Thinking about this in terms of nations--the U.S. can confer citizenship on whom it chooses. Being born to U.S. parents makes you a U.S. citizen (though more hoops must be jumped through if the kid is born overseas), being born on U.S. soil makes you a U.S. citizen. Are these options even open to American tribes?
posted by praemunire at 8:57 PM on November 22

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