Blood Quantum, Part II: The Indian New Deal and Tribal Constitutions

Part I discussed why blood quantum rules, often a criteria for Tribal citizenship, are seen as an existential Tribal threat. Part II discusses constitutional reforms to change that rule.

John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, meets with South Dakota Blackfoot Indian chiefs in 1934 to discuss the Indian Reorganization Act. Photo: Unknown

To recap Part I: The 1887 Dawes “General Allotment” Act was devastating to Native Nations, an assimilation policy that imposed private land ownership and capitalism on communal societies centered around reciprocity. The law broke up community-held Tribal lands into small parcels and allotted them to individual Indians and families.

The Allotment era ended with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, an effort to reverse such assimilation policies.

Passed under FDR’s administration, it’s referred to as the Indian New Deal. (It’s still the basis for federal law regarding Indian affairs.)

The Indian New Deal stopped allotments, restored Tribal land management, and sought to strengthen inherent Tribal sovereignty. It encouraged Tribes to write their own constitutions.

Today, roughly 70 percent of Tribal constitutions define citizenship using the colonial idea of blood quantum, according to attorney Gabe Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Confederation of Northern California.

As Tribal members have intermarried with people from other Tribes or non-Indigenous people, children’s blood quantum often drops below the threshold to be considered a Tribal member.

Native Nations are wrestling with whether to eliminate blood quantum rules.

The Indian Reorganization Act was controversial among Tribes when it passed. Many saw it as a government effort to undermine traditional tribal leadership systems. Tribes could opt out of the law and initially 77 did.

The law itself used blood quantum to define “Indian,” which included “all other persons of one-quarter or more Indian blood.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) encouraged Tribes to write constitutions based on the U.S. model, according to American Indian Identity and Blood Quantum in the 21st Century: A Critical Review in the Journal of Anthropology.

Making the situation more perplexing was how the government established eligible criteria for benefits like education and health care. Although governmental requirements (blood quantum among them) did not interfere with tribal membership criteria, it added an additional layer to the already convoluted question of “Who is an Indian”?

Ryan W. Schmidt, Journal of Anthropology

Traditionally, Indigenous communities understood their community by lineal descent or kinship. It wasn’t until Tribes wrote their constitutions that blood quantum was used to define Tribal membership, a fact they are now reckoning with today.

Santee Sioux Nation

Santee Sioux Chairman Roger Trudell. Video screen capture.

Roger Trudell, Chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation, wrote a passionate letter April 14 to let his people know about changes to blood quantum rules that would be proposed soon.

(The Santee Sioux originally lived in what is now Minnesota, one of the eastern most Dakota bands. They were exiled following the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. They now live in Nebraska.)

When we are Dakota, we are just Dakota.

Roger Trudell, Chairman, Santee Sioux Nation

Here are extended excerpts from Trudell’s letter:

It is known and it is historic fact, Enrollment is a tool that was created for self-termination, otherwise known as continued genocide by the Government in the time it was created. We, as Dakota People are known to be the only Human Race, to have a Pedigree, alongside Horses and dogs, which is something terrible and not to be proud of. When we are Dakota, we are just Dakota. …

The goal is to strengthen our enrollment department to fit the needs of our people, rather than a government that doesn’t care about us.

Currently, our standard is, in order to enroll, you have to have a minimum of 1/8 Santee and 1/8 other Sioux blood. This leaves out those children whose parents had children with the Omaha Nation, the Hochunk Nation, the Ponca Nation, and others. Those children cannot enroll currently, so they are left in limbo, without the protection of Tribal Membership rights. Rights to Health care, rights guaranteed to us by our constitution.

Other Council members and myself are working on getting as much information as we can to put forward to the people a possible effort of change for the betterment of our Nation. Especially when it comes to protecting our children, who no matter what are Dakota as long as their mom or their dad is Dakota …

Roger Trudell

The Native Governance Center held an online panel discussion March 30 exploring the history and consequences of using blood quantum to determine Tribal citizenship.

White Earth Nation

Panelist Jill Doerfler, professor and department head of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said she was very involved in White Earth’s constitutional reform debates for more than a decade, starting in the early 2000s.

(White Earth actually is covered by two constitutions. It is one of six bands in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, along with Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, and Mille Lacs.)

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has a constitution, and White Earth has its own constitution. (A long story for a future post.)

Jill Doerfler, professor at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

When Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitutional reform efforts stalled, then-White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizner pushed to revise White Earth’s constitution, Doerfler said.

Doerfler heard parents and grandparents express deep sadness that their children or grandchildren weren’t enrolled at White Earth because of blood quantum rules. On the other side, some people worried that enrolling new descendants would strain Reservation resources.

White Earth’s proposed constitutional amendment tried to disentangle citizenship from benefits issues, Doerfler said. It defined citizenship as lineal descent. Then it restricted benefits, guided by such requirements as residence, income, or age (requirements that already existed).

White Earth’s constitutional reform passed by nearly 80 percent in 2013.

Page 1 of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe enrollment application.

After it passed, some elected leaders were hesitant to make the changes, Doerfler said.

“And that is sort of, very ironically, where we remain.”

Now the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is looking at constitutional reforms again.

“The clock is ticking here and a lot of people feel that,” Doerfler said.

Sealaska (Southeast Alaska)

The colonial history of Indigenous peoples in present-day Alaska differs from what happened in the Lower 48, but they, too, are affected by blood quantum rules.

Sealska is “a for-profit Alaska Native Corporation owned by more than 23,000 Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian shareholders.” Its website says: “We draw inspiration from our shared heritage to protect our community’s greatest and most important resources – the oceans, forests, and people of Southeast Alaska,

Over six months in late 2021 and early 2022, Sealaska surveyed its members on the issue of blood quantum. It found 69% of shareholders favor elimination of the blood quantum requirement, 23% oppose the idea and 8% consider themselves neutral.

This year, Sealaska will hold a shareholder vote about whether to eliminate blood quantum as an eligibility requirement for what it calls “Class D (Descendant) stock.”

Sealaska’s Facebook Page had a moving post to raise awareness about the vote.

What does it mean to be Native enough?

Are you enough if you’re eligible to hunt marine mammals and sew their skins?

Is speaking Lingít, X̱aad Kil or Sm’algyax enough? Does trying count?

If you don’t have a Native name, are you enough? If you can fluidly and confidently recite your clan and moiety, is that enough? Does it have anything to do with the color of your hair? Your eyes? Your skin?

Or is it less tangible?

Maybe you don’t know much about your culture, but you’d like to. Maybe there’s an emptiness around a part of your identity that you can’t quite put your finger on and few others even see.

Every time you measure yourself against others and find yourself lacking, it is a small act of violence. Enough is enough.

This year, Sealaska shareholders will have the opportunity to eliminate one of the barriers that stands between so many of our descendants and their full embrace of their Native culture and identity.

Sealaska Facebook Page

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