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.

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Blood Quantum, Part I: An existential threat in Indian Country

Prior to European contact, Indigenous people were born into a Tribe and their sense of belonging was never in doubt.

Colonial assimilation policies changed that. A little discussed government tactic used to undermine Tribal identity, divide Indian peoples, and steal Native lands is the legal fiction of “blood quantum.”

Instead of traditional kinship ties of belonging to a Tribe, the government imposed a formula to determine who had enough Indian blood to qualify as a Tribal member and who did not.

Blood quantum falls in that category of things colonists made up to get what they wanted.

It’s a form of genocide.

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Walker’s Latest Controversy with Native American Community Members: How Will it Embrace the Moment?

Jimmie Durham (Visual Artist, Berlin/Rome) Wikimedia Commons.

The Walker Art Center is once again getting questioned about its ability, or inability, to engage with Native artists and Native communities.

This time it involves the exhibit: “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” which opened June 22. MPR’s story: Walker faces new Native art controversy, says Durham identifies as Cherokee heritage, a fact disputed by enrolled members of the Cherokee nation. “… his critics say he is not Native, and is hurting artists who are.”

Issues of identity and “who is Indian” raise thorny questions. It’s easy to get sidelined in those questions and ignore the bigger one. The issue here is the same as with Scaffold.  Does the Walker have inclusive and representative staffing in place — and the ability to listen to Native voices and collaborate with Native artists on these issues?

I am less interested in whether or not Durham is Cherokee as I am with how the Walker engages in the conversation about whether or not Durham is Cherokee — including various  Native perspectives on that question. Will the Walker seize this moment for a more robust engagement with Native artists, elders, and communities? Will it continue to engage after the Durham exhibit leaves, or will the conversation disappear like invisible ink? Continue reading