All tribal communities within the United States have some sort of requirement to be enrolled into their tribe. Yet, the establishment of this comes from a deep history of colonization within Indigenous communities in the United States. Most tribes still use blood quantum, a measurement of how much Native blood a person has, to identify who is qualified to enroll into the tribe. What most tribal communities no longer recognize is that blood quantum was established by the federal government during the Termination Era of 1935. It was established as one of the federal laws to get rid of the Indian and reorganize their communities so that they reflect the federal government’s system of power and not their own established political entities that they once were. This regulation is still in effect today though it only exists in tribal communities as it is no longer a requirement of the federal government. In fact, tribal communities can choose to relinquish their blood quantum requirement through a majority vote. Yet many tribes still withhold it as a practice of sovereignty and self-determination and, as a young Native woman, I believe in sovereignty. But as someone who is concerned with social justice and Native identity, I believe that blood quantum—as a defining factor of being Native—is only hurting us.
Native corporations, established as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, have become part of the modern-day lived experiences of Alaska Natives. There are many differences between tribal communities in the lower-48 and Alaska Native communities—for instance, because of the establishment of Native corporations in ANCSA, I have seen people understand themselves as shareholders rather than tribal members. However, this op-ed does not focus on the differences between tribal communities, but the history of blood quantum.
All corporations had a cut off date for tribal enrollment on December 18th, 1971, which means that if you were born after this date your corporation had to vote on whether or not you can be included as a shareholder. Since the establishment of Native corporations in Alaska, each corporation has their own history of ratifications of who can be considered a shareholder/tribal member. I am fortunate that my own Native corporation has voted to include descendants as part of the enrollment while other corporations have not. Yet, even if the descendants are included within the corporation’s enrollment blood quantum is still a quantifying fact of tribal enrollment. In order to become a shareholder, the individual must also meet the blood quantum requirements which state that they must have one quarter of Inupiat blood (¼). This is measured using simple math and a scroll by the Native corporations that verifies the individual’s American Indian/ Alaska Native ancestry. There have been many outcomes from these requirements which include descendants not qualifying to be a part of the Native corporation, because they do not have enough blood, to strong sided debates about what it means to be Inupiaq in today’s modern society.
This is no doubt a controversial issue within Native communities. Often times the fear is that opening up the scroll would expand tribal communities immensely so that people who did not grow up in their tribal community, or are so far removed from their tribal lineage, would enroll not for being part of a community but only for the benefits. To be transparent, being part of a tribal community does not reap more benefits than the average United States citizen; this is a common misconception. The fear of expansion within Native communities is real and rationale for Native communities, however it is misconceived as this is part of the colonization process in which individuals cannot see what is beyond the current situation. What would our communities look like beyond blood quantum? The modern-day experience of Native people is consistently challenged and changing, so no one truly knows what it would mean to relinquish blood quantum. Yet, there is one thing that will happen if blood quantum continues within the next few generations and that is the diminishment of people who qualify to be called Inupiaq. As we are starting see, the younger generations are most affected by blood quantum; conversations between Native women border the line of how to make sure their children can be enrolled into their tribal community. The pressure to marry or have children with others who qualify to enroll is real, and the consequences are starting to become the experience of many young people in our communities.
We should no longer see ourselves as just shareholders, but Inupiaq people who have inherited strong, unique ties to our land. Our lineage can be traced back for 14,000 years yet we will fail to save the next 14,000 years of Inupiaq people if we continue to use blood quantum to identify who we are. The question here is not if we should dismantle a fundamental part of colonial history, but how we can dismantle it while maintaining the integrity of our people. We should not be defined by a fraction, but by the strength of our communities, where our traditions and cultures are the center of who we are as being Native. In an ideal world, the relinquishment of blood quantum can motivate people to stay involved with learning our language, or protecting our lands. We are Inupiaq because of our relationship to our land, animals, and each other and not a number that defines us.
The diagram below visually expresses the formula used to quantify blood. Every Native born gets half the blood count from each parent. When they began the system, the first generation to have their blood quantified was considered to be full. Then, it began splitting the blood in half for each generation. As you can see, this formula is highly dependant on minor fractions to make or break a Native’s eligibility. Some children are more Native than their parents are. Some are as little as 1/16 away from not qualifying. Which ultimately means that pretty soon, an entire generation will be counted by 1/32 then later 1/64.