Blood Quantum

I watched this Smithsonian presentation in real time. I wish I could make a rule that every genealogist playing with “Indian blood” (meaning Indian identity) would have to watch this presentation.

Many genealogists make odd and exaggerated claims because they don’t understand the culture they are researching, often because they don’t know that someone else could see something some other way. That happens with American Indian ancestors.

If you listen to WASPs in America talk about their Indian ancestry, they phrase it in terms of blood quantum. If great grandma was Cherokee, then the person is 1/16 Cherokee, which they might even think is enough to claim that they themselves are Cherokee. And even if this person doesn’t usually claim to be Cherokee, they might still believe they can speak for the Cherokee on divisive cultural issues — the name of the Washington Redskins is not racist, because this person is Cherokee but not offended.

This idea has been reinforced by federal policies. To be recognized as an official Indian, you have to have enough Indian blood. In contrast, historically you were black if you had any provable African ancestry, the One-Drop Rule.

If that seems strange, think about the differences. Blacks were disenfranchised from many rights. So were Indians, but Indians might be entitled to money payments under some treaty. It’s in the interest of the federal budget to disenfranchise as many people as possible.

Since the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the feds only recognize people as Indian if they have at least 1/4 Indian blood, proven by a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Taking blood quantum as a marker of American Indian identity is not the Indian way. Indians define their identity by their culture. Someone is Indian if their parents lived Indian lives in an Indian community, and if the person grew up and (ideally) still lives in that particular Indian culture.

When a white person tells me they are Indian, I want to know where they grew up, who their parents were, and — very important — who are their cousins still on the reservation? It’s rare to find a white person whose claims hold up on close questioning.

Nowadays what I usually hear is that this or that DNA testing company has shown that the person is 1.2 percent Indian. I’m 2.3 percent.

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