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African-Native American Research Forum Archive

You are part Indian/Cherokee? Which part?

Blood Quantum - Why It Matters, and Why It Shouldn't
by Christina Berry

"You're an Indian? What part?"

That's the universal question many mixed-blood Native Americans are asked every day. How many times have you mentioned in passing that you are Cherokee to find your conversation interrupted by intrusive questions about percentage? How many times have you answered those questions? Well stop! That's right -- stop answering rude questions.

Have you ever been talking to someone who mentioned that they were part Hispanic, part African-American, part Jewish, part Italian, part Irish, part Korean, etc.? Have you ever asked them what percentage? Hopefully your answer is no, because if your answer is yes then you're rude. It would be rude to ask someone how Hispanic they are, but we accept that people can ask us how Cherokee we are. This is a double standard brought about by our collective history as Native Americans, and is one we should no longer tolerate.

The history of blood quantum begins with the Indian rolls and is a concept introduced to Native Americans from white culture. Throughout Native history blood has never really been a factor in determining who was or was not included in a tribe. Many Native American tribes practiced adoption, a process whereby non-tribal members would be adopted into the tribe and over time become fully functioning members of the group. Adoption was occasionally preceded by capture. Many tribes would capture members of neighboring tribes, white settlers, or members of enemy tribes. These captives would replace members of the tribe who had died. They would often be bestowed with some of the same prestige and duties of the person they were replacing. While the transformation from captive to tribal member was often a long and difficult one, the captive would eventually become an accepted member of the tribe. The fact that the adoptee was sometimes of a different ethnic origin was of little importance to the tribe.

It wasn't until the federal government became involved in Indian government that quantum became an issue. One of the attributes collected on a person signing one of the many Indian rolls was their quantum. However, this was highly subjective as it was simply a question that the roll takers would allow the people to answer for themselves. I know for a fact that this was known to be incorrect because my own ancestors' quantum is recorded incorrectly. My great grandmother and her sister are listed with generationally different quanta even though they were sisters with the same mother and father and have the exact same quantum.

In this day and age, however, quantum is important in many ways. In order to become a registered member of any federally recognized Indian Nation you must first get a CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood). This CDIB is issued by the BIA and simply states that the United States government certifies that you have a specified degree of Indian blood and are a member of a given federally recognized tribe. Once you have a CDIB you can become a recognized member of that tribe. Without a quantum you cannot become a registered member of a tribe.

In addition, many Indian tribes include their own quantum restrictions. The Eastern Band of the Cherokees requires that you be 1/16 or higher to join, and the Keetowah band requires a blood quantum of 1/4 or higher. The Cherokee Nation, on the other hand, has no quantum restrictions. The majority of the Cherokee Nation has 1/4 or less Indian blood. When considering these numbers it is important to remember that the Cherokee were in direct contact with white settlers prior to the American Revolution. Many prominent Cherokee families included intermarried whites very early on. The Ward family -- descendents of Nancy and Bryant Ward (an Englishman) -- is a good example. My own ancestor, Granny Hopper (daughter of Old Hop), married a Scottish trader (McDaniel). The Cherokee people have been intermarrying with whites for over two hundred years, so many families have some very confusing fractions to spit out every time someone asks, "How much Indian are you?"

Many Indian people today would like to see the emphasis on blood quantum fall by the wayside. Blood quantum is a sterile, inhuman way of calculating authenticity. When you ask a person how much Indian blood they have, you expect an answer. If they answer your question with a small percentage or if they refuse to answer, you immediately question their authenticity as an Indian. Never mind -- that blood quantum is completely irrelevant to Cherokee culture. Throughout history the Cherokee people have believed that if you're Cherokee, you're Cherokee. If you're not, you're not. Percentage doesn't matter. In addition, many people now make a distinction between quantum Cherokees and cultural Cherokees. How Cherokee you are is more determined by how you live, how active you are in the tribe, how you grew up, and what you know of Cherokee history, culture, and language.

Blood quantum, while it appears harmless, has had a very negative effect on many Indian Nations. In many cases the issue of quantum has divided full-bloods and mixed-bloods, causing resentment. The issue also divides tribal members and non-members on the issue of proof. From a historical and cultural perspective, the idea of blood quantum is dangerous.

Blood quantum is a scientific, government-approved method of determining blood purity and race purity. One of the most frightening examples of a government's interest in blood purity comes as recently as the Twentieth century in Nazi Germany, when Hitler wanted to create an Aryan master race. The consequence was that millions of people were killed because they were not Aryan. While Nazi Germany is an extreme example, blood quantum is nonetheless a clinical, inhuman, and careless way to determine the ethnic authenticity of a person. We are not Gregor Mendel's cross-pollinated pea plants; we are people. Our ethnicity and cultural identity are tied to our family history, our surroundings, our own hopes and expectations, and our self-identity. To measure our "Indianness" by a percentage is to completely eliminate the human element. And to allow others to judge us based on a number is to continue a harmful trend.

Launch a quiet protest against the reliance on blood quantum to measure Indian authenticity. The next time someone asks you what percentage Cherokee you are tell them that they are asking a rude question and don't answer -- because the answer doesn't matter. Either you are Cherokee or you're not.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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