Like many people, I have at least one friend who has invested money in finding out just what blood runs through his family's veins. Erik is your classic white forty-something male. Growing up, he was always told that his father's family was mostly Swedish and his mother's was German. Through the corporate science of DNA services, Erik discovered he is also Scottish. Though this discovery has not dramatically changed his life, he did get married in a kilt.
I have yet to meet an American Indian who has made similar efforts to ascertain his or her ancestry. In fact, when I ask Indians about this, they crunch their eyebrows and curl their lips in confusion. These Indians will say they were born Indian, raised Indian, and have spent their lives living as American Indians. Personally, I believe some of these Indians are afraid they will learn they are Scottish as well.
While racial identity may seem like the latest in dinner party fodder for white people, the reality is that American Indians have been burdened with this issue for generations.
Before the arrival of Europeans, tribal identity was a rather simple matter of community association. If you lived among Navajo people, then you were accepted as a Navajo. Even when Europeans came ashore, tribal adoption was common. You did not need a federal Indian ID card nor did you have to prove you had Indian blood.
For many decades, tribes witnessed the loss of their lands, languages, and sovereignty as world nations. In the ensuing decades, the U.S. government began to strip American Indian tribes of their right to determine who was and who was not an Indian, mostly by establishing blood quantum rules that ended traditional tribal identity practices.
However, even as tribes have reclaimed much of what was stolen, including the right to determine tribal membership, the issue of blood quantum has remained foundational to Indian identity. And now, what was once considered a vile form of racial genocide inflicted on American Indians has many native people, including me, rethinking the value of blood identity.
Indians are losing our blood at an alarming rate (and have been for years). We intermarry with other races more than any other racial group. The blood loss is so acute that a number of tribes are eliminating blood quantum requirements.
While I do not believe that blood alone determines Indianness, this loosening of the rules for tribal membership is worrying. Without the blood, there is little left...