Jill Doerfler: Defining Citizenship: Blood Quantum vs. Descendancy

William Mitchell College of Law

Scholar Jill Doerfler (Anishinaabe) talks about the colonial origins of blood quantum as a criterion for determining "Indian" and tribal identity, and explains how the federal government imposed that criterion upon the White Earth people in order to divest them of their land. She also stresses the need for a return to citizenship criteria that protect, enact and strengthen Indigenous cultural core values, and details White Earth's recent effort to abandon blood quantum in favor of lineal descent as the primary criterion for determing citizenship.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Doerfler, Jill. "Defining Citizenship: Blood Quantum vs. Descendancy." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

"[Anishinaabe language]. Thank you so much to the Bush Foundation and also to Sarah and Collette for helping with the organizing today. I'm really honored to be part of the program. As Sarah mentioned, I did grow up at White Earth, that's where I'm from. I'll just make a note that I'm not a White Earth citizen. I'm what we call a first-degree descendant, which is that my mother is enrolled at White Earth and I am not enrolled due to the current blood quantum system. So that's part of my legal political identity, my personal identity as Anishinaabe transcends political boundaries I think in many ways.

We've heard some wonderful presentations so far today and today what I'm going to do is talk a little bit more about blood quantum, a little bit about the history of blood quantum and what's been kind of happening at White Earth the past few years. My research is on citizenship and identity and I've been working on it for a number of years. Ultimately what we know and I think what we'll come to talk about in our discussions is that there's no perfect system. All of these systems have pros and cons and we have to think about what can we work with that works best for each individual tribal nation and that is your decision to make so we're just here to share some information.

I always like to start out with, what is blood quantum because even though it's something that we're all familiar with and probably everybody here could sort of go around the room and tell us your blood quantum, what it is officially and then maybe what you think it is correctly, what the Bureau's [of Indian Affairs] gotten wrong. Ultimately, blood quantum is this western concept. Initially it was a literal concept at the turn of the 20th century where scientists thought that they could literally measure blood. Today we're sort of slipping into maybe a little bit more metaphoric understanding of blood quantum. We understand that blood can't literally be measured in that ancestral sense, but that it's a metaphor for affiliations that our ancestors had historically that then parcel themselves out through time and genealogy. So it's literal, it's metaphoric, it's a measure of race, maybe politics, maybe nation, maybe Anishinaabe blood, maybe White Earth blood, maybe...so there's that slippery concept as well between Indian blood, Anishinaabe blood, or White Earth blood. How is all of that measured out? How does culture fit in there historically? It was thought that that was part of the measurement that those kind of cultural affiliations and loyalties were literally in the blood. Today we don't believe that so much, but it's part of the history of blood quantum.

So originally, it's a scientific calculation of degree of percentage of an individual's either racial and/or national ancestry. It assumes that cultural beliefs, language, intelligence, political loyalties, all types of certain behaviors, all of that was thought to be transmitted biologically and to be held in blood quantum, and so blood quantum assumes that those things are transmitted literally or metaphorically in the blood. And as we've talked a little bit about, it's an attempt to racialize American Indian identity. It's an attempt to kind of undermine political status and turn the tables and say, ‘Oh, you're really a racial group. This is really about race versus about political identity.' So how is and how was blood quantum calculated, how have we seen this change over time to some extent? I'm going to share here a little bit of the history of White Earth and I would encourage each tribe to think about their own history of blood quantum, how they got their initial blood rolls and to look at how that happened.

This is a photograph of Ransom Powell, who was an attorney and hired as a special investigator by the United States government to look at blood quantum at White Earth and figure out the genealogy and the blood quantum of 200 families, about 5,000 people at White Earth at the turn of the century in the 1910s. And so here he is posing with three ladies at White Earth. And he came to do this investigation, to figure out White Earth blood quantums because at that time it was tied to land and so that's what it was about: figuring out who was a 'mixed blood' and who was a 'full blood.' The legal definition at the time was a mixed blood meant any drop...one drop of white blood meant mixed blood and so that's the definition that Powell was working with and he's sent to do this investigation and figure out who's a mixed blood and who's not. And so what he does is he starts by asking a variety of questions to people at White Earth, asking them about their blood quantum or the blood quantum of people that they know. Was Person X a full blood? Was so-and-so a mixed blood? And the answers that people gave at White Earth I always say are better than any answers I could ever even make up. So the historical record on this is very rich. So Powell asked these questions, he and his little team of investigators, and what people would do at White Earth is basically avoid his questions or refute them time and time again. So I'm just going to share a few quotes from the investigation.

One person said -- in response to these questions about blood quantum -- she said, ‘There was never no question about blood in them days, no sir.' Not just within recent years talking about blood, so here the lady who is on the stand is saying, ‘This is something totally new, we haven't really talked about that before. It's only come up within recent years, only within allotment years when blood quantum is coming to matter for land sale.'

Here's a nice quote where we see the investigator being quite accusatory saying, ‘Many of those...isn't it true that many of those who are known to have White fathers were living as Indians and considered in the tribe as Indians just as though they had no White father?' So you see here the investigator trying to get somebody to admit that there are people at White Earth who have White fathers and they're just like other Indians at White Earth and one person says, ‘Yes, sir.' And we see this time and again in the record. In fact, there are many people in 1910s at White Earth who had white fathers who were living in the tribe as Indians and they weren't excluded for that fact.

Another person asserted that there was no mixed bloods, that there's no such thing. That wasn't a concept or category. Part of this is also translation that's going on here between people who may be speaking Anishinaabemowin and English speakers and translating. It may also be refuting the category, that that's a U.S. government kind of category and we're not willing to use that category here. There's no such thing. That's something the U.S. made up. So there are different possibilities for interpretation on those.

Other people talked about how Anishinaabe people created their identity, they made themselves who they were through their actions and so a woman was being asked about her husband in this case and she says, ‘He was a full blood. He made himself a full blood.' And the investigator goes on to ask, ‘Oh, you mean by living like an Indian.' And she says, ‘Yes,' and they go on and she explains that through his actions he creates his identity. It's not something that he's born with, that he's locked into, that he has no control over. He has the control to create who he is by what he does.

Then those questions aren't going that well for Powell, right? This is like not helping him create his blood roll so he's like, ‘Let's move on. Let's also think about phenotype. Let's start asking some questions about skin color, complexion, hair, that type of thing.' And he gets an equally array of colorful answers. Here's an example. The person was asked, ‘Is so-and-so light skinned?' The person from White Earth says, ‘Yes, she was light. Some Indians are light, but she was an Indian.' And so here again, not using a category of mixed blood or full blood, just using the term 'Indian' and just saying that skin color doesn't necessarily determine identity.

This one is similar, but the person does choose to use the term 'full-blooded.' So in this case the man says, ‘Yes, he was light but he was a full-blood Indian.' And then there are an array of answers where people say, ‘I never took particular notice,' ‘I can't remember,' ‘I can't recall,' ‘I can't say what they were,' ‘Who knows,' ‘They were a medium shade,' and so there's all kinds of evasive answers going on and Powell is not getting anywhere really with these questions either. And so ultimately what has to happen is we need some anthropologists, right? We need somebody to come in with some scientific knowledge and help.

So Powell brings in Dr. Ales Hrdlicka and Dr. Jenks and they come and they do physical examinations. They measure heads, they scratch skin, they do hair analysis. Hair analysis samples were sent down to the University of Minnesota to the College of Ag [Agriculture] and Animal Sciences to be analyzed and they start working on their blood roll using that because they're not going to get the answers they want from the Anishinaabe people at White Earth. So ultimately we get our base roll via that process and then once you have your base roll you are free to calculate your blood quantum...here's a handy chart created by the Bureau if anyone wants to utilize this, it's available to them. So you have your base blood quantum and then you take both of your parents and you calculate on down the line and that's how we've gotten our blood quantums. I know other tribes have similar stories. You got a base roll somehow and then you calculate from there.

So, what meaning does blood quantum have? That's a big question for tribes to think about. Is this a good system? What does it tell us? How can it...is it useful in citizenship? What meaning does it have? We can think about people with an array of different blood quantums, maybe they have Oneida blood, maybe they have English blood, Ojibwe blood. What does it tell us about that person or Person B who has a little more variety of ancestry here? What does it really tell us about Person B? Do we know where they live? Do we know what their belief system is? Do we know what language they speak? Do we know how they were raised? No, it gives us this ancestral kind of picture, which may be useful to some tribes, but it doesn't really give us a whole lot of information.

What does blood quantum do? How has it functioned? Practically, it's functioned in a variety of ways. It's ultimately designed to erase and eliminate American Indians. The feds used blood quantum to try to reduce the numbers of people that legally are native. A couple of quick quotes. Scholars have done lots of work on how blood quantum has functioned and what it's done. Eva Garut has said that the ‘ultimate and explicit federal intention was to use blood quantum standard as a means to liquidate tribal lands.' Definitely the case at White Earth. ‘And eliminate government trust responsibility to tribes.' Dr. David Wilkins and Dr. Heidi Stark have said that ‘blood quantum is a new form of federal termination of Indians who are eligible for federal aid and services.' We also heard some comments about that earlier today.

So, nations are faced with those questions about blood quantum. What is it, what does it do, how does it work? And in looking at citizenship requirements, we've been, as was mentioned, we've been going through a process at constitutional reform at White Earth. The current effort started in 2007 although there were other efforts in the late ‘90s and also previously in the ‘70s and ‘80s as well at constitutional reform. But the effort I was involved in got started in 2007 and when we talked about citizenship, we talked about the history, we talked about how the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe came and White Earth came to use blood quantum in the ‘60s, what happened before that, look at that history, think about our values. And we asked many, many questions and here's just a few things that we talked about in our discussions. And citizenship was something that we probably spent the most time on during our constitutional convention process. Delegates found this was an emotional issue, it's an issue that impacts everyone and it really sets the foundation for the nation: who are we, who do we want to be, that type of thing.

So we asked questions like, ‘What kind of citizenship requirement will put our beliefs, values and culture into motion?' ‘How can we enact those values?' The things that John was talking about today, those big picture things, love...we talked about love as one of our primary values. How can we put that into action? How might our values of love and family be expressed in citizenship regulations? Which citizenship requirement will strengthen our nation? At that time we had a variety of options in front of delegates to take a look at, but these are the types of questions that some of you are thinking about changing citizenship requirements, replace your values in there and think about what can we do, how can we best express these things. Ultimately, the constitutional delegates at White Earth felt that lineal descent was the best option, that it allowed people choice where people create their identity, they have the choice to apply for citizenship provided they can bring the documentation necessary, but it puts that back on families, it puts a focus back on relationships in families. Is it by any means perfect? No, but that was the route that was decided to go with.

Sometimes we get this question when it comes to lineal descent. Won't there be too many of us if we kind of go with lineal descent? And here's a round dance event with lots of Indians. ‘Isn't this too many Indians here?' That's something for tribes to think about. How do we think about citizens? Are they assets to the nation? In what ways can a larger population be a positive thing?

What about resources? This is the other thing that comes with lineal descent. What are we going to do? We can't...we don't have enough for everyone as it is now, we're not going to have enough for more people. Citizenship and resources, entitlements, programs have to be to some extent divorced and they are already in tribes now. All these programs and services generally have requirements, an income requirement, a residency requirement, why not do a nice reciprocal requirement where if you're going to get a scholarship you have to volunteer a number of hours at the tribal pre-school in the summer? Why not require learning the language? Why not require taking courses on history? So I would encourage tribes to think about how qualifications for programs can be a little bit different than citizenship and how those can be parceled out, because not everyone is entitled to something and the chairman shared earlier the entitlement issues and that came up at White Earth as well. ‘Well, how are we going to have enough houses for everyone?' Well, the tribe isn't responsible for providing everyone a house. As Anishinaabe people, we have the responsibility to take care of ourselves and we have the responsibility to care for our families and so you end up bringing back some of those traditional values as well about our own responsibilities that we have. How can we keep our culture alive is something that we also talked about. We have to do that, speaking of responsibilities and actions and making our identity. It's not passed down in blood, it's not literal in that sense. That's our responsibility with our families and our communities to do that sharing and that teaching.

A few bits of information: how to move forward with your decision. Ultimately, I think what helped us was an inclusive and open process. All of our meetings were open; people could say and share anything they wanted. We looked at the history of citizenship in quite a bit of detail and then we looked carefully at how we could practice values within governance. And then ultimately patience and perseverance, right? This isn't an easy decision; you're not going to figure it out in one day. We worked on the initial constitution for two years, even though we had drafts from efforts previous to that and then of course now the decision is in the hands of White Earth citizens who are voting as we speak. It's a by-mail voting process that's going on right now and we'll be counting our votes next Tuesday to find out if we will move forward with a new constitution or if we will continue under our current structure. [Anishinaabe language]."

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