“What are you?” is a common question asked in the United States. Few people when asked say, “American,” simply because they might be of European descent. No matter how recently their ancestors migrated to the United States, 200 years ago, 100 years ago, some European Americans would still say, “Italian,” “English”, or “German.” This question of ancestry now becomes a fun conversation about history and ties to peoples an ocean away.
For American Indians this question carries much more meaning, and “What are you?” becomes a loaded question. American Indians have much more, “American,” blood purity than those of us whose families have lived here for a century or two, but instead of simply stating, “American Indian,” they carry identification cards that list their blood quantum for a particular tribe.
Blood Quantum is the practice of quantifying purity of blood as a measure of tribal membership for American Indians. This form of assessment was first used for the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 which required tribal members to prove that they had one half or more tribal blood purity to be legally recognized as an Indian; the federal standard has since been lowered to one quarter blood quantum. Indigenous people receive benefits of health and education among other things, and blood quantum is a tool for the federal government and for the tribes to decide who can claim these benefits. You may not realize that blood quantum is an ever-diminishing characteristic due to colonization and assimilation. Over time tribes become more and more intra-related and marriage more and more challenging. Thus, the responsibility of the government to native tribal peoples continues to decrease. Ask yourself: Is this by design? In some ways blood quantum protects tribes and the government from supporting people who fraudulently claim American Indian rights, but blood quantum also fractionates communities and can be used as a tool for lateral oppression.
How do you assess your membership to a particular culture? Lineage? Language? Participation in cultural practices? Unfortunately, at present lineage is all that matters for tribal membership. Our guest this week, Max Sage, Masters student in the department of Applied Anthropology, is interested in how American Indians respond to these and other questions about blood quantum. He is investigating their specific knowledge about blood quantum and how blood quantum has shaped their identity and their tribal experience.
For Max, himself a member of the Oneida tribe, these questions have personal significance, and he has been aware of blood quantum since his childhood. “How much native are you?” is a common question. He can precisely answer this, but Max wants to move away from blood quantum. For Max, tribal membership is more than blood, it is support for culture and preservation of culture throughout life. Max, like many American Indians, now face hard choices when it comes to growing their culture. For example, who to love comes with heavy consequences of blood quantum and the membership of his future family in his tribe. Many American Indians across the USA face similar choices: assimilate or isolate. Disenrollment is also occurring across tribes, and blood is called into question before tribal participation.
Max’s research is his life, and his work to illuminate how people identify as American Indian is deeply rooted in his personal experience. He is driven to help grow Indigenous cultures in a meaningful way, and his own ties to his culture motivate his current exploration. For Max, this task doesn’t stop at OSU. Max hopes to continue his work by pursuing a PhD and JD in Native American Policy at the University of Arizona where he will continue to be an ally to all Indigenous peoples.
Tune in to hear our conversation with Max Sage Sunday November, 6 at 7 pm on 88.7 FM KBVR Corvallis or stream the show live.