Blood Quantum, Racial Separatism, Tribalism and the Federal Government

Isleta Pueblo has recently passed an ordinance that allows the tribal government to exclude, evict and/or kick non-tribal member’s off their land if their blood quantum falls below a certain percentage. In practice this amounts to a form of racial separatism via definition of who is and who is not a member of the tribe. I am not a member of Isleta Pueblo, but as a half blooded Taos Pueblo Indian (who didn’t grow up on the Pueblo) and quarter blooded Tlingit Indian who is an initiated, fully admitted tribal member and part of a recognized clan, I feel that I can say that this is a contentious issue throughout Indian Country. It’s an issue that we should all feel free to consider and comment on, even if the inner workings of Isleta Pueblo remain their own matter.

I believe that at issue here is where the authority comes from to determine who is and who is not a member of the tribe. I am a strong, unflinching advocate for tribal sovereignty and self determination. But who defines that sovereignty? BIA backed tribal governments? Traditional clan and tribe elders and leadership? Popular vote? From Indian Country Today

The Pueblo of Isleta Residence Ordinance, enacted by the tribal council in 2010 and approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in early 2011, requires all members of the Pueblo who wish to reside within the Pueblo’s lands with a nontribal member to request written permission from the Pueblo governor. An amendment to the ordinance, approved last July, requires the nonmember to submit to a criminal background check.

While an ordinance granting the Pueblo the right to exclude anyone from its lands has been part of the Pueblo’s constitution since 1962, this new ordinance establishes procedures for nonmembers to request permission for residency. Should the applicant be approved, a “permission to reside” agreement must be signed. This agreement must be renewed every five years.

If the applicant is denied, he or she has the right to appeal to the tribal council.

This ordinance also applies to descendents of tribal members, defined as those with less than one-half but at least one-quarter Isleta blood, not enrolled in any other federally recognized tribe, and listed on the descendant’s roll maintained by the Pueblo. In the event of the death of a member, a nonmember’s permission to reside shall be revoked six months after the member’s death. If the nonmember has member dependents (defined as under 18, over 60 or mentally incompetent or physically challenged to the extent of requiring daily care), the nonmember can request permission to stay.

The Pueblo of Isleta issued a written statement from the Pueblo’s governor, Frank E. Lujan. According to the statement, “the intent of this ordinance is to know who resides within the lands of the Pueblo. The ordinance has been well received by the majority of the members, including those who have nonmember spouses or who have significant others.”

The statement continues that the Pueblo “is exercising its right to protect the peace, safety, property, health, general welfare, customs and traditions of our people.… We will assure a safe environment for all people who reside within the reservation, member and nonmember alike. What the Pueblo has done is the right thing to do.”

Wow. One could imagine the sort of fuss that would be kicked up if a non-native community enacted such a policy to require residents of impure racial background to submit to a criminal background check and face eviction from the community at the disapproval of local government officials. But, of course, our nations are sovereign, and it is our sacred duty to protect our lands and preserve our culture and way of life. However, here is the other side of the argument, from an Isleta Pueblo tribal member:

Chris Abeita is a tribal member not affected by the residency ordinance, but he disagrees with it. “I have lived here my entire life, 42 years, and I’ve never heard of any non-Indian or nonmember committing a violent crime on the rez. I’ve not heard of any non-Indian or nonmember disrespecting our customs or traditions, either,” he says. “In contrast, we had a tribal member murder his own cousin and he still lives on the Pueblo. We’ve also had a tribal member break into the home of an elderly woman here, and rape and beat her. What happens when he gets out of prison? He’ll be able to come right back here.”

Abeita doesn’t buy the council’s argument that the ordinance is to protect health and safety of the community. He thinks that if the purpose is truly to protect the community from bad people, the council should include tribal members.

He believes the true motivation behind the ordinance stems from 2009, when there was an effort to lower the blood quantum to be a member of the Pueblo to one-quarter from one-half. This measure failed by 10 votes. “Many people believe that this residency ordinance is to retaliate against the people who wanted to lower quantum. Many tribal members are married to non-Indians or non-Isleta members. Their children don’t have the necessary blood quantum to be members, own property, etc. The community was divided on the issue, which has impact on federal benefits, the per capita we get from the casino, etc. The people opposed to lowering the quantum are now in control of the council.”

This is the crux of the issue. If we are to have the authority to exclude based on who is or isn’t a member of the tribe, then who gets to decide the criteria for tribal membership? How do they get to define who is and isn’t a member? Tribal governments and councils are, in almost all cases, creations of the federal government. In this particular case and in the case of most tribes in general the right to race based exclusion comes from a federally recognized tribal government document. So the power to make these decisions becomes a question of who in the tribe is in control of tribal government. In most cases, you will find factions vying for that power. One can expect that once a particular faction is in control of government, it will use the powers of that government toward it’s own benefit. These are simply the incentives built into the system of non-Native, western style governments.

This is not to say that traditional leadership such as clan elders wouldn’t arrive at the same conclusion and decide to exclude members based on blood quantum (I happen to think that they wouldn’t in my tribe and clan, at least.) But it’s worth considering whether the power and decisions represented by tribal governments truly reflect our traditional culture if they are creations of a foreign entity such as the US Government. This is particularly of importance when we look at recent events, such as water rights in Navajo & Hopi lands and oil pipelines crossing First Nations territory in British Columbia. In those situations we may also see that the interests of US created tribal governments may not reflect those interests of traditional leadership or the people themselves. This isn’t to say that tribal governments always misrepresent the will of their people, it is just to say that these are entities that are more easily co-opted by corporate, state, and federal government interests.

What I would like to ultimately see is an end to the influence the US Government has over our Indian Tribal Nations. An end to their definition of who we are and who we should include or exclude from out respective clans and tribes. What are our tribes? Who defines them? Can those half blood and quarter blood tribal members who are kicked out of their communities form their own tribe? No, because the power to determine who is and is not a “tribe” lies in the hands of our colonizers, and ultimately our enemies, the federal government.


About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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3 Responses to Blood Quantum, Racial Separatism, Tribalism and the Federal Government

  1. Vince says:

    My clan seceded from it’s mother clan sometime before 1800. It occurred long enough ago for us to establish a presence outside of the original community in which we were founded, so we have recognition from enough clans to claim the right to independence. Still, it happened recently enough that people still talk about how we are socially tied to our mother clan. With independence comes clan level sovereignty and the right to adopt whoever we want and run our own internal affairs as we see fit so long as we generally adhere to the common customs and traditions of our tribal nation.

    In stark contrast to this form of tribal and clan sovereignty is that of the federal government. They do not recognize this process of peer to peer, horizontal recognition of sovereignty and tribe & clan rights. They established a fixed number of tribal nations, and that’s the end of it. No more new tribes. No recognition of clan sovereignty. As a result you have these sort of divisions and power struggles occurring to control a fixed number of Federally backed tribal government institutions. There is no recourse for excluded Natives to form their own tribal communities. The more I think about this the more fucked up I realize it is.

  2. Vince says:

    The important factor here is that of a right to secession, in my opinion. It is a very “Indian” concept that if you don’t like the way the chief is running things, you fold up your tepee and move (or go build a new clan house somewhere else, as was the case with my clan.) The system of federally recognized tribes and their accompanying tribal governments does not allow for this.

    See also the Oraibi split among the Hopi.

    Also, see the way plains Indians tribes morphed and constantly changed, with new bands being created and dissolved all the time, and even bands of allied tribes spending so much time together that they become indistinguishable from one another.

  3. Vince says:

    There’s an interesting comment at the original article at Indian Country Today that represents the other side of the argument: that blood quantum guidelines were introduced and allowed to be lowered so that Indian people would eventually be bred out of existence and disappear. I can appreciate this argument as well. But I think that the root of both arguments is a problem with allowing federal Indian policy to be the mechanism through which we define who we are.

    I’d view something like this Tlingit Clan Conference as the more clear way through which we maintain tribal identity.

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