The new generation of Native Americans facing exclusion from kin tribes

Weeded out by old government laws and stymied by federal inaction, a new generation of Native Americans face exclusion from their kin’ tribes – as well as their benefits.

Souta Calling Last, a Native American who grew up in Heart Butte, Montana, is a registered member of the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) in southern Alberta, Canada. Her husband, Tyler Walls, is a registered member of the Hopi tribe in northeastern Arizona. But their 5-year-old son is not a member of either tribe – and never will be, at least on paper, unless the old laws governing tribal affiliation change.

The Phoenix couple, who run an educational nonprofit called Indigenous Vision, are among a growing number of Native parents mixed with children who are ineligible for tribal membership because they lack sufficient of “Indian blood” from a tribe to qualify for citizenship. Dubbed “undocumented Indians” by some of those involved, these out-of-school children not only face uncertainty about their identity; they’re also blocked from federal benefits, including college scholarships, health care and housing — which Calling Last says is why the controversial purity standard, called “blood quantum,” was first created. Essentially, it defines Native American status based on the fraction of a person’s ancestors who are documented as full-blooded tribal members.

“It all comes down to an intentional colonialist design to ‘get rid of the Indian,'” she says, referring to an 1895 quote from Delaware Senator Anthony Higgins: “It seems to me that one of the ways of getting rid of of the Indian question is just that of intermarriage and the gradual disappearance of Indian blood.The hope was that the natives would eventually reproduce, reducing the number of rights to land and monetary payments negotiated in treaties. left a lasting sting.

“The only other species in the world that have to get such papers are dogs and horses,” says Calling Last. “It really takes its toll on a youngster’s mentality.”

Even nearly nine decades after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which granted tribes the right to adopt their own constitutions to define membership, quantum blood criteria continue to be widely used, in large part because the Bureau of Indian Affairs still requires it to determine an applicant’s eligibility for federal social services.

The majority of tribes, including the Hopi and the Blood, require a quarter-degree quantum of blood for membership – the equivalent of having at least one grandparent documented as a full-blooded member (of other tribes require lesser degrees). Calling Last and Walls, each at quarterback status, are the last enlistees in their lines. Their child does not qualify for either tribe.

“The saddest thing in the world is a person who feels like they don’t belong,” says Calling Last, who runs an empowerment program for Indigenous teenage girls in foster care. “And that sense of belonging and identity has a lot to do with determining our emotional and mental health as well as our quality of life and even lifespan.” According to the Center for Native American Youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native youth between the ages of 10 and 24, and suicide rates among Native teens are nearly 3.5 times higher than the national average.

Tribal “de-registration” has made headlines thanks to the high-profile case of the Nooksack tribe in Washington, where 306 members are at risk of deportation and 63 of them, about 80 years old and older, are at risk of deportation from tribal dwellings. Tribal leaders argue that because the family matriarch was not included in a tribal census in 1942, none of them have a direct ancestor qualifying them for registration, although many have since married Nooksack members or had children married into Nooksack families.

The group’s attorney, Gabe Galanda, a graduate of the University of Arizona, says the evictions are a human rights violation by the tribal government. He asked the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided the homes, to intervene – a rare case of members of a sovereign nation asking for help from the federal government. “If only I had a dollar for every time I hear the words of a federal government official, ‘This is an internal matter,'” he says. “Under a 1978 Supreme Court decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall, of all justices, wrote a ruling saying that an Aboriginal person cannot go to federal court for relief when their right to primogeniture is threatened or has been taken away. So in 2022 we still have a situation where an indigenous person on tribal land is the only citizen who does not enjoy the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What are we doing about it? How did the first peoples not have the promise of these protections?

Galanda, a scion of the Nomlaki and Concow tribes of California, recognizes the double-edged sword of sovereignty. “What we are witnessing is a significant tension between the right of indigenous groups to self-determination and the individual human rights that were originally granted to indigenous citizens in the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.”

Although making headlines, tribal unenrolments are actually rare and frowned upon by most Indigenous nations: according to Galanda, only about 15% of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States have engaged in the practice. , and none in Arizona. Some Arizona tribes were forceful in their objection. Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation President Bernadine Burnette told town halls, “Opt-out is not allowed in my tribal constitution.

For natives who marry outside their tribe, however, non-registration of descendants is practically built into the constitutions of each tribe which requires some degree of blood quantum for membership – all but 33 do. “There are about 80 tribes that have practiced unenrollment,” Calling Last explains. “But almost all tribes practice non-registration of future generations.”
The blurred line between unenrolling and unenrolling was evident during the landmark “Whose Owns?” Tribal Leaders Conference (organized in part by Galanda) at the University of Arizona School of Law in March 2017, where concerns about the lack of schooling for Indigenous children took center stage.

“Indians marry more than any other ethnic group,” said Norbert Hill, administrator of a health center in Oneida, Wisconsin (according to the latest Pew Research analysis of census data, 58% of Native Americans marry) . “So soon, our death rate is going to exceed our birth rate. What we have is a race against time.

Relaxing quantum blood requirements or dropping them for kinship, lineage, and kinship records is one way to keep tribes alive. But opening up registration to anyone who finds a distant Indigenous relative on Ancestry.com has its downsides.

“Suddenly we have all these ‘pretenders’ claiming that somewhere in their lineage is an Indigenous grandmother or grandfather,” Calling Last says, citing a recent example of a popular TikTok influencer promoting his “indigenous-owned” business whose tribal affiliations turned out to be false. “It hurts true Indigenous entrepreneurs. »

Basically, federal distributions of tribal government assets are tied to old measures, so tribes may be reluctant to change. This is especially true for the 245 federally recognized tribes that operate casinos, which are required to distribute any non-taxable income not reinvested in tribal services and development in the form of per capita payments to members under an “income allocation plan”. Unsurprisingly, says Galanda, “most unsubscriptions have come from player tribes” – the fewer members, the greater the individual allocations. But the distribution of $4.8 billion to tribal governments under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and $20 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act means even non-gaming tribes have issued checks per inhabitant.

Because of their reliance on federal dollars, Calling Last says it doesn’t expect many tribes to break free from the laws governing registration — although they may resent them.

“I haven’t seen an example of a nation asserting its own protocols and enrollment policies, and I think that’s because of the parental nature of the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous nations,” says she, adding that she is currently filing EPA paperwork related to pursuing federal funding for her own nonprofit. “It’s a complicated relationship.

Nohemi M. Moore