Blood Quantum: Tribes divided over “Native DNA” system implemented by the federal government

By Brenda Elizondo
May 4, 2021

NAVAJO NATION, AZ- With over 27,000 square miles of land, the Navajo Nation consists of endless unparalleled natural beauty covered by the red Arizona sand, ancestral juniper trees, and of course, surrounded by Dził Diyinii Dį́į’go Sinil, the four sacred mountains. It is also the largest Native American reservation in the continental U.S with over 330,000 tribe members.

For over 500 years, the Native American community continues to be the minority group with the greatest overabundance of disparities as they remain marginalized by the federal government.

Living in the reservation requires its members to improvise ways of survival. With the lack of basic resources like water, electricity, and a disproportionate level of COVID-19 cases– Today, Native Americans must find a way to survive something they cannot run away from, blood quantum.

What is Blood Quantum?

The straightforward definition of blood quantum is that it is a mathematical equation used to calculate the percentage of “Indian blood” that an individual possesses. It is a percentage used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs along with the federal government and distributes it as a CDIB, a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood identification card. However, the way it works is not that simple.

Blood quantum was initially a system implemented by the federal government in effort to limit the citizenship of Native Americans. Throughout various points in history, the U.S. federal government refused to recognize Native tribes. The concept of blood quantum wasn’t widely used until The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also known as the Indian Welfare Act. This act was a measure enacted by the U.S. Congress, as it decreased the federal control of the Native affairs and promised for the Native tribes to become sovereign nations. Despite this promise, Native Americans were enumerated and categorized by pedigree of Indian blood.

In most cases, the people responsible of taking these rolls were federal government officials that were unfamiliarized with Native ways of establishing and defining the community. This resulted in the inaccurate distribution of Native citizenship and Census count as most were given citizenship because of stereotypical phenotypes of what these people thought to be Native American.

Although blood quantum is not scientifically accurate, your blood quantum percentage written on your Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood can have detrimental effects if you do not fulfill the percentage requirement. If the blood quantum is not met, it can automatically disqualify an individual of common resources like fishing rights, what school your children go to, benefits, whether or not you live in the reservation, and can even lose your right to vote in Native elections. With this much at stake, many turn to intermarrying to avoid “watering down” their bloodline.

In other words, blood quantum emerged as a way to measure Indianness through a construct of race so that over time tribe members would intermarry and “breed themselves out” and rid the federal government of their legal duties to uphold treaty obligations. And most importantly, it is a way the federal government continues to hold control of the lives of Native Americans.

How does this affect Native families?

Chelsey Moon is part of the Native American community and opened the conversation to blood quantum where she discusses what it is, where is came from, and why this is a form of institutionalized racism.

Chelsey Moon, 30, is part of the Native American community and say she has experienced ‘nasty’ comments about her decision of not having kids with a Native person. She says

“This system started with racism, it perpetuates racism and it is my belief that they are trying to end it with racism as well. A passive genocide is through litigation and paperwork where they are washing away someones identity overtime.”

With a broken tone, Moon continues to talk about her children as she knows their percentage of blood quantum will eventually impact them.

Because of the fact that I had [my children] with someone that is not Native, it can impact my kids because they are perceived as less and they might not qualify for their rights and things they should be entitled to.”

The Navajo Nation is one of many tribes that use blood quantum as a citizenship requirement. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the applicant must have a minimum of 25 percent of “Navajo blood” in order to be enrolled as a citizen of the tribe. If the individuals blood quantum is insufficient, they automatically become ineligible for common resources like whether you can attend the schools on the reservation, get access to services, where you can live, and your eligibility to vote in Native elections.

Navajo Grandma, enrolled tribe member of Navajo Nation.

Diné woman, Bizhilth-bah, known as Navajo Grandma is an enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe and is also a geneaology researcher and founder of American Bloodlines.

Navajo Grandma is a full-blood Native American who comes from a family that served in WWI as code talkers and escaped the American Indian boarding schools, a form of forced assimilation created by the U.S. government to address what mainstream America called the “Indian problem.” 

“It’s a horrible thing to say, but Native Americans have been shot, they’ve been murdered, they’ve been hung, they’ve been raped, demeaned, and have become a political pawn.”

-Navajo Grandma

Unlike, she does not base indignity on DNA kits. Instead, she caters to ordinary people and travels on location within the Continental U.S. as a process of procuring documentation to prove Native American ancestry for her clients. As a genealogy researcher, she is well aware of the affects that blood quantum has to the Navajo community.

“The federal government created this and they have defined it as a fractional amount of Indian blood that a person has. Down [the generations] you would decipher whether you were full-blood, half, or a quarter. And that stops right there, once it’s a quarter your tribe goes extinct.”

With her own fair share of witnessed racism, her father was once a councilmen at Window Rock, a Tribal park that serves as the capital of Navajo Nation. She says it was not always like this and it is important to recognize that,

“A lot of people are intermarrying and what people don’t realize, again, is they’re feeding the fact that the government would love to see Native American tribes breed themselves out. It wasn’t like this before. Everyone was accepted equality and I think we should go back to that”

Native American Disparities and Oppression

Blood Quantum, A System That Is Slowly Diminishing the Native Community

How else is the Native American community being oppressed?

Tyrell Descheny, 27, is an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe and is a carpet weaver and shepherd. He resides in the Northwest part of Navajo reservation.

The topic of blood quantum remains very controversial and for some, asking for their pedigree of Native blood may come off as a sensitive.

For Descheny, the concept of blood quantum is something that is “made up,” he says,

“Blood quantum, for me, is something that was made up to make us feel ashamed of where some of us may come from. But, there are different perspectives of how to approach it depending on how you were raised.”

After asking for his CDIB, Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, he said he was 3/4ths, 75%. After asking how he felt about the question, he said,

“To be labeled similar as dogs and horses, it really degrades us for who are as human beings and it shows just how low we are perceived. As some would say, we were the first Nations here.”

Additional Disparities in the Navajo Nation

As a Shepard and weaver, his top priority isn’t soley surviving his off-grid life in the reservation. He says that as part of Navajo culture, his priority are his Navajo-churro sheep.

Without running water, taking care of his livestock is nearly impossible.

“We have to travel three miles one way to get water, so six all together–and not only for us, for our animals as well. In Navajo we have a teaching saying: If you take care of your animals, in return they will take care of you.” “

According to DigDeep, an organization that provides clean, running water to hundreds of American families everyday, “the average American uses 88 gallons per day, but many residents of Navajo Nation have fewer than 10 gallons of water at home at any given time, sometimes using as little as 2 to 3 gallons of water per day.” Today, over 40% of the population does not have access to running water or indoor plumbing facilities.

Meet Tryell Descheny, 27, he is an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe and walks a total of six miles to his nearest windmill to get water for him and his animals. Today, nearly forty percent of the residents that live in the Navajo reservation do not have access to running water or toilets with plumbing at home — Not only that, over 14,000 homes do not have electricity.

Although many argue that this is a “Colonialist construct” it is important to understand that blood quantum is still extremely controversial as there are some Native members that in fact, use this blood quantum as a method to preserve their community from the people wanting to benefit from have some Native blood.

Luckily for some tribes, action has been taken to extend the minimum blood quantum to 1/16ths. A fraction that is still only one more generation away from being on a brink of extinction.

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