Jill Doerfler and Matthew Fletcher: Defining Citizenship: Blood Quantum vs. Descendancy (Q&A)

William Mitchell College of Law

Panelists Jill Doerfler and Matthew Fletcher fields questions from the audience, and several participants offer their heartfelt perspectives on the complicated cultural and social dynamics surrounding citizenship and identity in their respective Native nations and communities. 

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

Resource Type

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

Fletcher, Matthew. "Defining Citizenship: Blood Quantum vs. Descendancy (Q&A)." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

Sarah Deer:

"At this time again we'd like to open it up to questions and comments. We have a few minutes before lunch and we'd like to have some dialogue based on what the speakers had to say.

Audience member:

"Has there been any talks with the state level officials or any federal officials on how they view what an Indian is and at what point...or what do they expect of Indian tribes? We've been talking about funding, we're talking about land being taken back. Okay. I know in Wisconsin we had a meeting with a state representative and he didn't even know we had 11 tribes in the state of Wisconsin. He knew that all the tribes in Wisconsin were per cap Indians. That was his perception and he was from the southern part of the state. And so a lot of times when we...we struggle with this blood quantum issue is the end game that what does the federal government and Chairman Bugonaghezhisk hit it right on the head though. At some point they don't want to pay no more. And of course I speak for myself that they can never pay us enough for what they've taken from us. And I notice that when I look in the appropriations inside the Department of the Interior. Parks and Services get more money than the tribes do and why is that? And so these are some of the questions on the other side of the line is what does the government...what is their end game? The gentleman here talked about...Mr. Fletcher was talking about that at some point all they want to do is wipe the slate clean and mainstream us into society with no debt to the Anishinaabe people."

Dana Logan:

"Hi. My name is Dana Logan from Grand Portage. My question regarding the lineal descent is if the government has wanted to, like you said, wipe the slate clean, get rid of Indians? So if you are going to go to...are thinking of going to lineal descent and I'm going to use the Cherokee Nation, going to lineal descent and I've seen their blood quantum as being at one-3000th. So at what point if tribes go to lineal descent are we no longer going to be identified as Indian tribes and we're going to be so what the government might say is diluted, there aren't no real Indian left? And so that I worry about a little bit in identity and what the government thinks of us. Myself, I'm enrolled in the Chippewa tribe. I have children who are Northeastern Oklahoma Indians enrolled there at a ome-eighth requirements. They're half, my husband is a full blood Indian. Now, look at their CDIB, they're Grand Portage, they're Canadian on my family's side, they're Cherokee and they're also part Shawnee and Eastern Band, and then in the Cherokees, split you up on what kind of Cherokee you are. So you have all of these things that we do to ourselves but yet we have to protect ourselves as a group of people...I don't like to say a racial group either, but we do need to keep our identity so that the American government doesn't say, "˜You people aren't here anymore and you don't matter.' Thank you."

Matthew Fletcher:

"I'd like to just toss out something. I think the way that the self-determination policy has worked in the last couple decades along with the Supreme Court has looked at Indian identity is to really rail and recognize a tribe's decision as to who is a member, who is not. So if you look at a lot of statutes that Congress and state legislatures have passed prior to the "˜80s really, they all talk about blood quantum, they talk about half blood, quarter blood, who's an Indian, who's mixed blood. The U.S. and most state legislatures even have moved away from that. And so for example a year or so ago the Department of Justice, Fish and Wildlife Service in the U.S. government said, "˜Well, we're going to recognize anybody who's a member of a federally recognized tribe. Blood quantum is irrelevant. Whatever they decide, they are able to with their citizenship card they can carry an eagle feather. We're not going to give them any crap for that.' So that was the policy floating around. What it means is, they talk about tribal membership. Whatever blood quantum is, it's up to the tribes and I think that's a really good development. But that's the politics right now. 50 years down the road, maybe John Roberts type people, and he's the one who asked the question in the Baby Veronica case, "˜Hey, the last time that this kid and dad had a full blood Indian was during the time of the American Revolution in their ancestry.' It was important to him and so maybe that will change over time. But right now, now is where the federal government is deferring to tribal prerogatives on tribal membership, whatever that might be, and I think it's a good time to take advantage of that."

Jill Doerfler:

"Yeah, and there's lots of prevailing arguments as well that blood quantum and this racialization was meant to destabilize politics. The U.S. and native nations have a nation-to-nation relationship. It's not a relationship between a nation and a race and so there's also lots of arguments there that treaties that form a big part of that government-to-government relationship there primarily are not racially based. They're governments making agreements with other governments. The U.S. government racial...the race of Americans is changing over time. We're going to start to see the white race decline and we're going to start to see white people becoming a 'minority' in the U.S. Does that mean if the race of America changes, does that mean that those political agreements are null and void? Most people would argue no because it's still the same political system that's in place. The makeup of the people might be changing, but you still have that government structure."

Audience member:

"So I guess to touch on another one of those stories that we carry with us from our relatives, one of the things that I was taught was if you wonder about who you are, think about yourself when you're done with this world and who is it the ones that's going to take care of you to help you on your journey to the next place. And sometimes that is the defining characteristic, because when you're left by yourself and you're completely dependent upon the people who are supposed to take care of you, sometimes that defines who your identity is. What we have based on these discussions is a converging of social, cultural, political type of discourse -- I guess for lack of...for a more intelligent English word -- but...and how that convergence comes into play. I mention these things and the things that come from me that I work with when I work with my people in my tribe is we never lose that connection we have to our relatives. And that's difficult sometimes, especially when they're adopted away and they're taught these different types of...different ways of doing things.

And so when I was in school there was people who were sympathetic, these non-tribal people who were sympathetic, but they wanted this and they always said, "˜Well, how do you...' -- I used to joke with them and tease them because there's some things you don't share with people you don't know -- I said, "˜Well, if you want to know who's Indian, go ask them what happened to their grandparents,' because almost always you can find a story about the boarding schools. My tribe and my relatives all have the same stories about where our grandmothers went and grandfathers and how we can't stop in...when we travel back and forth and Janesville with my grandma.

And so one of the things that I'm proud of as Ojibwe and as Anishinaabe is the treaties that we have going back to American or Federal Indian Law 101 is the four purposes of why treaties are made. Well, there's a fifth treaty, too, that helps define the contents or your...you reserve the rights of your own identity. And for us, for the Ojibwes and among the Lake Superior Band, our 1847 treaty -- one of them gets overshadowed because that was Bugonaghezhisk's allotment that he got over by Wadena -- but the other part of that 1847 treaty is a separate one, which was the recognition...forcing the United States to recognize that Ojibwes did not recognize mixed blood or half breeds or whatever they called us back then and that all of the people who were among our communities from wherever they came from were considered part of our family. And that's a teaching that we have that...we have these cultural bonds that go across there and so a lot of my [Anishinaabe language] are non-tribal. And for those who don't know what [Anishinaabe language] are, it kind of translates to like 'godmother' or 'godfather' or 'god-relative' that is supposed to help you take the place or help assist your parents in raising you or your family in raising you. And then as we include them as our [Anishinaabe language], we also name them so that the Creator can understand them in the Ojibwe that is the predominate method on how we're conducting ourselves. And so even though we use this more dominant language or English to kind of define our interactions and to articulate these views, I still from the time I was born until the time I pass and I sit there with my grandmothers again and my grandfathers and tell the story of my life as part of our teaching. Ojibwe is the means that identifies us because it doesn't set parameters, it gives you the method to teach you how to come back home. And so that is...the prevalent thing that comes through this is the language. We call that...that's the gift from the Creator. Our work is the land that was given to us or the responsibilities that attach us to the land.

But there's still, I guess, and I'll finish this real quick I guess, but the other part that kind of makes our blood boil and all of that is when we have the people who create these manufactured senses of identity of what it is to be Indian and then they come back and they bring these different concepts. Even though I'm a lawyer and trained just as Professor Fletcher is in speaking English in terms of interpreting our laws, the constitution that we have is probably one of the most detrimental and damaging things that we've done as a tribe because it tries to codify what the idea of a good government is or how to run your people...how to organize your people to do certain things and that gives a tool then for those who disagree with our ways of life. Our grandmothers have prominent places in our society, but it's not recognized in the constitution or when people identify their laws and say, "˜Well, you're not a member because the constitution doesn't say that,' even though my [Anishinaabe language] grew up on the reservation and has done as much for me as anybody else, she's not from Lac Courte Oreilles.

It's a dangerous double[-edged] sword that I think that -- and I'm going to get slapped by Robert here if I'm not careful how I say this -- there's people who take this idea of spreading democracy as President [George W.] Bush had said when he was justifying these incursions and sending among others some of our Native youth into Iran and...or I mean Iraq -- whew, there's a Freudian slip -- in Afghanistan and to these different countries is they're trying to spread democracy back to the tribes in that they want to change their constitutions so that they have these things that are not...don't necessarily arise from us, but they come from this idea that we're going to have participation, that we want representation from different areas and the model that they use is the United States, but yet how can that be a positive model when we have something like the Tea Party that's disrupting the government or we have the idea of democracy and we've got the idea that corporate citizens are now or corporations are now people. And so that just...it makes me nervous and I think it's the responsibility of those who really want to be part of that community to be diligent, to hold true to what your ideas are and to not...if you're going to bring something else in there, bring in also with the open mind of coming into the community and listening to what that is.

I know that there's criticisms split between on reservation and off reservation and it shouldn't be that way because the reservations were something that was given...that was forced on us by the American government because we're actually in the area -- and this is going to get me probably slapped by the Dakota in the room -- this used to be Ojibwe country and there was an 1825 treaty that kind of demarcated this line. It wasn't ours like in exclusion of other people. It was our shared responsibility to take care of this land and take care of these resources. And so this idea of possession is something that got forced into us so that the dominant society could figure out a way to kind of [figure out] who to talk to instead of having to talk to everybody, they picked who they wanted to speak with. And so when they come back with these people with these ideas of changing the constitution so that it incorporates more people, I think that's such a dangerous topic because you're incorporating it under the wrong premise. There's other ways that could be done and that needs to be incorporated into that. If we're really going to have binding, logical extensions of ourselves codified in the constitution, it should be in the language, it should be in the way that those words were intended and it should be representative of the practices of who we are.

My grandma told me -- and my grandma told me a lot so I could go all day -- she told me, she says, "˜When you pass, one quarter of you doesn't go somewhere else, one quarter doesn't go to this other spot. It goes to where you think your family is because that's the teaching that the Creator gave to you. And so when you go up and you say your name, your name is like one slice of your life over the time that you've been given this time on this earth. And so when you hear that and they ask for you, you know where to go to.' And I don't mean to disparage people with different beliefs because I've seen people who are strong in their beliefs and I believe them. The major tenet of me and my lodge is you respect all ways and it just...sometimes though when we respect all ways the first way that seems to get diminished or get erased is the Anishinaabe way and we just...I can't allow that. [Anishinaabe language]."

Robert Durant:

"I won't hit you. I want to shake your hand. Again, my name is Robert and I just want to talk a little bit...no disrespect to all the efforts that White Earth is going through and I'm on the council in White Earth. I too, I have always been afraid of this. The new constitution that's been written, I feel there's so many things that take away from the future and also removing the past on where we're at and what was done and closing the door on so many other issues. And then when there's issues that are talked about, how are we going to deal with this here with programs -- whether it be housing, whatever -- and all the other issues that comes along with that and maybe being censored from working one way or working another way if this thing passes? Then it's said that, "˜Well, we'll tweak it out.' Well, tell you what, that's not what people are kind of voting for. I'm not going to say 'yes' to where you're going to change it anyway so what good is it? Things like that, it really gets to my heart. And then when we talk about to opening these doors to rewrite a constitution that's taken decades of interpretations and decisions and ordinances and then to me it's really sad, because to me it's like the modern day of being fleeced by using enrollment. I get afraid of that. I'm afraid of that. Remember the stories of our tribal nations being fleeced? And then sometimes when we talk about the enrollment laws...I remember listening to some old men talking about [Anishinaabe name] or 'Hole in the Day.' He only would...during the removals come to White Earth, he talked about only the half breeds could come with him. We all know he was killed, but there's a lot of other histories, I read about other leaders they wanted, for reasons, whatever that was. And that's what I think about, but they disappeared in life and who was always behind it, it was always the government. So it's really difficult for me...when I think about this, I'm doing it right now, I'm shedding a tear because what are we doing to ourselves and what are we allowing to happen to us? It's not easy, but everybody is not being taught.

We sent out as a lesson for everybody, White Earth sent out...there's 18,700-and-some members under the last roll that we took. That list was used to mail out a constitution. I asked, "˜Well, if you're going to mail that out, at least have some fairness and mail out the one that we've been dealing with that was revised in the "˜60s.' Well, no it wasn't done because I was intercepted and it wasn't done, so it wasn't fair because people on both sides ain't getting a chance. So when you go for this here in other nations, realize that because we're stepping into something that we do not know and it's scary. I can say that because my children, they're tribal. But I can understand they may make a choice not to be with another tribal or their children, but the thing is I need to have that responsibility to show them who they are too. But I made that choice. Why am I tribal? There's a lot of teachings.

I want to tell you a little story, too, before I quit here because it really gives me an insight. I got a gift, again, there's a lot of gifts. I received a packet of writings done by tribal members; I'm going to share that with you Jim. They wrote manuscripts of...100 years ago they wrote this. I had my administrative assistants type it all out because the paper was frail and it was written beautifully. And they told the stories of what it was. They told stories. Imagine 120 years ago someone 84 years old saying...writing the story of the modern Indian. It makes me angry when I read that, but it was the truth. This topic is really tough and I'm not the only one that feels that way. These are lessons we listen, lessons from our elders, real lessons. Not just a story, but this time as being told...these were handwritten. [Anishinaabe language]."

Sarah Deer:

"I think we have time if you want to respond unless someone else in the audience wants to make sure we get you on record. There we go."

Sam Strong:

"It's not really a response. [Anishinaabe language]. I think for me it wasn't actually in any response to Terry's comments there, but basically when I think about being Anishinaabe, when I think about being Ojibwe, when I think about being from Red Lake, what does that mean to me? It means a way of life. It means living that [Anishinaabe language]. It means being a part of a community that has been centuries in the making so it's understanding that you're a part of that history. That's something for me that I'm very proud of. I'm an enrolled member. I'm very proud of that. I'm very proud of my heritage. I'm also proud of...I'm mixed. I'm proud of everything that made me and that's part of being Anishinaabe, that's part of being Ojibwe is understanding who you are and being comfortable with that and then living that lifestyle in all facets of your life.

I think about the past, I think about Red Lake and one of our first leaders, once we started with treat making and all that, his name was Peter Graves and he actually wasn't a Red Lake member. Our first real leader wasn't even a member. He was an Ojibwe person that had moved there. He was mixed, he was half, and you think about the contributions that he made to Red Lake. We consider ourselves unique. I'm sure all tribes consider themselves unique. But we're a closed reservation. We're the only tribe that never ceded control of their land. We're proud of those aspects of who we are, but at the same time you look at today what people are...how they're living and what's going on in the communities and we're disconnected from who we are. So I think it's important to identify that in looking at citizenship. Your community is going to look at where you're at today. What does it mean to be a Red Laker today?

Our chairman always tells this story as kind of a fearful indication of where the community is at. He was at a meeting and one of the guys...it was a forum for an election or something like that and one of the kids stood up and he took his card out. He said, "˜This ID card, what does it mean for me?' And everyone's like, "˜Well, what do you mean?' And he said, "˜Where's my check? Where's our per capita? We have all these casinos. Where's my money? What does this card mean for me?' I don't think that's the prevailing thinking that most of the community members have, but it's out there. That's kind of how the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] would want it. They would want to see us as dependents. They would want to see us as people that our identity is putting our hand out, but that's not who we are and I think understanding that there is...there's that divide. What we have created and who we are are so different from one another.

You think about the teachings and the people that I listen to and that I learn about myself and my culture and some of these people, if you met them on the street, you might think they were Caucasian, but the reality is these people are carrying on the culture and the language. They're not all enrolled members, but these people have dedicated their life to understanding our culture, our language, our traditions and they're carrying that on for our tribal members. And you think about all these people that have helped us get to where we're at today and all these community members that have contributed and it has nothing to do with the percentage of blood that you had. It never has and it never will, but the reality is our communities have become dependent upon the resources from the BIA, from the federal government, so on and so forth and people have started to look at membership as what's going to be put in my hand for free?

And I think the only way to change that -- we're looking at constitutional reform right now -- and you pose this question to Red Lakers, you're going to get a lot of angry people. We're a closed reservation. We've maintained control of our land, so what happens when we open up to lineal descendancy and we have people that are totally disconnected from our land base? Would they potentially put us in a position where we would lose ownership of the land, where the tribe would make a decision to sell it? I don't think so, but at the end of the day, these are the fears that the tribal members bring up when we talk about changing our enrollment criteria. How do we address those?

And to me, it's one of those things...it's obviously mathematical genocide. I think all of us can agree that the current system doesn't work, but how do we move forward in a responsible way, in a way that allows for the people to also grow and the only way to really do that is through teaching your people about your culture, your language, doing all the things that we're talking about here, but it's not a one-day change. Even if you were to make the change from lineal...to lineal descent or whatever it may be, that's not the important piece. It doesn't matter what the criteria are if your community isn't carrying on the values and the traditions of who you are. That's the way it was always taught to me is that the way you live is who you are.

Another teaching that I always was told is, coming into today's world you see the troubles of today with the environmental degradation and all the social ills of the communities and our elders say that our ways are the ways that are going to bring this world back into a better place. That's been our teachings. And how can we do that if we can't even include people that are living in our communities in our traditional ways? You have to think that...what's the long term? The long term is obviously that we need to be inclusive and teach our ways and share those values, but in the short term we have to focus on ourselves. We have to get to a point where our own people understand who they are and their lifestyles. Without that, it doesn't matter how you identify yourself. In 100 years what will our communities be? So to me it's...without the identity the rest is...it's almost impossible to even solve that so it's not to make the...and we're going through the same process so I ask this of all the members of our community when we go out. We have a constitutional reform committee and so they're asking these same questions as well. But the reality is, I don't think it's a one-year thing, I don't think it's just change the criteria, it's what are we doing as a nation to hold onto our identity, to create a better quality of life in our communities and to create for...something that everyone can buy into, not only our people but all Ojibwe people.

I always brag about Ojibwe people because I consider us to be the largest tribal nation. I think from a land base perspective you could make that case pretty easily. But today you see tribal nations that are 100 miles away from one another that are fighting with each other. You have racist communities in between that we just ignore and then we have what you would think would be supportive nations down the road and we're not even on the same page. So who are we as a nation even? Have we forgot who we are as Ojibwe people? Have we forgot who we are as Anishinaabe? When I say 'Anishinaabe,' I mean all Native people. I was hearing some of the speakers earlier and they were talking about what that word meant and for us in Red Lake it means free people, people that live in a good way and I think when you think about what we all...all of our ideals as Native people, it's very similar. So why haven't we come together? Why haven't we come together as a people, as a nation and even as Red Lake Nation? So you've got to start somewhere, but at the end of the day...I think sometimes we focus on all these issues and we forget about where the people are at today. For me, living in Red Lake and seeing it and seeing the suicide, the drug use, the...all the social ills of my community, you would just hope that we would focus on the things that would start to change that and create that pride in who we are and all the other stuff will fall into place. But without that, all the rest is for naught, in my eyes at least. [Anishinaabe language]."

Sarah Deer:

"Thank you. Thank you very much. This has been an incredibly rich and deep conversation, and I'm very grateful for all of the participants." 

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