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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Jeff Horwich reports that as a new generation of Indians comes of age, a long-standing genetic cut-off point for Indian people may be closely linked to the future of Indian nations and cultures.

Of the 12 races listed on the latest census form, only one has an official membership card. That document, known as "the white card," is what makes an Indian an Indian—at least in the eyes of many U.S. government and tribal programs.

Not surprisingly, the use of the white card to record a human pedigree raises civil rights concerns. The use of "blood quantum" to define a genetic cut-off point for Indian people is viewed by many as an instrument of assimilation or extermination. Yet over a century, blood quantum has become a deeply ingrained—and even valued—tool in the relations between sovereign tribes and the rest of world.

This is part three of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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JEFF HORWICH: Corey Lawrence, a junior at St. Cloud State University, is a half-blood Spear Lake Sioux. He and his father are enrolled members of the North Dakota Tribe, but his mother is Ojibwe, and right now that means Corey Lawrence's grandchildren will probably no longer make the cut at Spear Lake.

COREY LAWRENCE: It's kind of like an iffy thing, you know. I mean, I'm enrolled, and then after my kids have kids, that's it, they can't be enrolled no more and the funding stops. And that's what I think blood quantum was set up to do. And so in a way, it could be seen as genocide.

JEFF HORWICH: The vast majority of Indian tribes require one quarter blood specifically from their reservation for enrollment. One full blooded grandparent, for example, would give someone a blood quantum of one quarter. Today blood quantum data is dispersed among the records of the 558 federally recognized tribes, but conventional wisdom holds that most enrolled Indians, especially in the younger generation, have a blood quantum of less than one half. This is of some concern to groups like the Minnesota Chippewa.

TOM ANDREWS: It's against our spiritual belief to marry somebody from your own clan.

JEFF HORWICH: Tom Andrews teaches Ojibwe history at St. Cloud State University. He notes the irony that Minnesota's Ojibwe clans can maintain their bloodline only by betraying their culture.

TOM ANDREWS: Let's say I'm a quarter blood from Fond Du Lac and I marry a quarter blood from Mille Lacs, our children are no longer considered Indian by the federal government, because they're not 25% from one nation.

JEFF HORWICH: And when you're not Indian enough, many tangible benefits stop. Generations within families can be divided by tribal enrollment. And Indian communities are torn between losing members through intermarriage and the real or perceived role of blood quantum in keeping the remaining cultures pure and strong. For this last reason, Andrews wouldn't do away with blood quantum, but he foresees more talk of reform as today's quarter blood young people reach childbearing age.

TOM ANDREWS: Overall, I think that blood quantum is going to affect the basis of who we are. And it's going to affect it in a major way in the next 15 to 20 years.

JEFF HORWICH: Blood quantum in the US has been around longer than the country itself. In perhaps the earliest example, a 1705 Virginia colony law defines mulatto to be anyone who has at least 1/2 Indian or 1/8 black. In Minnesota, the first appearance of the blood quantum may be the Treaty of 1837 in which one clause makes provisions for the half-breed relations of the Ojibwe.

The government came to adopt one quarter blood quantum to distribute the resources tribes secured in treaties across the country. On one level, it was a bureaucratic necessity. Congress had to draw the line somewhere. The more cynical view assumes that the government had an outcome in mind. Again, Tom Andrews.

TOM ANDREWS: I don't believe that anybody then had any dream that we would have lasted this long. [CHUCKLES]

JEFF HORWICH: And today the blood quantum establishes the basis in most cases for tribal enrollment. With recent expansion of tribal sovereignty and innovation by reservation governments, being enrolled arguably matters as much as it ever has. The Indian Child Welfare Act protects the cultural rights of enrolled children.

Many Minnesota tribes will supplement state financial aid to help meet the cost of a college education. Tribal health services offer free or very affordable care for enrolled members. Some reservations like Mille Lacs can essentially guarantee members a job. And in rare cases, such as the Mystic Lake Casino owned and operated by the mdewakanton Sioux, cash payments from tribal enterprises can make tribal members millionaires.

Tribe's right to discriminate based on blood comes from their status as sovereign nations, but blood quantum distinctions can divide families in a way that's unique. Kathy Lawrence, a nursing student at St. Cloud State, is more than one quarter Ojibwe, but does not have enough Indian blood from either Red Lake or White Earth for tribal membership. Her half brother does. But she worries that there would be trouble if she joined him on family hunting trips.

KATHY LAWRENCE: Up in Red Lake, my brother hunts-- they hunt and fish and snare rabbits and do it as a family thing and learning about the land and stuff. And I can't do that.

JEFF HORWICH: No tribe or government service is obligated to use blood quantum. The White Earth Indian Health Center, administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services, avoids tough choices by giving free health care to anyone who can show any relation to a recognized tribe. John MacArthur is the director.

JOHN MACARTHUR: We want to take care of the whole family and extended family. And it could be really disruptive if certain members of her family were enrolled and certain members were not enrolled and you were basing how you provided services to just-- you could potentially provide services to maybe the parents but not the children.

JEFF HORWICH: The White Earth clinic can afford this practice for now, but tribes and many sympathetic unenrolled Indians worry that liberalizing enrollment on a large scale could put a major financial strain on Indian programs was faced with increasing demand.

Some fear a cultural strain as well if the blood quantum based definition of Indian were to change. The new census figures will do little to allay such concerns. For the first time, the census allowed Americans to choose more than one race, and the number of people checking Indian doubled compared with 1990. It grew by 62% in Minnesota to more than 81,000, but tribal records show actual enrollments may be closer to half that number.

The interim director of the American Indian Center at St. Cloud State, a descendant of the Choctaw Nation, has light hair and blue eyes and lacks the blood quantum for enrollment. But Rex Vider understands the desire to protect the purity of tribal populations.

REX VIDER: Well, let's face it, Indian folks, and rightfully so, are very nervous about people coming into the community saying they're Indian and then just sort of taking over stuff and appropriating the culture. And personally, I like that, I'm sorry. I kind of like the idea that people in certain communities keep that circle to themselves and preserve their sort of sovereignty and integrity as a people.

JEFF HORWICH: In coming years, Minnesota tribes may look more closely to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which extends membership to anyone who can trace an ancestor to a century old membership list. The Cherokee add some thousand members each month and are now arguably the largest tribe in the nation. The US government decided more than 100 years ago that blood quantum was what made an Indian, but to many of today's younger Native people at least, it makes sense to look more than skin deep at cultural values, religious practice, and whether they intend to contribute to the reservation community. Jennie Wharton, a 19-year-old freshman in St. Cloud is Choctaw and Comanche.

JENNIE WHARTON: I personally don't know exactly what my quantum is. I do know that it's four generations back. But at the same time, I could be 1/100-- the smallest percent and I'd still consider myself an Indian, because it's inside me.

JEFF HORWICH: Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Minnesota's tribal elders are already one step ahead. In a move designed to address the issue of dwindling bloodlines, the Minnesota Indian Council of Elders is asking state tribes to recognize one another's blood quantum as equally valid. As tribes ponder the proposal, another generation is coming of age. Jeff Horwich, Minnesota Public Radio, Collegeville.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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