The issue of tribal citizenship is arguably the most equivocal topic in Indian Country today. The whole concept of blood quantum is as ambiguous as it is puzzling. Native American tribes are the only groups in this country that determine our membership by pedigree — or by degree of blood, unless you count certain breeds of dogs and horses.
Once enrolled into a tribe, most of us are issued a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, or CDIB card, certified by our tribal nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Interior Department. This is what makes you an official, card-carrying Indian.
This certificate or card is proof that you are a member of a federally recognized tribe and therefore makes you eligible for all kinds of free stuff like free, surplus, government-subsidized, health-impairing food (aka commodities) and free health care (yeah, right).
But on the bright side, you can promote yourself as an authentic Indian artist or you can apply for Indian and minority educational scholarships. And if you’re lucky enough to be a member of one of the few casino tribes that issue per capita payments, better still.
This contemporary myth that all Native Americans are getting freebies from the government and that we’re all cashing in on casinos has caused fake CDIBs to start showing up on the black market. When I heard this, it cracked me up. This is certainly a dramatic change from a time in the not-so-distant past when you couldn’t pay someone to admit they had Native heritage. Now you have people making bogus IDs and trying to be Native at the risk of breaking the law and going to jail. Ha ha.
Tribal membership is evolving with each generation, with each decade and in some cases, with each new tribal administration. Within every tribal nation across the Native landscape of America, there is intense debate over the question, “Who is Indian?”
If you think this issue is bizarre and doesn’t concern you, just a little bit of forewarning, it could be coming to a courthouse near you. From the Everglades of Florida to the deserts of California, to the bays of Washington, this issue is weaving its way into the fabric of communities all across the country.
Even the average Joe Citizen in New England or Kansas is starting to get involved in the commotion. He’s now wondering, worrying and questioning whether a group with claims to be an Indian tribe is going to get together with the mob to build a casino in his backyard.
Here in the Southwest, even the pueblos of New Mexico, who have been unyielding in their traditional practices toward citizenship and genealogical systems of belonging, are starting to entertain new ideas concerning tribal membership.
With a mirage of gaming dollar signs reflecting in their eyes, there is no doubt more and more people are seeking recognition as Native Americans, so Native American tribes need to keep an active list of their members with official criteria, or blood. No question.
But tribes should be looking for ways to be more flexible when it comes to blood quantum, and tribes should start counting all Native American blood (or lack thereof) toward one’s tribal membership. For instance, I’m only one-quarter Sac and Fox, the tribe in which I’m enrolled in Oklahoma. But I consider myself full-blood Indian. My other tribes are Iowa, Delaware, Omaha and Winnebago. All of my ancestry should be counted.
Do you know that of all ethnic/racial groups in this country, Native Americans are the most likely to marry outside of our race? Does the term sexual genocide apply?
Here’s my final thought. If you are Native and you and your family members decide to keep marrying outside of the Indian race, and having children with non-Indians, don’t come crying when your children are no longer eligible for a CDIB.
Harlan McKosato is Sauk/Ioway and Director of NDN Productions.