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Among Native peoples, blood quantum is an ingrained fact of everyday existence. Since its origin and institutional interjection into numerous federal policies concerning peoples of indigenous descent, it remains one of the most controversial and divisive issues afflicting contemporary Native North America. The origins of blood quantum are directly linked to the development of chattel slavery. By 1661 the institution of slavery had been formally recognized by Virginia. Over the next four decades other colonies formalized slavery as a legal economic and social institution. The development of slavery encouraged the construction and separation of races in America on the basis of phenotype.


Color, as a demarcation of race (along with other phenotypic characteristics used to define racial and social inferiority) was supported by a growing body of philosophical and scientific literature holding that Africans, Native Americans, and Mulattos possessed inferior intellectual, moral, and social qualities, which stood in direct opposition to “whiteness” and its inherent qualities.

The notion of “blood quantum” was created to track racial ancestry and define legal rights. In 1705 the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a series of laws that denied certain civil liberties to any Negro, Mulatto, or American Indian. The laws also applied to generations, defining children, grandchildren and great grandchildren as inferior members of society, based on their ancestry. Consequently, the descendants of “full blood” members of a race were defined as half-blood (“maroon”), quarter-blood (“quad-roon”) or eighth-blood (“octoroon”). Following Virginia’s example, other colonies adopted similar laws, using blood quantum as a mechanism to determine the status, privilege, and rights of a free person or slave. The growing body of laws, although originally rooted in the institution of chattel slavery, evolved into a legal and social system that measured the extent of participation and privileges associated with full citizenship under the banner of “whiteness.”

Once blood quantum became established as a mechanism for assessing inferiority, its use continued unabated into the nineteenth century. Increasingly, the development and progress of American society was guided by the belief in the nation’s racial destiny. In his 1839 publication Crania Americana , Dr. Samuel Morton stated that his studies of skulls showed that Native Americans had a “deficiency of higher mental powers” and an “inaptitude for civilization,” making it impossible for Natives and Europeans to interact as equals. Thus, the building of an American civilization, including its future social and moral development, would be determined by its racial composition.

The construction of an Anglo-Saxon nation that extended from one coast to another under the banner of Manifest Destiny required the further separation of the races. The removal of indigenous populations, authorized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, provided one solution for physically separating the races. Another solution was the passage of laws prohibiting marriages between European-Americans and “inferior” races. North Carolina, early on, passed a code that forbade marriages between a white and an “Indian, Negro, Mustee, or Mulatto” or any other mixed person to the third generation. Over time, such blood quantum laws concerning race-mixing became not only widespread, but also more intensive.

Legal identity also became closely attached to blood quantum. An 1866 Virginia decree specified that every person with one-fourth or more Negro blood would be considered a colored person, whereas every person not colored having one-fourth or more Native American blood would be deemed an “Indian.”


After the Civil War, new racial questions arose. Foremost was whether “inferior racial stocks” could be assimilated into the national fold, and whether these “races” would be a benefit to national progress. These questions coincided with the acceptance of Darwinian evolutionary principles that predicted a unity of humankind. The application of Darwinian evolution also was extended to the development of social complexity, not just biology. Therefore all societies must follow similar but separate trajectories in biosocial development, further limiting the possibilities for the incorporation of “inferior” races.

By the 1880s, most surviving Native American societies had been placed on reservations. For some policymakers, reservations were considered a refuge for a declining race that could be salvaged by forcing them out of their “inferior” state. This was to be done by breaking up the habits of savagery and replacing them with the accoutrements of civilization. From 1880 until 1934, using evolutionary theory and scientific racism as guiding principles, ethnocide became officially instituted toward solving the “Indian Problem.”


Blood quantum, an insidious expression of scientific racism, became the centerpiece in many federal policies of forced assimilation. The premise that biophysical characteristics, mental attributes, and cultural capabilities were imparted through a “race’s” blood found a home in the management of Indian affairs though the passage of the 1887 General Allotment Act, or “Dawes Act.”

The degree of a person’s Indian blood was used to determine land inheritance among the descendants of original allottees. Blood quantum linked forced assimilation with scientific racism by legally defining a Native American. The allotment process required the compilation of formal tribal rolls, which listed individuals belonging to each recognized reservation tribe. While the Dawes Act posited no specific criteria by which this would be accomplished, Indian Agents used blood quantum “standards,” as an already established mechanism for delineating racial status.

Once established, blood quantum was used by the Indian Office to not only track “civilized progress,” but also to assign entitlements as an enrolled tribal member and to define the extent of wardship restrictions. In the racialist configuration to construct and regulate Indian identity, “full-bloods” were deemed racially incapable of managing their own affairs and were issued trust patents for their allotments. “Mixed-bloods,” by virtue of their “white” racial ancestry, were deemed more competent, often receiving patents in simple fee, with fewer restrictions. Section six of the Dawes Act specified that an Indian who had “adopted the habits of civilized life, is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States,” with all the entitled rights. Competency or the adoption of civilization equated with being biologically and socially “White” enough, meaning that they were no longer defined as being Indian. The blatant preferential treatment bestowed upon those of mixed ancestry would eventually drive societal wedges based on the false assumptions of racism that did not exist among Native people prior to the reservation period.


Advanced research undertaken in the late twentieth century has shown that there is little genetic distinction to demarcate among America’s indigenous peoples, despite the pre-Contact cultural diversity across Native North America. Tribal boundaries and ethnic distinctiveness did not inhibit a high degree of reproductive exchange and gene flow between distinct societies. Thus, prior to establishing blood quantum to define racial identity, social kinship rather than biology was the core component of both societal composition and individual ethnic affiliation. Every aboriginal society employed a number of sociological mechanisms—such as adoption, marriage, capture, and naturalization—for the incorporation of individuals and groups from foreign societies. After colonization, numerous Europeans and Africans were adopted and fully integrated into Native American societies. Escaped African slaves, for example, typically were accepted among Native peoples. Whether African or European their host societies incorporated them without any phenotypic or cultural stigma.

By the turn of the century, most Native American societies replaced these social mechanisms for defining their communities with the borrowed notion of blood   quantum. The substitution insured that Native Americans would evaluate each other, phenotypically and culturally, through the prism of racialist criteria.

As Indian policy evolved, the legal significance of blood quantum expanded to determine eligibility for federal resources and services, determine tribal membership, and delineate economic and political benefits. Blood quantum criteria became internalized among Indian communities with the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Most IRA constitutions adopted blood quantum as a criterion for defining ethnic identity, tribal enrollment, and tribal citizenship. By advancing the prevailing quantum standard, a living vestige of nineteenth-century scientific racism, many Native Americans began to use it as the litmus test for defining “Indianness.”

Most Native Americans have become indoctrinated into assessing each other in terms of blood quantum. This has led to a continual reevaluation of cultural competence and social acceptance, based largely on phenotypic characteristics. At a conference of Native American scholars held in February 1993, under the auspices of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, the issue of “ethnic fraud” arose. Native American scholars in attendance were disturbed by the extent of academics in American universities falsely claiming to have Indian ancestry in order to receive educational and hiring benefits. The discussion led to six recommendations. The number one recommendation was to require documentation of enrollment in a state or federally recognized tribe, giving hiring preference to those who met this criterion. Allegations of “ethnic fraud” have continued to surface, not only on college campuses but all across Indian Country.

Three years earlier, the 1990 passage of the Act for the Protection of American Indian Arts and Crafts made it a criminal offense for anyone not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe to identify themselves as Indian while selling art. Critics claim that after its passage, “identity monitors” scoured Native American art venues demanding to see the documentation of anyone suspected of committing ethnic fraud. The evaluation of ethnic identity using blood quantum has resulted in a rise in infighting, and on occasion outright race-baiting, between and among indigenous people.


On many reservations and within indigenous communities, blood quantum is a contentious issue, one often distorted by the blind acceptance of the concept. Native American demographic data reveal that during the twentieth century there was an increasing level of mixing between tribal members and non-Indian peoples. This trend has not only continued but accelerated, raising concerns among some about preserving tribal biological and cultural purity. Some reservation tribal leaders are arguing that tribal constitutions should be amended, this time to purge enrolled members who married non-Indians, or to raise blood quantum levels on the premise that such measures are vital to protect the “purity” of their Native American blood.

The implications of using blood quantum are evident in every aspect of contemporary Native American life. A Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) or a Certificate of Degree of Alaska Native Blood is issued to determine citizenship in a specific federally recognized tribe or indigenous community. An enrolled member with a CDIB is entitled to certain rights, and to the allocation of resources. In 1985, Congress passed the Quarter Blood Amendment Act, which mandated that Native students must have one-quarter Indian blood to be eligible for Indian education programs and tuition-free assistance at Bureau of Indian Affairs or contract schools. The act requires that the quarter-blood requirement be met with a CDIB.

In the 1990s, a proposal was put forth to significantly alter the manner by which the Bureau of Indian Affairs calculates and invalidates CDIBs. The proposed change in the law that received the most criticism across Indian Country was limiting the calculation of “Indian blood” to only federally recognized tribes, effectively eliminating any ancestry from terminated tribes, state-recognized tribal entities, or Native ancestry from other sources. It was, critics maintained, a mechanism to quicken the pace of self-termination.

The internalization by Native peoples of Euro-America’s conception of race through the adoption of blood quantum, along with the virulence with which it is being manifested in indigenous communities, represents a culmination of federal colonial policies originating nearly three hundred years ago. Native North America, some critical scholars claim, has been rendered self-colonizing, if not self-liquidating. Over the centuries, blood quantum has divorced thousands of people from their Native American ethnic heritage by arbitrarily defining who is or is not a person of Native American descent. For some individuals, blood quantum is a eugenics policy designed to “statistically exterminate” the remaining Native American people. For others, it is a mechanism to legitimately define who may claim to be Native American. Blood quantum, as a concept, will thus remain a contested arena on the cultural and political landscape of Native North America for the foreseeable future.

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about 5 years ago

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