It's Not Just About The Blood : Code Switch If you're Native American, who or what gets to define your identity? We dive into an old system intended to measure the amount of "Indian blood" a person has. We hear from two families about how they've come to understand their own Native identities and how they'll pass that on to future generations.

It's Not Just About The Blood

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There are more than 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States. That's 500 sovereign nations. And citizens of those tribes - those nations - can get ID cards as proof.

TAYLOR PAYER: It's a picture ID. It has your name, your date. A lot of times, including my tribe, it includes your blood quantum - your fraction.

MERAJI: That fraction that shows just how much of a certain tribe you are and what that says and doesn't say about who you are and where you belong - that's what we're getting into this week on CODE SWITCH.


MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's on assignment this week.

If you're a recognized citizen of a tribe, you can get access to that nation's resources. That could mean living on the reservation or using tribal hospitals or health clinics, fishing or hunting on your nation's land. But those resources vary depending on the tribe. And so do tribal laws. Federally recognized tribes can have their own courts and police departments. They can maintain their own bridges and roads. They can levy taxes. They can also make their own rules to determine who gets to be a citizen and who doesn't. It's political and very, very personal. Our teammate Kat Chow has the story.


I'm talking to a daughter and her mom in Minneapolis, Minn.

T. PAYER: I'm Taylor Payer, and I'm the daughter of Delima Payer.

DELIMA PAYER: I'm Delima Taylor.

CHOW: Taylor and Delima are citizens of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. They're sitting in Taylor's house where Taylor lives with her younger sister. Delima is in town visiting.

D. PAYER: From Belcourt, N.D.

CHOW: And Taylor and Delima are letting me overhear one of their favorite family discussions - finding the right man to donate his sperm to Taylor, who's gay. She really wants a baby and a co-parent.

T. PAYER: My mom will often, I think, see people around, either on the reservation - maybe even on my Facebook - and will call excitedly about maybe they're really handsome, they seem eligible in some way.

D. PAYER: I tease them - oh, that young man has baby-making hips.

T. PAYER: (Laughter).

CHOW: But baby-making hips isn't enough.

T. PAYER: So he's got to be Native. But what else do you want him to be?

D. PAYER: Oh, my gosh. They've got to be smart.

CHOW: Smart or not, the emphasis is on that Native part. And he doesn't even just got to be Native, as Taylor puts it. He's got to have a certain amount of Native of blood. Their tribe's longevity depends on it. And here's why. For enrollment, there are some tribes like the Cherokee or Chickasaw nations that use this thing called lineal descent. So their ancestors just have to be enrolled. But for Turtle Mountain, they use something else, called blood quantum.

ELIZABETH RULE: Blood quantum simply is the amount of, quote, "Indian blood" that an individual possesses.

CHOW: This is Elizabeth Rule. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, and she specializes in Native American studies. She told me that some tribes say you have to have a certain amount of, quote, "Indian blood" to be considered a citizen. And different tribes use blood quantum and enrollment in different ways, like the Navajo Nation for instance. It says you have to have a quarter Navajo blood to enroll. But Turtle Mountain - Taylor's tribe - it requires that people have at least 25 percent of any Native blood with some combination of Turtle Mountain. Elizabeth Rule told me there's really no set method for how blood quantum is determined.

RULE: So the quantum is a fraction of blood that is derived going back to the original enrollees of a tribe who were counted on census or rolls. And then their blood quantum was documented. And usually, those original enrollees had a full-blood quantum, typically.

CHOW: But how did people know that those original enrollees had a quote, unquote, "full-blood quantum"?

RULE: Well, they didn't. And that's one of the major problems with blood quantum today, is that a lot of times the people taking the rolls were federal government officials who were unfamiliar with Native ways of establishing and defining their own communities.

CHOW: In other words, blood quantum is not this scientific thing. It's subjective, political. Whatever the case, Elizabeth Rule says blood quantum - it could mean a lot for enrollment.

RULE: Not having a child that's an enrolled tribal member is equivalent to not maintaining citizenship within the same country as your child.

CHOW: Having a kid who can't be enrolled has very real consequences. It can affect a lot of different things.

RULE: Where that child goes to school, where you can live, what types of services you have access to, what elections you can vote in.

CHOW: She puts it this way - in the context of family and nation, tribal sovereignty - tribal nationhood - has not always been widely accepted. The U.S. federal government didn't want to recognize tribes as their own separate nations at various points in the 1700s - or 1800s - or 1900s. And one outcome was that the federal government treated Native Americans as a racial group instead of citizens of their own tribes.

RULE: American Indians have certainly been racialized. And we see that from cartoons, caricatures, mascots. It's really been a societal project to racialize what is actually a very diverse group of political entities and sovereign nations.

CHOW: And this is where blood quantum comes in.

RULE: Blood quantum emerged as a way to measure Indianness (ph) through a construct of race so that, over time, Indians would literally breed themselves out and rid the federal government of their legal duties to uphold treaty obligations.

CHOW: In other words, if you don't have a baby with the right person, your tribe could eventually die out - which brings us back to Minneapolis and Taylor Payer. Even though lots of people see blood quantum as this major thing, for a long time, growing up in North Dakota on the reservation, Taylor didn't even know what blood quantum was. She tells me about this moment. She was 16.

T. PAYER: So when I went in after I got my license to get this ID, which is something I needed to apply to scholarships and to college to prove that I was Native American and federally recognized, that's actually the first time I learned my blood quantum.

CHOW: She got this card - her tribal identification card - from Turtle Mountain's branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

T. PAYER: It's a picture ID. It has your name, your date, a recent photo. A lot of times, including my tribe, it includes your blood quantum.

CHOW: Taylor stared at the card.

T. PAYER: And it said the fraction right on there, and it was sort of a lot less than I would have ever thought. I was...

CHOW: What was it? Are you willing to share?

T. PAYER: Sure. Yeah. So it is five sixteenths, which is sort of a funny fraction. And in my tribe you need to be one-fourth - one quarter - to be enrolled.

CHOW: So you're right above that.

T. PAYER: Yep, right above. So my mom is - has a slightly higher blood quantum than I do, and my dad has a slightly less blood quantum.

CHOW: It felt weird asking Taylor her fraction and hearing her talk like it'd been calculated and told to her on official paper, which it had. I told Taylor that, and she agreed. These fractions are bizarre. She's not sure why her fraction is five sixteenths. Her family doesn't know either. But her general sense is that somewhere in her family line, back when the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided who was or wasn't Native, some arbitrary decision was made.

T. PAYER: You know, it's dogs, Indians and horses that get this paper with your degree of blood on it. It's sort of the purebred thing. And it's put on humans. It's put on Native American human beings, and it's a very strange thing.

CHOW: So it's a no-brainer that lots of people see blood quantum as this insidious thing, a way for the federal government to slowly diminish the Native population, to make Native Americans a racial group instead of belonging to their own nations. But if blood quantum is slowly squeezing out a tribe's population, why keep it?

I asked Elizabeth Rule this, and she describes it as this colonial Catch-22. When she was studying the different systems of enrollment, like blood quantum or lineal descent - where if your ancestors are in, you are, too - she says she noticed that Native people on both sides all used this language about survival.

RULE: Those who defend blood quantum requirements also evoke this language of survival. And they look upon those blood quantum minimums as a way to preserve an already existing, closed community that's very close.

CHOW: In other words, some people who support blood quantum rules, they don't want to have people enrolling as citizens in their tribe when they have very little connection to it.

RULE: There have been cases where outsiders want to jump on the bandwagon and claim Indian heritage for their own personal gain.

CHOW: And Rule, she says it all really comes down to how these tribal nations define community. After all, whatever these tribes decide, it's their right to decide it as their own sovereign nations. And this conflict - it's something that Delima and Taylor are always thinking about.

D. PAYER: Our research is saying that it's - how do I want to put that - that it's - we're losing our nativeness (ph).

T. PAYER: Yeah, like we'll die out or something like that?

D. PAYER: Right, right.

CHOW: So even though Taylor doesn't agree with an enrollment system that uses blood quantum, she can't just pretend it doesn't exist.

T. PAYER: I weigh the two by saying I understand that Native folks who aren't enrolled are still indeed Native. And I selfishly would like my children to have an easier time identifying with their Native culture and get the sort of privileges that are afforded to federally recognized tribal members.


CHOW: Taylor and her mom, Delima, by the way, are still searching for the one right donor.


MERAJI: Coming up, we'll hear from a couple grappling with their own Native identities and what happens when a system like blood quantum makes it harder to pass their culture on to their kids.

NOELLE GARCIA: So there is just this really strong guilt around being the end of the line, of being complacent or playing into - to use a very strong word - genocide.

MERAJI: Stay with us.


MERAJI: We're back. And Kat's going to introduce us to a couple who talk about how they formed their Native identities, how they're raising their kids and where blood quantum fits into all that.

CHOW: Let's meet Noelle Garcia and Shane Waters.

GARCIA: Hello.


They're a couple who live in this suburb north of Chicago. When I talk to them, we're in their living room. Their 10-year-old son, Sebastian (ph), is upstairs playing, and their youngest kid is sitting on Noelle's lap.

GARCIA: This is Penelope (ph), blond hair and blue eyes and all.


GARCIA: Can you say hi?

PENELOPE: (Vocalizing).

GARCIA: Hi? Say hi?

CHOW: You'll hearing some of Penelope's baby sounds. She's almost 2. But before the kids, Noelle and Shane's story starts in the fifth grade.

GARCIA: Me and some friends were playing in the playground. And one of my friends was fighting with Shane and he tried to, like, spit on her or something, and he ended up spitting on my arm.

SHANE WATERS: It was a snot rocket, actually (laughter).

GARCIA: That's disgusting (laughter). And I was, like, a little more aggressive then. I think I pushed or hit you or something - I was a little more rough (laughter). But we ended up being friends in the end (laughter).

CHOW: Snot rockets aside, they grew up with similar backgrounds - that's what drew them together. At their school in Nevada, they were basically the only Native kids. Both are enrolled citizens of their tribes. And they tell me, by blood quantum standards, they barely meet their tribes' enrollment requirements. Noelle has a quarter Klamath blood, Shane a quarter Ho-Chunk blood. But for Shane and Noelle, it's more than just blood. They've been struggling with what it means to be Native. Noelle grew up on and off various reservations.

GARCIA: I would bounce around with other families that were good friends or relatives. A lot of time I was on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

CHOW: She says she remembers dancing in powwows when she was a kid, loving it. She was surrounded by Native culture. She says she's fairly light, can pass as white, but she felt accepted. Shane, on the other hand - he didn't have the same experience. When he went to visit his tribe, he says the other kids weren't so accepting.

WATERS: On the reservation - my mom would send us up to Wisconsin to visit with my grandma and, you know, be Native American. And us being lighter with light eyes, they always, you know, would call us white. They would throw rocks at us and chase us around and things like that. So it wasn't super fun.

CHOW: And meanwhile, at home, his mom, who's white, was trying to tap into his Native culture. Shane says she always had good intentions but that it didn't always help.

WATERS: I think she just grasped at everything and anything she could. But for the most part, it was just, like, everything stereotypical - Native American angels, things like that - just, like, angels dressed up like Indians. It was kind of weird.

CHOW: Caricatures.

WATERS: It created this kind of self-hate. Like, I was conflicted of what it was that I wanted to be. Did I want to be Native American? Did I want to be white? So I was always kind of, like, in the middle.

CHOW: And even for Noelle, trying to figure out how she learned to be, quote, unquote, "Native," it's not straightforward either.


GARCIA: I found that document that my brother gave me where it had a picture of my dad at the boarding school - the Indian boarding school. And he looked really miserable. And he had to be less than 5. And I started to ask if this experience of going through an American Indian boarding school, where he was kind of washed out - his culture was kind of washed out and replaced with whiteness, if that was the trauma that led to him relying on alcohol to kind of avoid that reality.

CHOW: There were a lot of Indian boarding schools. They were a dark part of American history. They go back to the late 1870s. The U.S. government took young kids from their reservations and forced them to attend these schools that tried to strip anything Indian out of them. Many were abused. Noelle tells me she really thinks that maybe - because of her family's history - her dad's time in that Indian boarding school, that could help explain why her dad was the way he was.

GARCIA: So my theory is that if I can do as much research as I can on what it means to be Klamath and have a full understanding of what our practices were, how we obtained food, what our houses looked like, what our clothes looked like, what our baskets looked like, I will not only complete myself but I will heal my dad and the void that he had.

CHOW: That includes teaching her kids, Penelope and Sebastian, all about their family and Klamath culture. But no matter how much research Noelle could do, when Sebastian was born 10 years ago, there was still that issue of blood quantum. Sebastian and any future kids she and Shane had together technically did not have enough Ho-Chunk or Klamath blood to enroll in either of those tribes. At the time, both tribes had a quarter blood quantum cut off and both tribes said you could only be enrolled in one. There was no dual citizenship. So this meant Noelle and Shane's kids couldn't legally be citizens of either tribe. With only about a few thousand citizens in the Klamath Tribes, this really bothered Noelle in particular.

GARCIA: There is just this really strong guilt around being the end of the line, of being complacent or playing into - to use a very strong word - genocide.

CHOW: Even though Noelle knows inside that her kids would always be Native, she worried she was contributing to the end of an identity she was still trying to figure out. But things changed. A few years ago, the Klamath tribes started to address exactly what Noelle's family was going through. The tribe wanted fewer split families, where some people were enrolled and others not. It had a referendum vote in 2013 to change its blood quantum minimum from a quarter to an eighth. Because of politics - as you can imagine, not everybody could agree - it took a while for that to become tribal law. But finally, two years ago, Noelle could enroll both her kids, Sebastian and Penelope, which means that they can be federally recognized, that they can receive benefits from their nation, like health care from the Indian Health Service or certain tribal scholarships. Eventually, they'll be able to vote as Klamath citizens in tribal elections.

Down the road, they'll have to consider another thing - their own relationship with blood quantum. If the Klamath Tribes still have an eighth blood quantum minimum when Sebastian and Penelope are considering whether or not to have their own kids and with whom, they'll probably grapple with the same stuff Noelle did. And for now at least, Noelle and Shane - they tell me they've made the choice to focus more on teaching their kids about their Klamath roots than Ho-Chunk culture. They want to emphasize the tribe that Noelle feels most connected to and the tribe that's allowed their children to join.

Still, Noelle says even though her kids are now enrolled citizens in the Klamath Tribes, she's still trying to figure out how to teach them about who they are.

GARCIA: Are they going to have the same issues that Shane had where it's a little more negative and difficult? Or is it going to feel inauthentic to them? You know, this isn't just like a - you know, those ancestry.coms where you just put your blood in and you find out - oh, I'm secretly Indian.

CHOW: Yeah.

GARCIA: Like, they are because I am.

CHOW: Noelle and Shane are deciding if they should move the family to Oregon to live on the Klamath reservation so that their kids can be immersed in that culture, surrounded by more people who can teach them about their identity, whatever shape that takes.


CHOW: Before I hand this over to Shereen, I wanted to make sure we ended with some music. So I asked Taylor Payer to share a song giving her life.

T. PAYER: The song that is giving me life right now is "Wake Up" by Chastity Brown.


CHASTITY BROWN: (Singing) Wake up, honey. Love come on slow.

T. PAYER: So the lyrics are something like honey, wake up; honey, wake up - over and over again. And it's just - this artist, she's a woman of color and a lesbian. And when I hear her sing those words, I just picture falling in love with somebody. And then in the morning, you really enthusiastically tell them to wake up so that you can go and begin your days and your life together.

CHOW: And speaking of beginning her life together with someone, Taylor is still looking for a sperm donor and co-parent.


MERAJI: And that's our show this week. Thanks to Kat Chow, CODE SWITCH squad and NPR reporter, for bringing us that story. Next week, we'll talk feelings, finances and fetishes on our special Valentine's edition of Ask CODE SWITCH. Until then, follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Email us at

And you can subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And leave us a review on iTunes. It helps people find the show.

This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and Leah Donnella. Steve Drummond and Sami Yenigun edited. And we had original music by Ramtin Arablouei. A shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates, Walter Ray Watson and Kumari Devarajan. And a big thanks to Savannah Maher for all your help - we couldn't have done this without you.

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's back next week. Peace.

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