You’re an Indian? What part?
That’s the universal question many mixed-blood American Indians are asked every day. How many times have you mentioned in passing that you are Cherokee to find your conversation interrupted by intrusive questions about percentage? How many times have you answered those questions? Well stop! That’s right — stop answering rude questions.
Have you ever been talking to someone who mentioned that they were part Hispanic, part African-American, part Jewish, part Italian, part Korean, etc.? Have you ever asked them what percentage? Hopefully your answer is no, because if your answer is yes, then you’re rude. It would be rude to ask someone what part Hispanic they are, but we accept that people can ask us what part Cherokee we are. This is a double standard brought about by our collective history as American Indians, and is one we should no longer tolerate.
The history of blood quantum begins with the Indian rolls and is a concept introduced to American Indians by white culture. Throughout early Native history, blood never really played a factor in determining who was or was not included in a tribe. Many American Indian tribes practiced adoption, a process whereby non-tribal members would be adopted into the tribe and over time become fully functioning members of the group. Adoption was occasionally preceded by capture. Many tribes would capture members of neighboring tribes, white settlers, or members of enemy tribes. These captives would replace members of the tribe who had died. They would often be bestowed with some of the same prestige and duties of the person they were replacing. While the transformation from captive to tribal member was often a long and difficult one, the captive would eventually become an accepted member of the tribe. The fact that the adoptee was sometimes of a different ethnic origin was of little importance to the tribe.
It wasn’t until the federal government became involved in Indian government that quantum became an issue. One of the attributes collected on a person signing one of the many Indian rolls was their quantum. However, this was highly subjective as it was simply a question that the roll takers would allow the people to answer for themselves. I know for a fact that this was known to be incorrect because my own ancestors’ quantum is recorded incorrectly. My great grandmother and her sister are listed with generationally different quanta even though they were sisters with the same mother and father and have the exact same quantum.
In this day and age, however, quantum is heavily relied upon for determining eligibility for tribal recognition. In order to become a registered citizen of any federally recognized Cherokee tribe you must first get a CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood). This CDIB is issued by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and simply states that the United States government certifies that you have a specified degree of Indian blood and are eligible to be a member of a given federally recognized tribe. Once you have a CDIB you can become a recognized citizen of that tribe.
In addition, many Indian tribes include their own quantum restrictions for citizenship. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians requires that you be 1/16 or higher to join, and the United Keetowah Band requires a blood quantum of 1/4 or higher. The Cherokee Nation, on the other hand, has no quantum restrictions. The majority of the Cherokee Nation has 1/4 or less Indian blood.
When considering these numbers it is important to remember that the Cherokee were in direct contact with white settlers very early in American history. Many prominent Cherokee families include intermarried whites as far back as the colonial period — prior to the American Revolution. As you can imagine, with over two hundred years of intermarriage, many Cherokee today have some very confusing fractions to spit out every time someone asks, “What part Indian are you?”
But why do we, as tribes or individuals, think that a number is sufficient in proving our Cherokeeness? Blood quantum is just that — a number — a sterile, inhuman way of calculating authenticity. When a person asks, “What part Cherokee are you?” they are trying to quantify your authenticity. If the answer given is a small percentage or an incomprehensible fraction, the answerer’s Cherokeeness is called into question. Why? Does the fact that my ancestor Granny Hopper married a Scottish trader take away from the fact that Granny Hopper will forever be my great, great, great…great grandma? No, it just means that one of my other great, great, great…great grandmas had a really neat Scottish accent.
We are not Gregor Mendel’s cross-pollinated pea plants; we are people. Our ethnicity and cultural identity is tied to our collective and ancestral history, our upbringing, our involvement with our tribe and community, our experiences, memories and self-identity. To measure our “Indianness” by a number is to completely eliminate the human element. And to allow others to judge us based on that number is to continue a harmful trend.
Next time someone asks you what part Cherokee you are, tell them it’s irrelevant. If you’re braver than me, challenge them by explaining that they are asking a rude question. Because in the end, the answer doesn’t matter. You’re a whole person, not the sum of your “parts.” If any “part” of you is Cherokee, then you are Cherokee. Period.
The image above is a work by Cherokee National Treasure artist Martha Berry, a close up section of the bandolier bag called, “Quantum Envy.” You can see more of her work in the All Things Cherokee Art Gallery: Martha Berry.