Identity and Assimilation
Nico Phoenix

Nico Phoenix

The tribes were simply continuing their long traditions. Before first contact, most tribes were inclusive rather than exclusive. There was a lot of inter-tribal marriages and inter-breeding. If the tribes were matrilineal, the new husband simply became a full member of his wife's tribe, and their children were, as well. Even in times of war, individuals who were captured were most often adopted into the new tribe.

The pattern continued as the European invasion expanded. Inevitably, there were clashes, but whites captured by the Indians, again, were most often simply adopted by the tribes. In the 1760s, Virginia's Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier noted that whites "recovered" from Indians had to be "closely watched [lest] they certainly return to the Barbarians."

Then, the two-way street changed direction. Europeans were arriving in a flood on the Atlantic coast. Most came with the notion that their civilization was superior to the Native one. So, they began demanding that the Natives assimilate with the colonists and give up their claim to the North American continent piece by piece.

Assimilation quickly became colonial and U.S. government policy. That had a huge negative impact on the lives of Native Americans. Indians were expected to give up their Native identities and become Americans, but they were never fully accepted by the Americans.

In the process of assimilation, the Americans tried to take away one of the basic rights of any group — the right to decide for themselves who they want to allow in. Who should decide who belongs in an Indian tribe?

As the hundreds of treaties were written and the federal government began doling out supplies each year — called "annuities" — the Indian agents needed a list of all tribal members, so they didn't give supplies to those who didn't deserve them. So, the U.S. government, not the tribes, was now deciding who was an Indian and who was not.

Determining tribal membership is a basic sovereign function of any government. So, this was another way that sovereignty of the tribes was taken away.

The system that they used was one that was alien to the tribes — blood quantum.

Blood Quantum

As Mark Anthony Rolo says in A Seat at the Drum, "[Blood quantum is] a trap created by a century of policy designed to wipe out the tribes. Before the European genocide, a child adopted into a tribe would learn the language, the customs, the ceremonies of that tribe. No one could survive by just being 'an Indian' without tribal identity."

Today, the federal government issues a CDIB card to members of recognized tribes — Certificate Degree of Indian Blood. Here's how it works:

  • If a full-blood Indian -- that is, someone whose ancestors were always Indian -- marries a white person, the government considers the child of that marriage 50 percent Indian. A half-breed.
  • If that first generation half-breed child marries another white person, the child's blood is -Indian. The CDIB would show 25 percent.
  • Then, if the second generation -Indian marries another -Indian, their child will be back up to -Indian blood.

It's an arcane and confusing system that was never used by Native tribes before contact. In fact, some of the greatest Indian leaders have been less than full blooded.

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