Blood, culture, Indian identity

PABLO, MONT. — PABLO, Mont. -- Janice McClure is the keeper of a crumbling ledger book, a census of the Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Reservation completed almost a century ago. It contains 2,000 names penned with meticulous handwriting by a federal "Indian agent," each person identified by a crude measurement of racial ancestry: "Frank Ashley, one-half blood ... Agnes, five-eighths blood."

"I don't like seeing that pedigree," says McClure, 55. She has relatives in the book, and the fractions leave her with an ugly feeling. American slaves were classified like that -- as "quadroons" and "octoroons," labels long since forgotten.


But the blood degrees assigned to the Flathead tribes don't disappear when McClure locks up the ledger at the tribal headquarters here.

The 1904 census has evolved into a new list, this one on perforated computer paper. With each passing year, the numbers on that list grow more complex: 17/64, 111/128, 165/256.


A "blood quantum" still is assigned to each child born here and on most reservations across the United States. On the Flathead Reservation, those at a level of one-quarter or higher become members of the tribe. Those with "thinner" Indian blood are, in the eyes of federal law, outsiders.

Blood has become an obsession among nearly all of the nation's 550 officially recognized tribes. Families have been divided over it. Some want the quantum fractions done away with. Last fall, 1,000 of the Confederated Flathead tribe's 6,000 members signed a petition to have the rules relaxed. They were bitterly opposed by Patrick Pierre, a 71-year-old tribal elder and one of the dwindling group of "full bloods" on the reservation.

"I was in my sweat lodge, praying, so that this would not pass," Pierre says. "There's no ifs, ands or buts when you're working with the spirit. If this passed, we'd be adopting everyone into the tribe."

Similar disputes are being fought on reservations across the nation. The Catawba tribe of South Carolina, the Paiutes of Nevada and the Tigua of Texas have all debated the rules of blood quantum and tribal membership in the last year.

Among a few tribes, casino money has fueled the controversy. But there are no gambling riches on the Flathead Reservation -- home to three unified tribes: the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille. Here, tribal membership entitles you to a monthly government stipend of less than $100.

The battle over blood quantum here, as elsewhere, is a disagreement about what makes an Indian an Indian. Are you Salish if the blood of a single Salish grandparent courses through your veins? Can you call yourself Kootenai if your mother whispered that tribe's folk tales into your ears -- parables about coyotes and white-tailed deer -- even if your eyes are green or blue?

The sides in the Flathead controversy are sharply drawn: those who see American Indian traditions under assault from "wannabes" and those who believe the blood rules are a genetic time bomb threatening to make many tribes extinct.

Pierre says that his stand on blood quantum has caused "members of my own family to turn against me." His nephew wrote a letter to a local newspaper calling those who oppose the changes "hypocritical people ... who go to bed with their white woman every night."


The Flathead Reservation isn't the only place where the debate has turned shrill. Blood quantum is an inescapable fact of life for most American Indians, perhaps the most regulated, counted and classified people in the United States.

One academic has identified 30 activities that require Indians to certify tribal membership -- everything from health services to the possession of eagle feathers for ritual dances to the right to sell one's craft work as "native" art.

On the Flathead Reservation, people have been known to order up DNA tests to sort out their blood levels. This winter, one woman had a corpse exhumed: The resulting DNA test proved the dead man was her father, raising her blood quantum.

These days, it sometimes seems as if everyone wants to join a tribe. Several companies offer "step by step" guides to "trace your Native American heritage."

Sorting out ethnic identity is a knotty problem in this part of Montana, where centuries of intermarriage have made the reservation a sort of New Orleans of the Rockies. Here most people are "metis," or mixed, with ancestors from France, Scotland and even distant Indian tribes such as the Iroquois (who came here from New York as fur trappers in the early 19th century).

The current blood requirements were established in 1960, when the U.S. government pressed tribes to give up their old forms of government -- based on tribal elders -- and adopt U.S. style constitutions. Today, about 80 percent of U.S. tribes require a certain level of blood quantum, from 1/64 for some Eastern tribes to one-half for the White Mountain Apaches of Arizona.


"We don't do this with any other group of people," says Jeff Corntassel, a Virginia Tech professor who has written about the politics of American Indian identity. "The idea is to prevent the existence of blond and blue-eyed Indians. And at the same time, there's always been diversity in Indian nations."

The idea that "blood is equated with culture" and that blood can be used to determine national identity is "a 19th century, European idea," Corntassel says.

Most of the tribal rolls used to determine blood quantum were compiled, like the one for the Flathead Reservation, about 100 to 150 years ago. The Indian agents performing the count operated under the same archaic assumptions about biology and culture that produced now-discredited fields such as eugenics and phrenology.

To verify Indian-ness, the federal agents devised degrading "tests": In the 1908 census of the Chippewa, counters plucked hair strands from people to compare to a chart for straightness, and rubbed stomachs. "If your belly turned a brighter red, you would be less Indian," Corntassel says.

Given blood quantum's long and ugly history, not everyone on the Flathead Reservation feels comfortable taking sides in the debate.

"I can't say one way or another if it's good or bad," said Alan Chauncey Beaverhead. "My wife and I, we try to keep to ourselves on this."


Ask Beaverhead what he "is" and he'll answer: "I'm part Kootenai, part Pend d'Oreille, half Yakima, with some Nez Perce and Cree thrown in." All of those relatives add up to an official blood quantum of 57/64. His mixed heritage has caused him some problems -- like the arguments that break out when he plays stickball, a traditional Indian game, with people on the Pend d'Oreille end of the reservation.

"Things will get heated up, and some guy will say, 'He's one of those Kootenais. That's how they are.'"

At 39, Beaverhead is one of the youngest people who can speak Salish fluently. He works to keep traditions alive by transcribing folk tales and reminiscences tape-recorded by tribal elders. "Sometimes I think that if we'd kept our language stronger, we wouldn't be having these disagreements."

Darryl Dupuis, a leader in the movement to ease the blood rules, traces his ancestry to his great-grandfather, Camille Dupuis, a French fur trapper who married an Indian, Philomene Finley. Both are listed on the 1904 census, Camille as "white, adopted" into the tribe, and Philomene as "three-fourths Pend d'Oreille."

Look at the modern-day Dupuis, a tall man of 66, and the American Indian features are unmistakable: When he joined the Army in the 1950s, he endured taunts of "Hey, big chief!" But Dupuis' official blood quantum level is just 11/32. And his children are 11/64, which is 5/64 short of the degree required for membership.

"Even if you look like you're an Indian individual and you speak the language and practice the traditions, if you don't have the correct degree of Salish and Kootenai blood, then you can't be a tribal member," Dupuis says.


Still, after 125 years in which his family has intermarried with whites, Dupuis is also clearly a "metis." His is not the classic profile captured in turn-of-the-century studio photographs of tribal chiefs, men of chiseled features and weathered, dark-brown skin.

The differences may be subtle, but to people on the reservation, they are noticeable and important -- if not always spoken. People who are "more Indian" pride themselves on growing up in the old ways. Before meals, they say grace in Salish or Kootenai. They live in corners of the reservation known as "Indiantown" -- whites actually make up a majority of the population here -- or in small trailers along the highways that wind through valleys of yellow grass.