Federal policies beginning in the 19th century have sought to take all lands and resources from native nations. Many tribes lost most of their land and resources through wars and/or treaties which forced the movement of their tribe to a federal Indian reservation. Over several decades many reservations were gradually shrunk by federal actions, either by opening parcels for white settlement, terminating whole reservations, or imposing allotment policies which allotted individual tribal members and sold of the rest of the unallotted lands, considered surplus, to white settlers or American companies like the logging industry (Dawes Act 1887). In 20 years, the allotted tribal members would then prove up on their lands, gain a fee-simple title and were then allowed to sell the land. This resulted in the expropriation of thousands of acres from reservations as tribal people sought to survive, make money, and find work in a racialized culture which did not allow their integration. In another process, thousands of acres of former Indian allotments were sold in the 1910’s in a secondary process, where the federal authorities found that many allottee’s had died, and there was no allowance for inheritance in the law of former allotments by their descendants, and so the lands were sold and the proceeds were divvied up among the descendants (These are the Federal Heirship Investigations, there are a series of files in the National Archives under RG 75 documenting this process).
In addition, after the reservations were occupied, Federal authorities worked to assimilate the tribes into American culture through a series of education programs focused on the children of the tribes. Their goals, through education, was to eliminate tribal culture, enforcing and encouraging the next generation of tribal people to stop being culturally Indian and so to eliminate tribes in a generation or two. The assumption here is that if descendants stopped being culturally Indian, they could no longer claim their legal Indian rights under their treaties, or would no long know how to maintain their rights if they were expatriated from the reservation and unaware of federal policies. This goal was never fully realized, and when tribes appeared to be surviving into the late 19th century, federal authorities changed their tactics by forcing children into boarding schools, far from the reservations, forcing further dissociation of younger generations from their tribes and reservations.
The tactic worked for some, as tribal students learned blue collar labor skills, blacksmithing, farming, carpentry, painting, animal husbandry, cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundry, and the like. Once graduated from their boarding schools, many tribal members found that their skills were not useful on the reservations, and many never returned, instead choosing to live in urban areas. However, tribes continued to survive in the reservations, and some even persevered, with settlements of their children near the reservation in local towns, where they interacted with their relatives on the reservation during occasional visits (weekly, weekends, monthly, and for holidays). This regular and occasional interaction maintained some parts of the tribal culture in some individuals.
For other individuals, many used their education to benefit their tribes, by going into law or education, and learning about American political system, and serving as political activists for the tribal communities on reservations. (For example, George Wasson Sr. (Coquille) served in this capacity for the Oregon tribes, in the first half of the 20th century, first working as an educational administrator at Chemawa Indian school, then helping to organize federal visits with the tribes, and helping to coordinate tribes on numerous regional reservations to get together and organize into a regional political consortium in the mid-1940s (the first meeting at Chemawa Indian school) that has become the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI).)
Despite tribal perseverance, the most problematic policies of the United States federal government are those that regulate who may claim to be an Indian. Essentially the United States took that right from tribes in the 19th century when passing the Dawes Severalty Allotment Act (1887) by specifying that Native people could get an Indian allotment only if they had 1/2 Indian blood or better. Scholars have suggested this eliminated some tribal members from getting allotments, but other scholars have suggested that there are some tribes were blood quantum criteria were not followed in allotments.
Regardless, the imposition of this policy affected and influenced the tribes to incorporate it into their criteria for tribal membership when they accepted the Wheeler-Howard Act in 1935 (Indian Reorganization), that allowed for tribes to write a constitution, to have an elected government, and gain more rights to operate their government under federal self-sufficiency policies. Into many of these tribal constitution was written blood-quantum quotas as a determinant of legitimate citizenship. Each tribe has since been allowed to adjust its blood-quantum quotas for membership through a vote of its citizens to change their constitution, the process overseen and certified by the BIA.
The result is that the Federal government imposed a new restriction in a federal law regarding who could legally claim a parcel of land on their reservation. This restriction, blood-quantum, caused many natives to be excluded from owning land, and many moved away from the reservation seeking opportunity elsewhere. Many reservations were originally created by Indian treaties, and its important to note that there is no Indian treaty that uses measurements of blood-quantum to determine who would maintain their rights on a reservation. The same can be said for presidential executive order reservations as well. There is one provision of all treaties which may allow the imposition of new regulations and restrictions on subject native people,
The President may, from time to time, at his discretion, direct the surveying of a part or all of the agricultural lands on said reserve, divide the same into small farms of from twenty to eighty acres, according to the number of persons in a family, and assign them to such Indians as are willing to avail themselves of the privilege and locate thereon as a permanent home, and to grant them a patent therefore under such laws and regulations as may hereafter be enacted or prescribed. (Treaty with the Chasta 1854)
The above provision, which appears in all or nearly all treaties, gives broad powers to the President to make changes to reservations and individual rights as he sees fit regarding tribal allotments. And while not specifically spelled out, legally more restrictive policies could be enacted under this provision. As such this leaves tribal populations subject to the whims of each administration.
For tribal people dissociated from their reservations, because of blood quantum, they lose their rights to services on the reservation. The further they remove form the reservation the less they have tribal rights, and in a generation or two, most families lose any association with their reservation and their tribal community, which results in a loss of tribal identity. This federal policy then inculcated blood-quantum as a measure of Indian-ness based on the assumption that legal, political, and cultural rights of tribal people are somehow lessened by each generation that have offspring with fewer Native American ancestors.
This is all occurring today in full view of and with the approval of the membership of many tribes. Many tribal people know that traditionally, before colonization, tribes intermarried continuously as a way to keep beneficial relations with their neighbors. This was the away many tribes kept peace in their region, and promoted good trade relations by having kin within all neighboring tribes. For many tribes, out-marriage was highly approved of and sought after. because then the tribes would gain favorable trade relations with the powerful and wealthy “Bostens,” mostly white newcomers, but also many mixed blooded French-Indian fur traders. There was not a stigma attached to having a daughter of a chief marry a white man, unlike today when many Native people are discouraged from out-marriage from their tribes.
Present day blood quantum policies for many tribes does not allow the counting of all Indian blood in their ancestry, but instead only the percentages of blood gained from their ancestral “tribe. ” As such out-marriage to other tribal peoples, and to non-natives carries a penalty passed down to the offspring. If these offspring do not match or better the accepted blood quantum of their tribe, they may not enroll. The policy for these tribes, therefore enforces marriage within their tribe and for many tribal offspring this means marriage to a relative, usually a cousin. This is occurring with great frequency in some tribes, with second and third cousins marrying to maintain the blood quantum levels so their families can continue to be a part of the tribe. Its important to note two additional understandings, that it is very strange that tribal nations, considered to be dependent sovereignties accept any direction from another sovereign nation about their membership, when that other nation is a direct competitor for land and resources. As well, there are no other cases in the world today where citizens of a nation may not have their offspring enroll in their nation because of a theoretical notion like blood quantum, the assumption that citizen rights diminish when there is out-marriage from a cultural and ethnic group.
Traditionally, tribal peoples knew that marrying relatives was not allowed, and this tribal law is addressed by the Kalapuyans.
Long ago when the Indians obtained a wife, they always purchased a wife. They never would take one of their own relatives. They always inculcated that in their peoples. “You must not court your own relatives. To do a thing like that is bad.” They did not want them to do such a thing. They always spoke like that. They would say, “You must not take your own relative and make her your wife. When you desire a woman you must purchase your wife from different (unrelated) people. You must never make your relative your wife. To do a thing like that is very bad.” But now since these whites have come here, now some of these (Indian) people have made their own relatives their wives.
In the early 20th century there were fears that tribes would disappear forever due to high death rates and collapsing populations. While Tribes have not disappeared, many, if not most, have adopted the notion of blood quantum to determine membership in a tribe. Yet, the policy of blood quantum is a colonial policy of extermination for many of the tribes. The federal government knew there would be out marriage and eventually less tribal members under blood quantum. In time, with less tribal members that tribes would cease to exist. For tribes heavily impacted by assimilation pressures, and then in the 1950s Federally terminated, the continuation of blood quantum as a measure of who can be a member of the tribe may be the tribe’s undoing.
Presently, many native people assume that culture is passed through the blood. That somehow, the higher blood quantum a native has, the closer they are to their of Native ancestry, meaning they are somehow more native. Culture does not pass through blood, and is really a learned behavior based on people living within the tribal community and interacting at many levels. A person’s genealogy may contain their inherited heritage, but unless they interact in their community, they will not suddenly become culturally native. It is more likely that people with more blood quantum will have lived in and grown up within a Native community and then have a cultured perspective. People with less blood quantum, are more likely to have grown up outside of the native community and be culturally American. The reasons for this are more related to education policies of the federal government, and federal policies that kept reservations poor and under-developed, thereby discouraging Native people from remaining on the reservation, encouraging them to move to a city, and later federal policies that terminated tribes, making the cultural community disappear.
In summary, the federal government has employed a sequence of laws and policies that have utilized organized educational systems to assimilate Native Peoples into American Society. These systems are based on theoretical notions that hold that Native peoples are primitives that need to be civilized in assimilation protocols. When the assimilation processes failed to yield quick results in the late 19th century, the government assumed another right, based on the concept of the dilution of the “pure” Indian race, called blood-quantum. This theory assumes that sovereign rights reside with the purest “Indian” people and that somehow racial purity and perhaps culture is transferred biologically. The linkage of cultural and legal rights to biological and genealogical status allowed the federal government to define a statistical termination point for legal rights. This concept has furthermore remained largely unchallenged by tribes, many of whom have accepted this pseudo-scientific theory as a fact of their existence. There are very few Native societies that had placed value on racial purity before colonization. Examining the treaties of our tribes, none of them ever stated that Tribal people must be kept pure-blooded to maintain their rights under the treaties, yet the treaties do grant U.S. Presidents broad powers over land.
The results of federal notions, theories, and policies is the continued delegitimization of tribal peoples, and a slow degradation of tribal membership rolls such that if tribes continue to follow the policies of blood quantum to its ultimate conclusion, would spell the end of tribes. In perhaps 100 years, there will be enough out-marriage of people from the tribes, and a dilution of tribal blood, that many tribes may cease to exist, under current tribal enrollment policies. Therefore, the notion of racial purity is inextricably linked to the United States conquest and colonization of Indian country as if tribes disappear, the United States federal goal of the dissolution of tribal nations, of acquiring all of their lands and resources, and terminating any rights of the tribes, will be realized. For those wishing to decolonize and heal from the effects of some 200 years of imposed policies, blood-quantum needs to be challenged by tribes and tribal individuals. There are other measures of Indian identity and tribal membership, and tribes are encouraged to study the problem and devise alternative solutions that will lead to the survival of their nation into the future.
 #39 A marriage between relatives is bad, Kalapuya Texts volume 1, Melville Jacobs. University of Washington Press 1935.
Treaty with the Chasta 1854
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.