Originally written April, 2012, by Bryan White
The issue of what determines whether or not a person is an official member of a Native American tribe constantly changes and evolves with society, culture, and technology. In the New York Times article “Ancestry in a Drop of Blood”, Karen Kaplan traces the struggle of Marilyn Vann, a black woman that considers herself Native American. It had always been a dream of Marilyn’s to identify with her Native American ancestry, which she had known through many paper documents to be true, in an official way by joining the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest federally recognized tribes with over 299 thousand members enrolled, over 63% of which live in Oklahoma. While I agree that official membership to federally recognized tribes should be restricted, but the basis for those restrictions should not be made on centuries old documents such as the 1907 tribal roll call the “Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory (Dawes)”.
The existence of federally recognized tribes is important both for Native American culture as well as American and Human culture as a whole. Each tribe has a multitude of unique cultural characteristics that are worth preserving in of themselves, and allowing members of these tribes federal recognition helps to preserve and ensure that each of their different cultures are protected in the way that actual members of that culture feel are proper. For this reason I agree it is important to maintain the cultural integrity of the tribes, so that each member of the tribe has some investment in protecting that culture. Tribal membership, the process of becoming a member of a federally recognized tribe, should therefore enact some requirements that ensure each member both has some investment in protecting the tribal integrity, and also deserves some benefit or reparations for the past suffering of their people. Marilyn Vann felt that she had enough connection with her Cherokee ancestry that wished to join the tribe official, and may have perhaps contributed to its cultural growth and preservation. However, the means by which that integrity is ensured can give rise to many legal and ethical problems, as is demonstrated in the fact that Marilyn Vann was denied her membership to the Cherokee tribe.
One such basis for a person gaining tribal membership is that of blood quantum, or the amount of “Native American blood” that a person has. However, the methods in which “blood quantum” is determined, and indeed the very definition of what “blood quantum” is, are somewhat tenuous and dubious. For example, under one definition, if a person has even a single drop of Native American blood, that person is considered Native American. However, under another definition, a person must have at least 25% Native American “blood” to be considered an actual Native American. The irony is that this method is the same one purveyed by proponents of racism during a segregated America, and is still widely used by the Federal Government to enforce the idea of race for employees and students. According to this rule, Marilyn Vann could not be determined to have enough Native American blood because her father had been listed as a Freedmen (a former slave) rather than a Cherokee, despite her knowledge that she was indeed part Cherokee.
One alternative method for determining ones claim to have Native American ancestry is to use DNA testing in which a potential tribe member. Marilyn Vann sought this method because she wished to be validated in her belief that she was indeed part Cherokee, even though her skin color and facial features probably looked more African American. The process of DNA testing to determine ones geographic ancestry is carried out by taking a sample of a person’s DNA and comparing several genes to a database wherein genetic sequences are already matched to their geographic location. According to this test, Marilyn Vann found out that she was indeed at least 3% Native American.
Should Marilyn Vann then be admitted to the Cherokee Nation? Personally, I believe the cumulative evidence suggests that Marilyn Vann should be considered a full member of the Cherokee Nation because she has taken the time to compile actual paper evidence of her ancestry, as well as genetic evidence. That time and effort suggests that Marilyn is interested in becoming an official member of the Cherokee Nation under goodwill, and that her intentions are to maintain the integrity of the tribe, and gain a sense of her position in the world as an African American and Native American. If, for example, Marilyn had simply taken a genetic test and found out that she was some small part Native American, then I would question her motives in becoming an official member of the tribe, but this is not the case. Hopefully tribes will begin to integrate the use of DNA testing in a fair way so that people who consider themselves Native Americans will not be shunned of their ancestry because of old and outdated methods that are based on the precepts of racism.