By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
“She’d always wanted me to marry a white woman and beget half-breed children who would marry white people who would beget quarter-bloods, and so on and so on, until simple mathematics killed the Indian in us.”
In the short story “Class” from Sherman Alexie’s book, “The Toughest Indian in the World” (2001, Grove Press), the fictional Native character, Edgar Eagle Runner, is referring to his mother. Eagle Runner has married a Caucasian woman and her family boycotted the wedding due their disdain for Native Americans. His Native mother, on the other hand, feels that life would be easier for her grandchildren if they “assimilated” into “white” society.
As codified in our law, we recognize the 1924 Baker Roll as our base record of initial blood degree of recognized members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. From the initial mention of your ancestors on that role, trickling down to you and me, is our Cherokee blood line. The numbers of “Full-blood” or Cherokee people who do not have any known non-Indian ancestors have been falling since the introduction of immigrants to the Americas.
Alexie, in his short story, points out the futility of determining Native rolls through blood quantum. Eventually, this way of documenting tribal affiliation will lead to the extinction of indigenous designations. As races intermingle, the ability to identify blood degree will become increasingly difficult. In addition to the thinning of Cherokee blood, there is the possibility of negligence or malfeasance in the keeping of tribal enrollment.
The question arose and the Tribe contracted to have an enrollment audit. That audit still goes on, reportedly due to a failure to complete by the contractor, using our own enrollment staff to complete. No projected date of completion has been given. Questionable record keeping further complicates the process of using lineage and blood quantum as determinations of Native American heritage.
One school of thought favors DNA identification of heritage evaluation. I am sure you have seen the Ancestry.com commercials that claim that a person thought they were of German decent but wanted to be sure, so they sent their cheek swab to Ancestry.com to find out for sure. They find out that instead of primarily German, they are “mostly” Native American. One of the problems with DNA is that, so far, the markers in it will only provide general racial information. Those commercials never say that the person is Cherokee, Lakota, Seminole, etc., only that they are Native. If the technology is available to be that specific, it is extremely new and probably very expensive to use.
But, is blood the only determinant? What makes me and you Cherokee? Ask that question in the wrong place or way and a person could end up on the wrong end of a knife. The question of heritage is an emotional and volatile one. If anyone needs proof, all they need to do is check out the daily news. Protests, elections, civil unrest and wars are being predicated on race and heritage. And, the communities of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are no less passionate about their history and culture.
We recently asked in a One Feather poll what you thought make a person Cherokee. The answers were diverse. Some said blood; others language; a few history. A few said adherence to tradition. There were some people in the survey that said it is a combination of these things and others just said you just know that you are.
There are some who are very adamant that you are not Cherokee unless you are fluent in the language, which is a little concerning since the vast majority of us are not fluent in the language.
Our tribal government and law states that we are either tribal members or we are not, even though our enrollment office prints our blood degrees on our “Indian cards”. Benefits, such as per capita, employment preference, medical/health care, and housing are provided equally to tribal members. If you are descended from a person appearing on the Baker Roll, have at least 1/16th Eastern Band blood (for some 1/32nd) and have been officially verified, you are considered 100 percent enrolled. It is an all or nothing proposition.
Acceptance in the tribal community is a little different. You may be an “enrolled member” and not necessarily be accepted by the community. Roughly half of the members of the Tribe live on the Qualla Boundary, while the others are scattered throughout the United States and around the world. An example of the importance of community lies in the governance of the tribe itself. While there are two Tribal Council seats for each community on the Qualla Boundary, the population of tribal members who reside off the Boundary do not have direct representation. They still may vote in elections, but they and their votes are tied to a particular community based on family relationship.
Many of those who live on the Boundary form tight bonds based on a common history and lifestyle. From one generation to the next, our people pass on a tradition of pride in who we are as members of this special, unique culture. And, if you are member who has been away from the Boundary for a while, returning is a process that takes time and commitment to building or rebuilding communal bonds. Being Cherokee may depend on those relationships more than blood degree.
As time progresses, it will be more and more difficult to define ourselves by blood quantum. In those days when the federal government looked for ways to document and track Native Americans, there may have been some thought in their minds of using blood degree as another way to assimilate Indians into American society. History documents efforts to take away elements of culture, including language and to erase Native history. While the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other tribes have gained the freedom and made efforts to restore and preserve tradition, history and culture, much has been lost and, because of the vastness of American culture and influence, the assimilation continues. Blood quantum as a basis for determining tribal affiliation, mathematically speaking, will also facilitate that process.