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A Battle Over Who Is Indian

A nationwide debate is raging as membership and other benefits are denied to some who lack a certain percentage of native blood. Without more inclusiveness, some fear tribes will die out.


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," said 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 inside a closet at the tribal headquarters here.

The 1904 census has morphed 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 said. "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.

Instead, the battle over blood quantum is here, as elsewhere, 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 Native American traditions under assault from "wannabes" and those who believe the blood rules are a genetic time bomb threatening to make many tribes extinct.

Today, there are 200 or so full bloods in the united Flathead tribes. The youngest is pushing 40.

"If this trend continues, we feel we're going to be phased out," said Darryl Dupuis, a leader of the drive to relax the rules. "There will be so few of us that the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] will say we're not a tribe anymore."

Despite such grave warnings, it is tribal elders such as Pierre who are the strongest backers of blood quantum. These deeply spiritual men are fighting to save what is, they acknowledge, a "white man's rule" imposed on the tribes by the hated U.S. government.

"Over the years, we've lost so much as a people," said Tony Incashola, a tribal elder and member of the Salish Culture Committee. "We've lost our language, our culture. . . . The people trying to get into the tribe [now] don't believe in the traditions."

With sadness and anger, Pierre points out 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 Native Americans, 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.

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