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Gaining a Spouse and Losing Visibility

On Thursday morning, Mar. 31, National Public Radio aired a Census-​based story about intermarriage among Native Americans: that they are the most likely to marry outside their group, and how that can sometimes jeopardize their legal standing as tribe members.

Paul Apodaca, Autry lecturer in residence (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“For the Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming, you have to be at least one-​quarter Native American to be a tribal member,” the report said. “That requirement could mean a loss of both population and identity. And intermarriage can also lead to a loss of federal benefits.”

To Paul Apodaca, lecturer-​in-​residence at the Autry and a Navajo/​Mixton Indian who is associate professor of American studies at Chapman University and an adjunct professor of American Indian studies at UCLA, the very idea of basing one’s identity on what’s commonly known as the blood quantum seems strange, if not downright offensive.

“It becomes very semantical,” Apodaca said. “The American government decided to create a culture that defined race in legal terms, and that is very odd.”

Apodaca said the NPR report left a complicated issue largely unexplained. It’s a story that reaches back to the very formation of the United States and touches on how its leaders chose to deal with those who were here before them. It’s an issue of who wields power by defining and assigning meaning to others, in this case Native Americans. And it’s a contradiction that every Native American has to confront and resolve at some point in his or her life.

He says the first Europeans in the New World hatched concepts to help them classify Native Americans and thus interact with them. The Spanish came up with a class-​based definition of race, inserting themselves at the top and the

A Wild Horse dancer at the Autry. What constitutes Indianhood? (Photo by Danielle Klebanow)

Indians near the bottom. The British, basing their world view on English common law, came up with a legal definition of race. And they used that to take possession of Indian lands, something their system did not allow them to do in any other way.

“Spanish law allowed them to take possession of land by conquest, so they had no such issue,” he said. “But because the English did not have something similar, they relied on common law, which depends on precedent.”

Apodaca says Indians are the only other distinct group mentioned in the U.S. Constitution besides free Persons, understood as white men. That at once singles Native Americans out and erases them: as they gained legal visibility, they lost uniqueness, because the Constitutions lumped groups that differed in everything from language to geography into the one catchall category of Indians. This legal identity now meant the Congress could legislate on their affairs, and it led to later definitions of Indianhood based not on biology or culture, but on the hated blood quantum.

Apodaca remembers a conversation at the Pechanga Indian Reservation with some Native women a few years ago, in which they were discussing issues of Indian blood.

At one point, he stopped them and told them, “Navajos did not use to talk about their people in this way. We never worried about blood laws before. We said, ‘that is the child of our daughter and part of our family,’ and that’s what made them Navajo.”

They stopped and said, “You are right, we did not!” At that moment, he said, they realized how much they had bought into a borrowed way of thinking.

“It does become so ingrained, you see,” he said.

Tribal identity is more than a legal concept, says Paul Apodaca (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Apodaca said the blood quantum issue has divided Indians for generations. Those who believe they have something to gain by buying into it do so. Those who don’t, ignore it. And some do both.

He says he knows of families in which a Native American man who has a child outside the tribe returns alone to the reservation, to be followed some time later by the mother and the child, asking for tribal recognition. At that point, elders ask the family of the man if they accept the child as a member of the tribe. Sometimes they do, and that child becomes entitled to all the benefits of tribal membership. But even if they don’t, the child might remain in the household, surrounded by that family, treated as any other child of theirs, only without the legal benefits.

“It happens every day, all the time,” he said. “It’s been going on a hundred years. It’s compartmentalization. The family is using different definitions based on how they interact with those around them. Culturally and humanistically they still care for the child. They may actually regard the child in cultural terms as their own. But if he is not legally defined as member of the tribe, then he isn’t.”

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.