RED LAKE, Minn. — The Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota is aiming to increase its enrollment, even as some members want to stick to the status quo.
This fall, the Red Lake Tribal Council approved a resolution loosening its rules on blood quantum, a system that identifies Native Americans by their percentage of ancestry in a tribe.
Now, the tribe has hundreds of new citizenship applications under consideration as it seeks to avoid what Tribal Secretary Sam Strong described as “mathematical genocide.” Other tribes across the country are also looking into ways to approach the blood quantum system to avert dwindling enrollment.
According to the blood quantum system, a “full-blooded” Native American of a certain tribe, who marries a non-Native, would have "half-blooded" children. A “half-blooded” person who marries a non-Native, would have children with quarter-blood. And so on.
“The only things described in pedigree are dogs and horses, and we’re not that,” Strong said. “It’s time we stop using this system that’s offensive and meant to eliminate us.”
Red Lake still requires every tribal member to be quarter-blooded. Under the new resolution, everyone who was counted as a tribal member in 1958, no matter their blood quantum, is now considered “full-blooded.”
That means Gary Nelson, who was born in 1956 and is a half-blooded Red Lake member, would now be considered full-blooded, or 4/4 blood degree.
Nelson, a Tribal Council member, is one of three representatives who voted against the measure. The other seven members voted in favor of it. He lives in the town of Ponemah, Minnesota, which sits on the north side of Lower Red Lake. The town is “more traditional with the Indian ways,” he said.
“A lot of the elders in Ponemah say leave it alone, and we don’t want to bother it,” Nelson said. He worries about what will happen when non-members become enrolled and someday get voted onto Tribal Council. “What if they open up Red Lake and want to start selling our land?” he said.
Strong, who brought the resolution forward, said “membership is our future.” The tribe currently has about 12,500 enrolled members, both on and off the reservation. Following the resolution, Strong said about 600 people applied for membership and are now under consideration.
“There’s no benefit to having less people,” Strong said. “Nations are built on the strength of our people. They’re our greatest asset. They’re the ones that run our community, maintain political power and our workforce.”
Wayne Ducheneaux II, executive director of the Native Governance Center in St. Paul, said the U.S. government invented the idea of blood quantum as a way to minimize Native Americans’ ability to “survive long-term.” Under it, there are going to be “extinction dates” for tribes.
“There could be a day in the near future our tribes cease to exist based on this arbitrary rule not based in any practice and incongruent with our tribes,” he said. “There’s no self-determination or tribal sovereignty exercised through blood quantum laws.”
Ducheneaux said prior to colonization, tribes determined membership, not on blood degree, but on “your kinship, your tie to culture, your tie to language.”
Because tribal nations are sovereign, they can bring about the determining factors of being a citizen. Other tribes in Canada and the U.S. have begun to re-evaluate their citizenship laws, changing from blood quantum to factors surrounding what it means to be a member of their tribal nation.
Ducheneaux, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation in South Dakota, said in traditional Lakota culture, “you could be white, black, Cheyenne, Arikara ... if my family took you in as a relative, you were recognized by our nation.”
It’s an “act of self-determination” to decide who’s a citizen and who’s not, Ducheneaux said, and there are many ways tribes can approach citizenship.
As for Red Lake, resetting the requirement was just the first step, as it simply moved the end date down the road. “The reality is we have to take multiple other steps,” Strong said. The new rule “alleviates the immediate concerns but won’t solve our problem forever.”
Strong said his idea for a long-term solution is to base membership on lineal descent, meaning that someone with a tribal member in their family tree could also be a tribal member.
“I don’t think about myself in percentages,” Strong said. “I’m a Red Lake Band member 100 percent, and I maintain our way of life and keep it strong. And I hope everyone starts to look at themselves in that way.”