From the Editor's Desk: White Earth Blood Quantum Reform a Courageous Act
Wednesday, December 04 2013
Written by Alfred Walking Bull, The Circle Managing Editor,
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from_the_editors_desk_alfred_walking_bull.jpgThere is a courage to be admired by those who take an action first. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe recently voted in a constitutional reform effort to effectively remove its blood quantum requirements for citizenship. Of the Ojibwe that I have come to know here in Minnesota, there's been mixed reaction ranging from hopeful joy about the future to immediate calls for the dissolution of the tribal government for taking what they regard as an unwarranted action.

Having covered my own tribal council for just over two years, it wasn't a question if – but when – a tribal citizen or fellow council member would allege constitutional violations, followed by long executive sessions where the press and members of the public were required to leave the room for hours at a time.

It's tempting to think of a tribal constitution as holy as stone tablets, etched by God and as wise our elders. The truth is far less encouraging. In the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, tribes that accepted the American-style democratic model were given a template of a constitution and by-laws, modeled not on American federalism nor traditional tribal laws and governments, but on American social organizations that required a bare minimum of governance. For any high school graduate, reading through a tribal constitution can be daunting because it soon becomes clear that the purpose of those documents was to keep us occupied while real decisions were made about our collective future.

The benefit that tribes like White Earth have now is that their future is within their own hands. Of course there will be in-fighting, power-grabs and legal wrangling and maneuvering, charges of human rights violations and any number of grievous sins to block the glacially-moving path to progress. It is the nature of tribal people to debate even as the people debating are slowly going away, bred out by fallacious arguments on who is and who is not of the tribe.

Victor Douville, a Lakota Studies professor at Sinte Gleska University, characterized the nature of political affiliation within Lakota structures. The historical structure of most tribal nations was that citizenship was based on a mutual willingness; a willingness for the whole of the tribe to keep any individual or family, based on ties, common interests and what strengths they brought to the tribe and the willingness of the individual or the family to agree or tolerate the tribe's priorities and actions.

In Lakota culture, decisions were traditionally made through consensus and not a majority rule. When making an important decision, everyone was heard and all perspectives were considered. Arguments were made, both pro and con and a decision was reached. In extreme cases where a significant amount of citizens could not agree with an action, those individuals or families split off to join another encampment or began their own.

In modern, Americanized society, those mechanisms no longer exist. We abide by an elected, representative government that presupposes we are all strangers and we submit to that government's majority rule and stay geographically, emotionally and psychological static.

So the compromise must be an absolute willingness to admit that we know nothing. We must let go of our prejudice and start new, with the idea that our immediate goals and priorities must both honor our ancestors while providing for our descendants. In that, we must confront the meaning of what a constitution for a tribal nation means.

The genius of a constitution is that it is not set in stone. There are certain principles enshrined in constitutions, but it is always malleable and changeable because it's predicated on the assumption that those who write it are imperfect human beings with a limited vision of the future. Of those limited visions, we must confront the concept of blood quantum.

The obsession with blood quantum is both a healthy and unhealthy one. On the one side of the argument, we must ensure our blood lines and heritage continue onto the coming generations; on the other side of it, it's a false indicator of one's cultural competency. Speaking personally, I am a full-blooded Sicangu with ties to my Oglala relatives in Pine Ridge. Growing up, I heard the reactionary talk of how “half-breeds” were going to take over and subjugate the full-bloods and steal needed resources. At its heart, it's a very tribal attitude, that the other will consume us and we will cease to exist, our unique qualities and traditions lost forever.

But blood quantum isn't an issue about how well one keeps cultural competency or even how "Indian" one conducts oneself. Many full bloods, like myself, have cousins who are mixed and speak our language and keep our cultural traditions alive better than I do. Certainly this is not an indicator of everyone, but it is worth considering when we decide to Other – the process by which we separate those who do not fit our mold – those whom we've grown up with, shared meals, celebrated and mourned with throughout our lives.

Blood quantum isn't responsible for the loss of culture, blood quantum is the result of a loss of culture. While we can – and may – delve into issues of sexual violence and intergenerational and historical trauma and their result on how each successive generation is conceived; the issue is how responsible each previous generation is for its children and grandchildren.
What's at issue, that no one wants to confront, is how each nation, tribe, extended family or clan has been unwilling or unable to keep traditions and culture alive for their descendants. It's a very personal experience but one that has to be confronted on a tribal level. That is not to say we should begin removing tribal citizens who don't speak our languages or who practice other religions before our traditional faiths. But we must always be mindful that when we choose to paint those whom we disagree with as less-than, we do damage to ourselves just as well.

The joy to be found in all of this is that tribes that take the first step in reforming their constitutions, like White Earth, will have citizens to carry on the discussion, to carry on the debate and to carry on the decisions that will impact their descendants

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