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  • The Racial Formation of American Indians:Negotiating Legitimate Identities within Tribal and Federal Law
  • Eva Marie Garroutte (bio)

Michael Omi and Harold Winant define "racial formation" as the process by which individuals are divided, by historically mutable rules, into racial categories. 1 American Indians differ from other twenty-first-century racial groups in the extent to which their racial formation is governed by law, yet students of race and ethnicity are frequently unfamiliar with the unique processes of racial formation in this group. This article is a simple introduction to some of the legal definitions—both federal and tribal—that regulate American Indian racial formation. It also examines the consequences of the particular processes of racial formation that apply to Indian people. Finally, it considers the questions of who is able to satisfy legal definitions of identity and who is unable to do so and some of the many reasons that the "Indians" and "non-Indians" who emerge from the rigors of the definitional process do not always resemble what one might expect.2

Tribal Legal Definitions

There are a large number of legal rules defining American Indian identity, and they are formulated and applied by different actors for different purposes. I will begin with the ones that tribes use to determine their citizenship. Many people are surprised to discover that each tribe sets its own legal criteria for citizenship. They imagine that the U.S. government controls such aspects of tribal lives. In reality, tribes typically have the right to create their own legal definitions of identity and to do so in any way they choose. Indeed, this prerogative is commonly viewed legislatively as one of the most fundamental powers of an Indian tribe.3

The most common tribal requirement for determining citizenship revolves around "blood quantum" or degree of Indian ancestry. About two-thirds of all federally recognized tribes of the coterminous United States specify a minimum blood quantum in their legal citizenship criteria, with one-quarter blood degree being the most frequent minimum requirement.4 [End Page 224]

Degree of blood is calculated on the basis of the immediacy of one's genetic relationship to ancestors whose bloodlines were (supposedly) unmixed. The initial calculation often begins with a "base roll," a listing of tribal membership and blood quanta in some particular year.5 These base rolls make possible very elaborate definitions of identity. They allow one to reckon that the offspring of, say, a full-blood Navajo mother and a white father is one-half Navajo. If that half Navajo child in turn produced progeny with a Hopi person of one-quarter blood degree, those progeny would be judged to be one-quarter Navajo and one-eighth Hopi. Alternatively, they could also be said to have "three-eighths general Indian blood." Certain tribes require not only that citizens possess tribal ancestry but also that this ancestry comes from a particular parent. Thus, the Santa Clara Pueblo (New Mexico) will not enroll children in the tribe without paternal descent, and the Seneca Tribe (New York) requires maternal descent.

Such modern definitions of identity based on blood quantum closely reflect nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theories of race introduced into in-digenous cultures by Euro-Americans. These understood blood as quite literally the vehicle for the transmission of cultural characteristics: "'Half-breeds' by this logic could be expected to behave in 'half-civilized,' i.e., partially assimilated, ways while retaining one half of their traditional culture, accounting for their marginal status in both societies."6 Given this standard of identification, full bloods tended to be seen as the "really real," the quintessential Indians, while others were (and often continue to be) viewed as Indians in diminishing degrees.7

These theories of race articulated closely with political goals characteristic of the dominant American society. The original stated intention of blood quantum distinctions was to determine the point at which the various responsibilities of that dominant society to Indian peoples ended. The ultimate and explicit federal intention was to use the blood quantum standard as a means to liquidate tribal lands and to eliminate government trust responsibility to tribes along with entitlement programs, treaty rights, and reservations.8 Indians would eventually...


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