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Wicazo Sa Review 18.1 (2003) 81-107

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DNA, Blood, and Racializing the Tribe

Kimberly TallBear

Biology versus Ideology

I saw American broadcaster Larry King interview African-American comedian Chris Rock in February 2001 on CNN International. King asked Rock how he felt about recent developments related to mapping the human genome. When Chris Rock appeared puzzled and responded more or less that he didn't feel qualified to address the topic, King elaborated that such scientific inquiry might be used to make black people white and didn't Mr. Rock have an opinion about this? Recognizing King's unfamiliarity with the psychology of race, Chris Rock seemed to see that this was one battle in which he didn't want to engage on international television. He responded graciously and with a smile, "It isn't like that."

Larry King is a long-standing commentator on U.S. American political life, and race has been called "the most explosive issue in American life." 1 King's comments illustrate that there is little societal familiarity with how race is constructed as ideology. It is thought to be biological fact. The progressive work of activists and scholars has shed much light on race as ideology—as a social construction that is "the product of specific historical and geographical forces, rather than [a] biologically given [idea] whose meaning is dictated by nature." 2 Although race as natural division in human populations has been widely discredited in science, it is so integral to the way that many people think [End Page 81] that it is still considered a natural and fixed human division. Such views of race have been much critiqued in studies of the invention of the white race and its systematic oppression of other races. 3

The overall purpose of this essay is to discuss how the view of race as a fixed and natural division among people is perpetuated in the racialization of American Indian tribes and American Indian or Native American (whichever term the reader prefers) ethnicity more broadly. 4 Racial ideology is reflected in recent efforts to use biological tests (DNA analysis to test for certain genetic markers) to measure who is truly Indian. Such efforts are reminiscent of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries' eugenics movement whereby social degeneration such as crime and slums were attributed primarily to biological causes. A contemporary and perhaps more sophisticated form of eugenics equates genetic markers with cultural continuity and seeks to use DNA to support or deny an individual or group claim to cultural and political rights.

DNA analysis is discussed in relation to two cases in which Native American cultural affiliation is at stake. In the first case, the Western Mohegan of New York desire to use DNA analysis to prove their right to the political and cultural jurisdiction of a federally recognized tribe. 5 The second case is that of the remains of the nine-thousand-year-old Kennewick Man found in Washington State in 1996.

Blood quantum for the purpose of determining tribal citizenship is also discussed. Specifically, the racial ideology that is the foundation of certain applications of DNA analysis is integral to (if not totally representative of) blood quantum. The "measuring" of blood is a much-debated and well-established tool for testing racial authenticity. It had its birth in the U.S. federal government's colonization of American Indians. There was "little sense of commonality... among diverse groups of people.... Gradually, however, the racially inspired policies of non-Indians began to reproduce in Indians the original European race-based conceptions," and such ideology was furthered by U.S. treaties with tribes and laws that promoted group Indian identity. 6 Blood quantum policies have been used to determine who is really an Indian in an official capacity (although not as sole criterion) by U.S. government agencies since the late 1800s. Blood quantum is used by many tribal governments today as a criterion for tribal membership, although the race politics of this are not always as straightforward as the terminology might indicate. 7 The contradictions in blood quantum...