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  • Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and Assimilation Policy by Katherine Ellinghaus
  • John R. Gram
Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and Assimilation Policy. By Katherine Ellinghaus. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. 199. Notes, bibliography, index.)

The Indian Reorganization Act (1934) offered the first official federal definition of indigeneity tied to blood quantum. Rather than the beginning of the blood discourse that would come to dominate federal (and, at times, indigenous) understandings of “Indianness,” however, Ellinghaus argues that the act merely made official the long-standing unofficial practice of linking blood discourse to issues of indigenous authenticity. Blood Will Tell, then, is the study of how blood discourse affected federal and indigenous actions in practice during the allotment era—initially “operat[ing] as a set of criteria that could determine whether a person did (or did not) deserve enrollment and allotment” (xv), then later determining which individuals should continue to enjoy government protection of their land. Thus, blood discourse became the means by which the government justified removing its obligations to certain indigenous individuals while freeing up Native land for white consumption. At the same time, however, Ellinghaus argues that blood discourse also became a way for both individuals and tribal nations to conceive of indigeneity on their own terms. [End Page 112]

While emphasizing that the story is neither “neat” nor “orderly” (xviii), Ellinghaus argues that blood discourse moved towards official incorporation into the federal definition of indigeneity through three stages: initial attempts at enrollment and allotment, the development of a federal “competency” policy, and finally the official inclusion of blood quantum as an indicator of “authentic” Indianness. Ellinghaus relies on several case studies to illustrate this process. By focusing on the experiences of different tribes spread across the nation, Ellinghaus helps to create a nationwide picture of how blood discourse was central to allotment-era U.S.–American Indian relations. At time same time, the nuance with which Ellinghaus handles her case studies means that the unique aspects of each tribe’s experience are also well presented. In short, Blood Will Tell is useful both to those interested in her big picture argument and to those interested in the experiences of the tribes she covers.

At the center of Ellinghaus’s analysis of blood discourse is the category of mixed-bloodedness, which the government used to abrogate its responsibilities to indigenous peoples. But it was also through these contested categories of full-bloodedness and mix-bloodedness that both indigenous individuals and tribal nations sought to assert their own definitions of indigeneity. Ellinghaus’s analysis of how blood discourse offered Native Americans both challenges and opportunities is a particularly strong aspect of the book. For example, in analyzing federal competency policy, Ellinghaus appropriately discusses the fraud and significant land loss that followed. But she also demonstrates how individuals could use competency to their own benefit, ridding themselves of useless land and securing much-needed funds.

Special note is due the last chapter, in which Ellinghaus analyzes the attempts of several eastern tribes to overcome assumptions regarding mixed-blood status—this time because of the perceived presence of African rather than Anglo blood. Here the battle was not only about what a “real” Indian looked like, but also how Indianness should be understood within the binary racial system predominant east of the Mississippi River. If mixture with white blood (“competency”) meant the erasure of the supposedly childlike and backward nature of Native Americans, the infamous “one drop rule” meant that African blood could also destroy Indianness through “corruption.”

Overall, Blood Will Tell is a valuable contribution to studies of the allotment era in particular and to studies of U.S.–American Indian relations and settler colonialism in general. [End Page 113]

John R. Gram
Missouri State University


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