“So what percentage are you?”
It’s a clear June day at Watson’s, the nursery where I spend my summer days working. The recent heatwave has made our greenhouses particularly sweltering. Now, squatting over a row of summer annuals in one of our employees-only houses, I distractedly wipe sweat from my forehead with the back of my forearm.
“Sorry,” I say, looking up at my coworker. “What?”
Each greenhouse at Watson’s has a name, and we refer to this, the largest one, as the Cravo. The work back here—pruning, watering, and taking inventory—can be tedious. My coworker Patrick can usually be found in the Cravo caring for the hanging baskets that are set to go out on the sale floor. When I came looking for annuals to restock our front, I struck up a conversation with him about summer plans, mentioning that I wasn’t working next week because I’d be heading down to Smith River, California—the homeland of my tribe, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.
“You know,” he says, tossing a sad-looking vine into one of the refuse bins. “What percentage are you?”
I knew what he meant the first time he’d asked, but I’d hoped that having him repeat the question would make him rethink it. It’s a question I and most indigenous people I know have navigated a staggering number of times.
For a long, indulgent moment, I imagine telling him that it’s a rude question. I wonder how he’d react if I asked about his ethnicity, what “percentage” he is or who the last “full-blooded” person in his family was. Instead, I shrug and tell a little lie: “I’m not sure.”
He looks at me incredulously. “You don’t know?”
I’ve known my “fraction” of Native blood since I was young. I learned early on that, in order for people to really believe I am who I claim to be, I have to be able to prove it—with a number, a family tree, or a tribal registration card. When I was young, naming my last “full-blooded” Native family member was strangely exciting; now, it just makes me weary.
“I mean, it’s not that important,” I say. This time, I’m telling the truth.
In legal terms, a person’s “percentage” of Native blood is known as their blood quantum. This number, often expressed as a fraction, varies in importance from tribe to tribe and individual to individual. The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation enrolls members based on lineal descent, which means that as long as an individual or family can prove relation to a Native ancestor from the region, blood quantum is irrelevant. When I’m among my tribal community, the topic of blood quantum rarely comes up; though I know varying opinions exist in the tribe, the overall attitude toward the idea seems be one of derision. The blood quantum is largely seen as short-sighted, just another enduring colonialist notion that Native communities are still facing today.
Lineal descent isn’t a perfect system for determining tribal membership, but neither are any of the alternatives. No matter what system is used, there will always be complaints. Some will claim that the criteria for tribal enrollment is too limited and excludes those who have every right and desire to enter the community, while others will say the net is being cast too wide, allowing freeloaders to enroll for material benefits. These debates are constant, tiring, and have no satisfying resolution. They are what happens when we are forced to quantify identity.
Historically speaking, the North American Native peoples’ understanding of identity wasn’t rooted in heredity. Between villages, tribes, and nations, shared cultural practices and intermarriages were common. In the region stretching from southwestern Oregon to northwestern California (the ancestral home of my people), “tribal” identity didn’t exist in the way it does today. If anything, the people in this area were identified by their villages of residence.
Even when contact with non-Natives began to occur, Native identity remained cultural rather than biological. Several tribes along the west coast have narratives about shipwrecked white men who became adopted into their communities. Many mixed-race African Americans have Native ancestry. And in my tribe, one of our largest families is descended from both Latino and Tolowa ancestors. These accounts indicate that it was participation in the community, not race, that made a person Indian.
The blood quantum wasn’t used by Native Americans, but it also wasn’t a creation of the United States. As Paul Spruhan explains in his introduction to A Legal History of Blood Quantum in Federal Indian Law to 1935, the practice of using blood to define identity existed in other, older systems of law prior to its adoption by the US government. In English common law, the distinctions of “whole blood” and “half blood” relatives were created to resolve inheritance disputes, and in some British colonies, a mixed-race individual’s fraction of white blood was used to determine what political rights they had access to. Blood-based identities have long been used to delineate who is eligible to receive legal privileges.
The question of property—who would receive it and how—led the United States to create a blood quantum-based criterion for legally defining what it meant to be an Indian. Following the passing of the Dawes Act in 1887, the government developed lists, known as “rolls,” of living Native individuals. These rolls were used to determine which individuals were “Indian” enough to receive allotments of land.
The process of determining an individual’s “fraction” of Indian blood was subjective, relying little on any real understanding of that individual’s ancestry. In cases where the parents of a child came from two different tribes, only the mother was taken into account when calculating the blood quantum of the child. In other cases, those who didn’t appear to be Indian, such as freedmen and intermarried white citizens, weren’t considered at all.
Following the creation of these rolls, federal policy began to use them to exclude individuals from receiving allotments of land and other privileges offered to “authentic” Indians. Furthermore, blood quantum became a way of gatekeeping tribal enrollment. Blood quantums of one-half or one-quarter became the requirement for legal Indian-ness at the same time that the government began promoting programs of assimilation and intermarriage for indigenous peoples.
The implications of these two factors are troubling: on the one hand, a certain blood quantum was required to be legally considered Native; on the other, the government was encouraging Native peoples to integrate and intermarry with non-Native communities. A silent, sinister logic connects these government programs: if the Native population legally disappears, then the government has no obligations to it.
Some tribes and nations still use the blood quantum to determine enrollment, and their sovereign choice should be respected. However, many American Indians today agree that the blood quantum, regardless of how tribes and nations choose to use it, is simply not the defining factor that makes a person Native. The tribes and nations who still use the blood quantum have situated it within the communal context of cultural affiliation and identity. Taken out of this communal context, it becomes overly simplistic and reductionist. Non-Native paradigms of the blood quantum see Native populations as slowly disappearing or as having already vanished. These paradigms ignore complex historical, political, and cultural factors that have transformed indigenous identity over centuries.
When a non-Native asks a Native person for their “percentage”—even when their intent is not malicious—it communicates to that Native that they’re not authentic enough and that their existence must be justified in colonial terms. This is how I felt for the majority of my upbringing; it wasn’t until my twentieth year that I found myself in a space where my identity did not need to be proven by a number.
Growing up hundreds of miles to the north of my tribe’s heartland and having to answer the question of blood quantum so frequently taught me that I wasn’t Indian enough. My identity wasn’t something I had a right to lay claim to unless I was able to procure proof of it. I became alienated from my people and pulled away from my tribe, maintaining minimal contact. If the rest of the world doesn’t think I’m Tolowa enough, then surely my own people will see right through me, too—this is the lie I believed.
When I began reconnecting with my tribe, I entered with my guard up, so ready to answer intrusive questions of lineage and blood quantum—so ready to justify my Indian-ness to my own people. But this justification was never demanded of me.
Just a couple days after my conversation with Patrick, I made the long drive south to Smith River to attend my first nee-dash. It was June 21, the summer solstice—a sacred night for the Tolowa. On summer and winter solstices, our people thank the creator for the harvest by performing the nee-dash, a feather dance. Tradition teaches that, by dancing and praying, the dee-ni’ participate in the renewal of all creation.
I was alone; none of my family had come. I had only just begun building connections with non-family members in the tribe, so I expected to see only a handful of familiar faces. But that sad estrangement was why I’d come. This community had welcomed me from birth, yet I’d distanced myself because of my own insecurities. I had to begin repairing the neglected bridge.
I entered the Xaa-wan'-k'wvt community hall timidly. The main hall was half-full of mingling strangers. Feeling terribly out of place, I loafed around in the hallway, examining a wall covered in photos of tribal members who’d been veterans in various American wars.
I could only procrastinate for so long. I finally slipped into the main hall, searching faces, wondering who to approach—who appeared kindest, most welcoming, least engrossed in a serious conversation. A young woman sat alone at a table near the back. I walked slowly over to her, gesturing toward an empty chair.
“Can I sit here?” I asked, then paused, deliberating. “I don’t really know anyone here.”
She smiled gently, a faint look of surprise on her face. “Of course.”
I sat, and we talked. I admitted that I’d never been to nee-dash before; she said that she’d danced in it many times. In fact, her boyfriend was dancing that night.
Our halting conversation was interrupted by an elder approaching our table. She had a shrewd gaze and an unapologetic air to her presence that both intrigued and intimidated me.
“We need more girls to dance tonight,” she said, not bothering to introduce herself. She was looking at the other young woman, apparently familiar with her.
The younger woman shrugged. “I can’t dance; I’m on my moon.” This she’d already explained to me—Tolowa women can’t dance the nee-dash if they are on their moon (menstruating) or if they’ve had children.
The elder sighed. She seemed to notice me for the first time.
“What about you?” she asked. “Are you on your moon?”
“Um,” I said. “No?”
“Good,” she said. Even through my anxiety, I was charmed by her brashness. “Then you can dance?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, glancing nervously at my new friend. She offered me a sympathetic smile. “This is my first time.”
The woman didn’t blink. “But you can dance?”
She was utterly unfazed by my newness. I wasn’t sure whether to weep with gratitude or curl up in embarrassment. Instead I just sat, unable to formulate a response.
“Oh, come on,” the other woman finally cut in. “Let her just watch this time.”
The elder looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. “Next time,” she said, and left.
The young woman began to apologize to me, but her embarrassment was unneeded. A new sort of wonder—of hope—was unfurling in my chest. It hadn’t mattered that I’d never been to a nee-dash before or that I didn’t know the dances. It didn’t matter that the elder had never met or seen me.
I was here. I was participating. I was Tolowa enough.
8 comments have been posted.
I have felt this way my entire life. My real Father died when I was 3weeks old. He is my link to the Citizen Band Potawatomi. My great grandma made sure my mom enrolled me. I have been proud of my heritage my whole life, But reluctant due to my blood quantum. I come from a people that intermarried with the French fur trappers early. We are a pasty bunch. Sometimes I have gotten push back from young local tribal kids when I was a teen in Washington. But mostly it is my own reluctance that has gotten in the way. I am 41 and thanks to Ancestry DNA have found family on my father's side. My mom really didn't keep in touch with his side of the family. I have recently been told that they didn't know of me. This here I am attending the Family Reunion Gathering for the first time. I am meeting some 2nd cousins that also just found out thanks to DNA. While I have always tried to live "the red road" I am now finally getting involved.
Kim Dukes | March 2020 | Oregon
Wow, thank you, Powerful story and one I can relate to in many ways!!!
Marianne Scott | March 2020 | Seattle, Wa
Thank you for those beautiful word's. This subject is a problem for my grandchildren I have 10 , 5\ 5 enrolled -unenrollable. I have argued this in. council only to deaf ear response. With my last dying breath I will advocate of inclusion. Once again thank you I'm encouraged again.
Tony Cladoosby | March 2020 |
Emma I to am Native American but because of my blond hair blue eye German grandfather I don't even look Native.....and even though I am very proud of my Cherokee grandmother...people do not believe me when I tell them my grandmother was Indian.....but I have meant many of your people in Smith River and have worked with them in the Lily fields in Brookings and Smith River....they are very pleasant and hard working people and it was always my pleasure in working with them......
Karen Gehrke | March 2020 | Cottage Grove, Oregon
Nellie Fox | March 2020 |
Thank you, Emma Hodges, for sharing your experience and your willingness to educate. My deep respect.
Elizabeth Madrigal | March 2020 | Ridgefield, Washington
Wonderful. Simply wonderful Emma.
Briannon Fraley | March 2020 | Crescent City
Emma: Your an amazing young writer who expressed exactly how my husband Herb, our 2 son's & 6 grandchildren have always felt about being Native. Thank you for putting words on paper that touch 100's of others who also have felt "Not Native enough" by some. Hope to meet you one day soon since you are family to us as well. Sincerely, The Arlandson's
Carol & Herb Arlandson | February 2020 | Brookings, Or