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Chippewa Tribe members in Minnesota consider whether to continue blood quantum

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

In Minnesota, the Chippewa tribe is weighing whether to change what is known as a blood quantum rule. It requires enrolled members to have at least 25% tribal blood. Tribal nations are grappling more often with that question as they consider what exactly it means to be Native American. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Sarah Agaton Howes' family is a melting pot. Her mom is Norwegian. Her dad is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, one of six Chippewa or Ojibwe bands that make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. She's a member, but her children are not. They only have one-eighth tribal blood.

SARAH AGATON HOWES: And so my kids can't be enrolled here. And so what that means for them is that even though they're raised here, they grow up in our culture that they aren't going to be able to vote or feel a part of, you know, our community in the same way.

KRAKER: Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government pressured tribes into adopting constitutions that included blood quantum to decide membership. Jill Doerfler, chair of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth calls blood quantum a colonial fiction. Federal officials had no way to accurately determine what percentage of Native blood someone had.

JILL DOERFLER: So they did some scratch tests on people's chests.

KRAKER: In which they would look at the color of someone's skin after they scratched it.

DOERFLER: They took some hair samples. They did some head measurements. That was the basis for blood quantum.

KRAKER: But now some tribes, including the Minnesota Chippewa, are starting to reconsider blood quantum. Nearly two-thirds of members now support getting rid of it. Gabe Galanda, a Seattle-based Indigenous rights attorney, says those conversations are being driven by families whose children and grandchildren don't qualify for enrollment.

GABE GALANDA: And therefore, they are worried about their own family's legacy and what might happen to their family and ancestral lines if their children cannot be a part of their community.

KRAKER: Galanda says about 70% of tribes around the country still have blood quantum requirements. But last month, members of the Sealaska Native Corporation in Alaska voted to eliminate blood quantum. And many of the country's largest tribes, like the Cherokee Nation, have moved to what's known as lineal descent, where membership is open to anyone who can show their ancestors were enrolled. But Galanda worries that not enough tribes are making similar changes.

GALANDA: They are not yet awakened to the fact that blood quantum, by its original colonial design, will mathematically eradicate us.

KRAKER: Research commissioned by Minnesota Chippewa Tribe officials found that if no change is made to its blood quantum requirement, their population would decline 80% by the end of the century. But tribal president Cathy Chavers says some citizens of bands that distribute casino revenues through monthly per capita payments don't want enrollment expanded. She says others worry that more tribal members would stretch already limited funding for housing and other programs.

CATHY CHAVERS: It'll take away some of the services because more tribal members may be eligible for services. But we don't get increases in funding.

KRAKER: Sarah Howes says she'd gladly give up her monthly payment from the Fond du Lac Band if it meant her kids could be tribal members.

HOWES: My thing is, like, I think, what would our ancestors think of us if they were looking at us and were saying, oh, we don't include these kids because we're worried about our $400? I mean, I think they would be ashamed of us.

KRAKER: Like many tribes, the Minnesota Chippewa are looking at blood quantum through new eyes.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Duluth.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "5/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Kraker