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What We Can Learn from Indian Tribes on Immigration

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The Americas are unusual because citizenship is often granted based on birthplace, rather than on the citizenship or place of origin of one’s parents. Countries in North and South America have historically tended to more freely grant citizenship due to their relatively low populations, abundant land, and a historical dependence on migrant labor to take advantage of the region’s vast natural resources.

Thus the United States, as with other states in the Americas, has tended to grant citizenship to newcomers both in large numbers and from a large variety of backgrounds.

But there are some groups in the United States who have made sure place of birth won’t get you very far in terms of integrating into the local community. And if one’s parents have the wrong ancestry, you can usually forget about ever gaining full “citizenship.”

I speak, of course, about Indian tribes in the United States where eligibility for membership often depends very much on who your grandparents were.

A History of Limiting Tribal Membership

The term “citizenship” isn’t generally used to refer to membership in a tribe, but it is analogous in many ways. After all, being enrolled in a tribe gives one access to the tribe’s political system, and to the economic benefits that come with membership. This includes access to some federal programs such as Indian Health Care. But membership can also bring benefits specific to each tribe, such as access to tribal lands and even cash benefits.

Tribal membership can come with both material and psychic benefits. For those who have grown up on a reservation or married a member of a certain tribe, the terms of tribal membership are obviously very important. But there are material advantages as well. It is not the case that all Indian reservations are impoverished with no resources. Median incomes for tribal residents of reservations can range from poverty-level — as in the case of the Fort Peck reservation — to well above the US median income, as with the Agua Caliente reservation.

This the case for members of tribes that disburse dividends from tribal business dealings. Revenues from these enterprises can be substantial in tribes that own oil wells and casinos.

The Southern Ute Indian tribe of Colorado, for example, owns stakes in a wide variety of natural resource extraction operations. It has a casino. In 2017, it won a major lawsuit with the federal government which resulted in a $126 million settlement.

And that’s a big deal because the Southern Ute tribe has only about 1,500 members. In the case of tribes like the Tulalip tribes of Washington State, membership brings a stake in tribal ownership of casinos, shopping centers, and other investments.

So, it’s easy to see why limiting membership has its advantages. Membership in the Southern Ute tribe brings annual payments from tribal revenues — just for being a Southern Ute. But if membership is increased, the per capita benefits of membership diminish (all else being equal.)

So how to limit membership? Among US tribes, the issue often comes down to blood quantum.

“Blood Quantum”

The blood quantum standard didn’t start with limiting access to earning from oil wells, though. The “benefits” of membership in the late nineteenth century mostly consisted of hardly-generous consolation prizes for tribes evicted from their lands. According to Russell Thornton:

The process of enrollment in a Native American tribe has historical roots that extend back to the early nineteenth century. As the U.S. government dispossessed native peoples, treaties established specific rights, privileges, goods, and money to which those party to a treaty—both tribes as entities and individual tribal members—were entitled. The practices of creating formal censuses and keeping lists of names of tribal members evolved to ensure an accurate and equitable distribution of benefits.

At first, this was all determined by the federal government, but over time, the tribes themselves began to determine who could be considered a member of each tribe. Thornton continues:

…American Indian tribal governments have won the right to determine their own membership: “The courts have consistently recognized that in the absence of express legislation by Congress to the contrary, an Indian tribe has complete authority to determine all questions of its own membership.”

These requirements can vary considerably by tribe. The most restrictive tribes require “one-half degree blood quantum” which means one full-blood parent, or two parents who themselves are each “one-half” of the ancestry in question. (Only the Northern Ute tribe of Utah has a higher requirement at five-eighths.)

Some of the least restrictive tribes require only “one-sixteenth degree blood quantum,” or proof that one is descended from an ancestor who was a tribal member.

And it’s tribe-specific. While many white people think all Indians are pretty much the same, the tribes certainly don’t see it that way. Being “one-half” Cheyenne won’t get you very far if you’re looking to enroll in the Navajo tribe.

Sometimes, tribal members vote on changing blood quantum requirements. In 2013, for example, the Northern Utes voted on whether or not the blood quantum requirement should be lowered. The measure apparently failed, since as of 2015, the Southern Ute Drum reported the blood quantum requirement was still five-eighths.

More recently, however, the Red Lake Nation’s tribal council voted to expand membership. The approved measure declared that all currently-enrolled members of the tribe will be henceforth considered to have four-fourths blood quantum. This means the descendants of current members will have less trouble meeting the tribe’s one-fourth blood quantum requirement in the future.

The Red Lake Council shifted its policy because it realizes if tribes rigorously enforce blood quantum standards without exception, and don’t adjust over time, membership is likely to dwindle until the tribe goes extinct. Given the way the math works, when blood-quantum requirements are high, any intermarriage outside the tribe — even to a member of another tribe — can lead to the children of that union becoming ineligible for membership.

This is why, when the Northern Ute were considering changing their own requirements, one former Ute official noted:

“We have children who are all ‘Indian’ but [do] not have the required blood quantum of 5/8 Ute blood and cannot be enrolled in any tribe right now,” he said. “In some instances, the child has both parents enrolled but still can’t make the blood quantum!”

Not surprisingly, the issue remains controversial among Indians. After all, many Indians note that it is all quite convenient for the whites that blood-quantum can result in many tribal members being stripped of their tribal identities over time.1 The hope among white policymakers was, according to historian Elizabeth Rule, “Indians would literally breed themselves out and rid the federal government of their legal duties to uphold treaty obligations.”

Tribal Sovereignty

Although accidental, blood-quantum also has its upside for tribes. Tribal populations can use it to assert control over their own lands and to determine membership in their own communities. As Rule notes: “it’s all part of tribes deciding on their own terms, in their own ways, utilizing their own sovereignty [to decide] what approach is best for them.”

Given that tribal membership can bring very real benefits to individual members — both material and immaterial — self-preservation suggests that the tribes can’t simply let anybody join. After all, tribal populations are small, and are surrounded by far larger alien populations. To open up tribal membership — and its benefits — to anyone and everyone would likely lead to the tribe being quickly overwhelmed by outsiders.

Not surprisingly, then, there is an enduring tension between the need to limit tribal membership while also not allowing blood-quantum requirements to destroy tribal populations. Tribal members don’t want their communities to disappear through intermarriage. But they also don’t want to be displaced by outsiders who have no stake in maintaining the tribe’s culture. This control over membership is especially important for tribes given the reality of essentially open borders between tribal lands and non-tribal lands in the US. As with so much else, tribes vary in how much say individual members have in selling property to non-tribal members. Certainly, many, many non-Indians live on reservations. In many cases, Indians make up less than one-third of all residents within reservation boundaries.

Can Communities Decide?

This brings us back to the immigration issue.

For most of us, the idea of applying notions of “blood quantum” to membership in our own communities is a non-starter. But broadly speaking, if members of Indian tribes can “decid[e] on their own terms … what approach is best for them,” on what principle ought this be denied to other groups?

Perhaps the biggest practical problem that confronts us is the problem of scale. The tribes with the largest enrollment — the Cherokee and Navajo — number around 300,000 members each. Many tribes’ enrollment total around just a few thousand. The interests of tribal members are far more specific, limited, and identifiable, than would be the case in a country like the US where a very diverse population of hundreds of millions is spread across most of a continent.

Of course, even at the level of a small tribe, the so-called “will of the community” is always problematic. It always involves some groups — the winning side — determining policy for the losing side.

It is arguably possible to claim that most members of a small tribe share many common interests. But such claims become more absurd the larger the scale becomes. While many Americans continue to indulge in the fantasy that all Americans share “a common culture,” this was never true, and certainly not true now. 100 years ago, as today, a native-born Catholic Hispanic in Southern Colorado did not exactly share a common culture with a native-born WASP in Cleveland. Once we’re beyond ultra-basic policies such as prohibitions on murder, we can hardly say it’s easy to determine what policies are in the interests of the nation overall.

This is certainly the case for immigration policy. As Zachary Yost has noted, it strains the boundaries of common sense to put policies governing citizenship and immigration into the hands of any group that thinks itself qualified to pick the “right” policy for a nation of 320 million people.

[RELATED: “Immigration Policy Must Be Decentralized” by Ryan McMaken]

On top of tribal membership, there is also the issue of residency.  Should tribal populations or their governments determine who can legally live within the boundaries of tribal lands? It’s a difficult issue at any scale and one that reminds us of the important distinction between immigration and naturalization. Prohibiting tribal members from selling or leasing land to non-tribal members is a thorny issue. And it’s an issue of migration. But it is a separate issue from whether those newcomers ought to be granted membership rights in the tribe just because they live in close proximity to other tribal members.

Ultimately, the question of limiting tribal membership raises important questions of whether or not any community of individuals should collectively assert control over citizenship. For other communities considering their own responses to issues of migration and naturalization, the challenges of maintaining tribal sovereignty may suggest that a policy of decentralization and restrictive naturalization — coupled with tolerance for porous borders — can offer some answers.

  • 1. The origins of blood quantum are fundamentally anti-Indian in nature. Once tribes gained control over setting their own standards, however, tribes were able to use the policy to reinforce tribal sovereignty. See Schmidt, Ryan W. “American Indian Identity and Blood Quantum in the 21st Century: A Critical Review” Journal of Anthropology, Volume 2011 (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/janthro/2011/549521/)

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