Edged out by old government laws and stymied by federal inaction, a new generation of Native Americans faces exclusion from their parents’ tribes – along with their benefits.
Souta Calling Last, a Native American woman who grew up in Heart Butte, Montana, is an enrolled member of the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) in southern Alberta, Canada. Her husband, Tyler Walls, is an enrolled member of the Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona. But their 5-year-old son is not a member of either tribe – and will never be, at least on paper, unless ancient laws governing tribal affiliation change.
The Phoenix couple, who run an educational nonprofit called Indigenous Vision, are part of a growing number of intermixed Native parents with children who are ineligible for tribal membership because they lack sufficient “Indian blood” from any one tribe to qualify for citizenship. Dubbed “paperless Indians” by some of those affected, these non-enrolled children face not only identity uncertainty; they’re also blocked from federal benefits including college scholarships, health care and housing – which, Calling Last says, is the reason the controversial purity standard, called “blood quantum,” was created in the first place. Essentially, it defines Native American status according to what fraction of a person’s ancestors are documented as full-blooded tribal members.
“It all goes back to an intentional colonialist design to ‘get rid of the Indian,’” she says, referring to an 1895 quote from Delaware senator Anthony Higgins: “It seems to me one of the ways of getting rid of the Indian question is just this of intermarriage, and the gradual fading out of the Indian blood.” The hope was that Natives would eventually breed themselves out, reducing the number with rights to land and monetary payments negotiated in the treaties. The measurement left an enduring sting.
“The only other species in the world that are required to get such papers are dogs and horses,” says Calling Last. “It really wreaks havoc on a youth’s mentality.”
Even nearly nine decades after passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which granted tribes the right to adopt their own constitutions to define membership, the blood quantum criteria continues to be widely used, largely because the Bureau of Indian Affairs still requires it to determine an applicant’s eligibility for federal social services.
The majority of tribes, including the Hopi and Blood, require one-fourth degree blood quantum for membership – the equivalent of having at least one grandparent documented as a full-blooded member (other tribes require lesser degrees). Calling Last and Walls, each at one-quarter status, are the last enrollable in their lines. Their child doesn’t qualify for either tribe.
“The saddest thing in the entire world is a person who feels like they don’t belong,” says Calling Last, who leads an empowerment program for Indigenous teen girls in foster care. “And this sense of belonging and identity has a lot to do with determining our emotional and mental health as well as our quality of life and even length of life.” According to the Center for Native American Youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth ages 10-24, and Native teen suicide rates are nearly 3.5 times higher than the national average.
Tribal “disenrollment” has been in the news thanks to the high-profile case of the Nooksack tribe in Washington, where 306 members face being booted and 63 of them, some 80 and older, are facing eviction from tribal housing. Tribal leaders maintain that because the family’s matriarch was not included in a tribal census in 1942, none of them have a direct ancestor qualifying them for enrollment, though many have since married Nooksack members or had children marry into Nooksack families.
The group’s lawyer, University of Arizona alum Gabe Galanda, says the evictions are a human rights abuse by the tribal government. He petitioned the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided the homes, to intervene – a rare case of members of a sovereign nation seeking aid from the feds. “If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the words from a federal government official, ‘It’s an internal matter,’” he says. “Under a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, Justice Thurgood Marshall, of all judges, wrote a decision saying that an Indigenous person cannot go to federal court for a remedy when his or her birthright is threatened or has been taken. So, in 2022, we still have a situation where an Indigenous person on tribal land is the only citizen who doesn’t enjoy the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What do we do about that? How do the first peoples not have the promise of those protections?”
Galanda, a descendant of the Nomlaki and Concow tribes of California, acknowledges the double-edged sword of sovereignty. “What we’re witnessing is a significant tension between the Indigenous group right of self-determination and the individual human rights that were originally bestowed upon Indigenous citizens in the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.”
While headline-grabbing, tribal disenrollments are actually uncommon, and are frowned upon by most Native nations: According to Galanda, only about 15 percent of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. have engaged in the practice, and none in Arizona. Some Arizona tribes have been forceful in their objection. Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation president Bernadine Burnette tells townhalls, “Disenrollment is not allowed in my tribe’s constitution.”
For Natives who marry outside their tribe, however, non-enrollment of descendants is virtually built into the constitutions of every tribe that requires some degree of blood quantum for membership – all but 33 do. “There are around 80 tribes that have practiced disenrollment,” Calling Last says. “But almost every tribe is practicing non-enrollment of future generations.”
The blurred line between disenrollment and non-enrollment was evident at the landmark “Who Belongs?” conference of tribal leaders (organized in part by Galanda) at the University of Arizona law college in March 2017, where concerns about Native children not being enrolled took center stage.
“Indians marry out more than any other ethnic group,” said Norbert Hill, a health center administrator from Oneida, Wisconsin (according to the latest Pew Research analysis of census data, 58 percent of Native Americans intermarry). “So soon, our mortality rate is going to exceed our birthrate. What we have is a race against time.”
Relaxing blood quantum requirements or ditching them for records of kinship, lineage and family ties is one way to keep tribes alive. But opening up enrollment to everyone who finds a distant Indigenous relative on Ancestry.com has its downside.
“Suddenly, we have all these ‘Pretendians’ making a claim that somewhere in their line is an Indigenous grandma or grandpa,” says Calling Last, citing a recent example of a popular TikTok influencer promoting her “Indigenous-owned” business whose tribal affiliations turned out to be false. “That hurts genuine Indigenous entrepreneurs.”
Crucially, federal distributions of tribal governmental assets are tied to the old metrics, so tribes can be reluctant to change. This is particularly true for the 245 federally recognized tribes that operate casinos, which are required to distribute any non-taxable revenue not reinvested into tribal services and development in the form of per capita payments to members as part of a “revenue allocation plan.” Unsurprisingly, Galanda says, “most of the disenrollments have come from the gaming tribes” – the fewer members, the larger the individual allocations. But the distribution of $4.8 billion to tribal governments from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and $20 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act mean even non-gaming tribes have been issuing checks on a per capita basis.
Because of their reliance on federal dollars, Calling Last says she doesn’t expect many tribes to break free from the laws governing enrollment – much as they may resent them.
“I haven’t seen an example of a nation asserting its own enrollment protocols and policies, and I think it’s because of the parental nature of the federal government’s relation to Indigenous nations,” she says, adding that she’s currently filling out EPA paperwork tied to continuing federal funding for her own nonprofit. “It’s a complicated relationship.”