LeRoy Comes Last, a full-blooded Lakota-Sioux, with his Northern Cheyenne wife, Sabrina, and their grandson, Ryan Padraza Comes Last, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana. Ryan is a full-blooded Indian, but according to Fort Peck rules, his “blood quantum” is only three-quarters. The tribe doesn’t recognize his Northern Cheyenne heritage.
LeRoy Comes Last and his family live on a hump of benchland in northeastern Montana, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. In all directions the land is flat and treeless, with just a few soft ridges here and there, as if someone lay sleeping beneath the topsoil. To the south, U.S. Highway 2 cuts toward the town of Poplar in one direction and Wolf Point in the other. Just beyond lie the tracks of the Great Northern Railway, where passenger trains with names like Empire Builder once ran. And farther still, yellow cottonwoods mark the course of the Missouri River, the reservation’s southern boundary.
Inside the Comes Last mobile home, toddlers—the charges of a daughter-in-law who runs an ad hoc daycare center—careen around the living room under streamers of black and orange Halloween crepe. Seated at his kitchen table, his rough hands resting on a plastic tablecloth decorated with cartoon spiders, Comes Last looks as if he might have wandered into the wrong home. A tall man in his 60s, he has a warm weathered face and a purple neckerchief, and wears his hair in long braids under a black cowboy hat. His young round-cheeked Northern Cheyenne wife, Sabrina, sits next to him, holding a child.
“I always say I stole her,” Comes Last chuckles. “I still owe her dad seven pinto horses.”
Comes Last is a full-blooded Lakota Sioux of the Hunkpapa Band. His ancestors arrived at Fort Peck more than a century ago. His business card proclaims him a “Holy Dog Consultant,” spiritual leader and firestarter, and he is one of the few remaining Lakota speakers on the reservation.
The acrid scent of a smudge stick wafts into the kitchen as a sleepy 3-year-old boy with gravity-defying black hair wanders through. “Ice cream,” the boy says plaintively. “Ice cream.”
“It’s the man of the hour!” cries Comes Last, patting his grandson on the shoulder.
Ryan Padraza Comes Last is a full-blooded Indian; Sioux and Cheyenne on his father’s side and Assiniboine on his mother’s. He will soon receive his Lakota name: “A Rope.” (Comes Last raises rodeo horses and always has a rope in his right hand. He likes to call Ryan his “right-hand man.”) But despite his traditional roots and his Native heritage, Ryan may be one of the last of the Comes Last line allowed to enroll as a member of the Fort Peck Tribe.
According to the tribal Constitution, enrolled members must be at least one-quarter Assiniboine or Sioux, or a combination of the two. (Fort Peck is home to both groups, who share one government.) This method of measuring Native American ethnicity by percentage is known as the “blood quantum,” and most Indian tribes use it to determine who can be admitted. A few use a different method, called “lineal descent,” under which applicants need only prove they have an ancestor on the early tribal rolls. Before 1960, Fort Peck used lineal descent as well.
In general, Native Americans cannot enroll in more than one tribe at a time, and for those tribes that require a particular percentage of Native blood, the parameters vary. For instance, by Fort Peck’s rules, Ryan Padraza’s blood quantum is only three-quarters. This is because his Cheyenne blood does not count at Fort Peck.
As an adult, Ryan will face a dilemma that is increasingly common in Indian Country. If he marries outside of his tribe—whether with a non-Native or, say, a full-blooded Chippewa—his children will have a blood quantum of only three-eighths at Fort Peck. And depending on his children’s marital choices, Ryan’s grandchildren may not be enrolled at all. The only way Ryan can avoid watering down his Fort Peck blood is to marry within the tribe. But that will not be easy: He’s related to many of his fellow members.
Thousands of Native Americans are not enrolled in their tribes because their bloodlines have become diluted over the years, as is happening with the Comes Last family. Even some full-blooded Native Americans lack enough of any one tribe’s heritage to qualify for enrollment. And there are many mixed marriages: Studies show that about 60 percent of Native Americans marry outside of their ethnicity, a higher rate than any other group. Demographers predict that by 2080, 92 percent of Native Americans will be more than half non-Native. Already, a new generation is finding it is not “Indian” enough to enroll. Though its members may live on the reservation, participate in tribal ceremonies and even study their ancestral language, they are not eligible for a range of federal and tribal benefits, from subsidized health care and tribal voting rights to job preference and the right to gather eagle feathers. And, on a more intangible note, many simply feel they do not belong.
As more and more children are born with blood that doesn’t measure up, tribes across the West are taking a look at their enrollment requirements. In the process, deeper questions—about culture, about identity, about the future of the tribes—are coming to the surface. Underlying them all is one with no easy answer: What exactly does it mean to be an Indian?
I cut myself into sixteen equal pieces kept thirteen and fed the other three to the dogs
—Excerpt from “13/16,” a poem by Sherman Alexie
In a basement office at Fort Peck Community College, financial aid director Lanette Clark clasps her hands on her desk and composes her thoughts. She has long dark hair and high cheekbones that disappear behind big round cheeks when she smiles. Clark has three grandchildren, none of whom are enrolled at Fort Peck. They’re just under one-eighth Assiniboine, shy of the tribe’s requirements.
Next fall, Fort Peck’s voters may weigh in on a proposed change to those requirements. It would allow applicants who are at least one-eighth Fort Peck Assiniboine or Sioux and at least one-eighth of any other federally recognized tribe to be accepted as members. Even if the initiative were to pass, it probably wouldn’t help Clark’s grandkids, because their father is not currently enrolled anywhere. Clark plans to vote for it anyway, but she is against any further lowering of the requirements, even for the sake of her grandkids. She says that loosening the standards even more, as some tribal members advocate, would be irresponsible.
“I kinda get mixed feelings,” she says. “For my own selfish reasons, I could say, ‘Yeah, let’s lower the blood quantum.’ But I think looking at it for the whole tribe right now…” She shakes her head. “Financially, we can’t even manage what we have.”
Though Clark is one of the few willing to argue against her family’s immediate interests, many at Fort Peck fear the financial impacts of easing the enrollment requirements. The tribe’s resources are already stretched thin, the argument goes: The more members, the less each will have to show for it.
Fort Peck has always been poor, even by reservation standards. By 1881, early in the reservation’s history, the buffalo of the region were gone. Federal rations weren’t enough to make up for the loss. In desperation, the starving tribe took up farming, but northeastern Montana’s dry climate and short growing season led to crop failures and more hunger.
Some tribal members still scrape a living out of the soil. But non-Natives now own more than half of Fort Peck’s 3,200 square-mile land base, a legacy of the federal government’s early attempts at forced assimilation. The 1887 Dawes Act allowed the government to break tribal lands up into individual tracts. The law was one of the first to use blood percentage as a measure of Indian ethnicity, though the purpose was quite different than it is today: Natives with a larger proportion of “civilizing” white blood could sell their allotments without restriction, while those with more Indian ancestry faced heavier constraints. Once each tribal member had received an allotment, much of what remained was available for white homesteaders.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 turned the management of Indian lands over to the tribes and made them largely self-governing. But it also led most to require that their members have a particular percentage of Native blood. The Bureau of Indian Affairs handed out boilerplate constitutions that barred anyone who had less than a one-quarter heritage. And for the most part, the tribes—having no background in constitutional government—adopted these documents without complaint. (Fort Peck’s citizens voted against doing so, but by 1960, the tribe was also requiring its members be at least one-quarter Assiniboine and/or Sioux.) Indian Country had internalized the concept of blood quantum.
Some believe that the fractional breakdown of Native blood over generations was factored into the federal government’s plan from the beginning, a sort of statistical extermination.
“The one-quarter blood quantum was a criteria that federal officials devised in the early 1900s to reduce the number of Indians and save themselves some money,” says University of Minnesota professor David Wilkins, an expert in federal Indian policy. “And by then, most tribes had been so brow-beaten they weren’t in a position to challenge those criteria.”
If the blood-percentage system was indeed part of an insidious plan to eradicate the Native American, it is slowly having the desired effect. Based on current requirements, most tribes will have no new eligible members in 50 years, and many will cease to exist within a century. In an effort to combat this inevitable breakdown, many tribes are considering loosening their enrollment requirements. If the initiative at Fort Peck passes, for instance, some people of mixed Native American ancestry, like young Ryan Padraza Comes Last, would suddenly be considered full bloods. And hundreds would be able to enroll in the tribe who now cannot, including some of Fort Peck’s 1,600 “associate members.” (They’re at least one-eighth Assiniboine and/or Sioux but less than one-quarter.)
Fort Peck currently has just over 12,000 enrolled full members: 4,405 Assiniboine and 7,691 Sioux. Nearly half of them live off the reservation; most of the rest live either in Wolf Point, a former fur-trading post of about 2,500 near the reservation’s southern border, or in Poplar, 22 miles east, with about 900. The remainder are scattered across the 2 million acres of arid farmland that stretch north toward Canada, or in hamlets of dilapidated houses that look as if they might at any moment pitch headlong into the shortgrass prairie.
The seat of tribal government, a modern complex topped by a pagoda-like glass tower, sits on the edge of Poplar, northeast of the other well-kept structure in town, the community college. The rest of Poplar looks as though it had been conquered some time ago and left for dead, which isn’t far from the truth. Many houses, especially on the edge of town, are boarded up. Stray dogs wander the wide empty streets. Here and there, the hand-painted signs illustrate the faces of meth addicts, before and after. The empty A&S Industries warehouse on the southern edge of town once employed 500 people who made camouflage netting for the Army and other products. The business crashed in the 1990s, after the Persian Gulf War ended and its minority preference status expired. Now the chief employment opportunities on the reservation are with the tribal government or the college, unless you happen to be well- versed in dry farming.
The perks of tribal membership are meager as well. Because of Montana’s restrictive gaming laws and Fort Peck’s remote location, big casinos aren’t an option. The tribe’s business endeavors, like the Tribal Express, a gas station and mini-mart just east of Poplar, aren’t making anybody rich. Each full member gets “Christmas money” from the tribe, usually around $75 per year. Money for burial, a free pass on state income tax for those who live on the reservation and first dibs on jobs at Fort Peck are among the other benefits. Both full and associate members supposedly receive comprehensive health care benefits, but last summer the Fort Peck Executive Board declared that the tribe’s health care system was in a state of emergency due to lack of funds.
Some fear that if the tribe eases up on enrollment requirements, it will mean even skimpier benefits for each person. They may be right. The federal government allocates money to individual tribes using a formula based on need, not membership.
“Of course, if you have a larger population, you would probably have more need,” says Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Gary Garrison. “But how that would play out in this age of limited budgets is a big question mark.”
Those who favor opening up the rolls, however, find the economic argument unconvincing.
“We’ll never have enough resources to go around,” shrugs Robert McAnally, co-founder of the community college and a proponent of expanding Fort Peck’s membership. “For example, you see the bigotry and hatred that’s going on with big gaming tribes.”
Under various pretexts, wealthy gaming tribes have removed thousands of people from their rolls in the last decade, particularly in California. Last summer, the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians kicked out 50 people because, according to the tribe, they had an adopted ancestor. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians has cast out nearly a quarter of their membership, claiming illegitimate bloodlines. And the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians has banished hundreds of members in recent years, with little explanation. Each of these tribes runs a multimillion-dollar casino, and the fewer the enrolled members, the bigger the cut for those who remain.
McAnally sees the same dynamic at work at Fort Peck, though the stakes are much lower. At a recent meeting on amending the tribe’s Constitution, he supported switching to the lineal descent framework. But delegates voted down that proposal, along with others, including one that would have made associate members full members. The plan that passed was perhaps the most conservative—the one suggesting that the blood of other federally recognized tribes be included in Fort Peck’s calculations.
McAnally, a big man with the imperious air of an aging Marlon Brando, sees no nuance in the desire to restrict tribal membership. “It’s all based on greed,” he says.
You’re standing in the blood quantum line With a pitcher in your hand Poured from your heart into your veins You said I am I am I am
Now measure me Measure me Tell me where I stand Allocate my very soul Like you have my land
—Excerpt from “Blood Quantum,” a song by The Indigo Girls
In a fluorescent-lit room in the basement of Fort Peck Community College, Bernadette Wind writes a series of phrases in Dakota on a whiteboard. (Dakota is one of the two dialects most commonly spoken on the reservation; the other is Nakoda.)
“Tuwe katoto,” she says aloud, adding pronunciation symbols above some of the letters. “Tiopa kin yugan.” Translation: Somebody’s knocking. Open the door.
Students straggle in and sit at the back. A young woman undoes her ponytail and combs her fingers through black hair that nearly reaches the floor. Another opens a can of soda. Someone’s cell phone rings over and over.
Wind, a jocular woman in oversized glasses, turns to face her small class.
“When I was a little girl, people always came to visit,” she says. “The kids weren’t supposed to hang around, but I would hide and listen to them talk, tell stories, tease each other.” She gestures toward the board. “What we have here is a basic conversation when somebody comes to visit you.”
Wind is not fluent in Dakota, but she is as close as many people come these days. She says she grew up listening to her grandparents speak it, but was never encouraged to do so herself. Well into the 20th century, many Indians—including Wind’s grandmother—were punished in school for speaking their Native tongue. As a result, they often did not encourage their own children and grandchildren to learn. “I don’t know everything,” Wind tells her class, “but what I know I want to share.”
Still, her desire is only half the equation. Thirteen people are registered for Wind’s class, but tonight, only six have shown up. Nakoda, the Assiniboine dialect, was also offered this semester but was cancelled for lack of interest. While powwows, sweat lodges and Sun Dance ceremonies are still regularly held at Fort Peck, the more traditional members of the tribe tend to feel that something intangible is slipping away.
And some of them see that as all the more reason to keep the enrollment requirements as they are. In fact, Herman Pipe Jr., a 66-year-old who’s three-fourths Sioux, would like to see the required tribal blood percentage raised to one-half.
“White-minded Indians have no respect for the culture or the land,” says Pipe, who’s retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “But those white Indians have always had the power on the reservation because the big people in Washington don’t like talking to Indians.”
Such resentment against mixed bloods is not uncommon in Indian Country. Terms like “breed,” “quarterpounder” and “droplet” are still thrown around, despite the dwindling supply of full-bloods to throw them. The animosity against “white Indians” is nothing new. In 1916, for instance, a Fort Peck member named Big Foot told a government official: “The squaw-men [non-Native men married to Indian women] and the mixed-bloods should not be allowed to share in what is coming to us old people.”
These days, Fort Peck member Jerome First, a 71-year-old full-blooded Sioux, has similar complaints. “When I was growing up, the whites didn’t like the Indians here,” he says. First says he was called a “red nigger,” and was refused service at restaurants. “Then these half-breeds found out the Indians were getting homes and other things and suddenly they wanted to be an Indian.” For elders like First and Pipe, opening up tribal membership to those with a high ratio of white blood seems like a kind of surrender—welcoming in the enemy.
Yet traditionally, before the federal government shackled resources to race, most tribes regarded ethnic boundaries as fluid. Social kinship, not biology, was the tie that bound. Marriages between neighboring tribes were often arranged to strengthen political alliances, and a child born of such a couple would become a full member of either the father’s or the mother’s tribe. Some tribes, like the Tlingit of the Northwest, married outside their clan as a general rule.
By the 18th century, tribes were absorbing non-Natives as well. The Comanches, who were famous raiders, captured and adopted Mexicans and whites, as well as members of other tribes. Quanah Parker, the tribe’s last great chief, was the son of a white woman and a Comanche warrior.
“Indian people have always been looking for outside genetic material, way before Europeans showed up,” says Wayne Stein, a Native American studies professor at Montana State University. “Indian people were probably the best farmers in the world in the 1400s—and farmers understand genetics.”
I’m left to defend one lonely drop of blood. I might terminate if I get nosebleed.
—Excerpt from “Cheeky Moon,” a poem by Ojibwe Indian Marie Annharte Baker. (“Termination” was a policy of the 1950s in which the federal government sought to dissolve the Indian tribes.)
Roberta Garfield’s modest tribal housing unit on the east edge of Poplar is a cheerful bedlam. Neighbors, relatives and pets walk in and out like extras in a musical. A teenager in basketball shorts rummages through the fridge. In the living room, a couple of kids sprawl on the couch watching cartoons over the crackle of a police scanner. A girl pours herself a glass of milk and departs, cradling a tower of Oreos. A tangle of small dogs bursts in and has to be chased out again. In the middle of it all, Garfield, a comfortably plump 73-year-old with a proud, direct manner, sips a cup of tea.
“People say, ‘Why do you give so much away?’” she says, gesturing at her raucous household. “And I say, ‘So I can have enough.’ My grandmother always said if you stop sharing, you’ll never have nothing.”
Garfield, who is half Sioux and a quarter Assiniboine, is equally generous about tribal membership. She has seven children, 24 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Of these, at least a dozen can’t be enrolled. Garfield has become one of the vocal few who advocate using lineal descent as the enrollment standard at Fort Peck.
Robert McAnally is another; his support is fueled by the fact that his two sons are only associate members.
“You know, being an Indian is not in your quantity of blood,” he says. “DNA is not transferred through your blood. Personality is not transferred through your blood. What makes a person an Indian comes from your heart, your mind, your soul, your practices.”
Some Natives have proposed using such cultural benchmarks—knowledge of the tribe’s language, residence on the reservation, participation in ceremonial activities—as criteria for membership. But even this method has pitfalls.
“Who within the tribe gets to decide what’s culturally appropriate and what’s not?” wonders Kim Tallbear, a Native American scholar at UC Berkeley. “Instead of the blood quantum police, then you’ll have an office that polices culture?”
Garfield has no desire for such measures. “I would never force anyone to live the cultural way,” she says. But she’s convinced the lineal descent approach is the answer to preserving her culture, including the generosity she sees as one of its hallmarks. “We can’t teach our culture to kids who don’t have a heritage,” she says. “And we get away from our Native American culture when we start weeding people out.”
Garfield notes that people with European heritage tend to view their ancestry through the lens of lineal descent. “I don’t think that when Germans intermarry they lose their German descent,” she says. “That’s what we need to remember, too.”
But some traditionalists say the lineal descent approach leads to a loss of tribal identity, benefiting those who have no connection to Native American culture and who carry none of the burden of its history. The Cherokee Nation is a common target of ridicule in Indian Country because the tribe uses lineal descent. About 250,000 people are enrolled, and some have such a small fraction of Cherokee blood that the denominators are in the quadruple digits. “So your grandmother was a Cherokee princess?” goes the joke. (The tribe has no system of royalty.) The lineal descent method has also led to other problems for the Cherokees. Lawsuits and reams of bad press have come of the Nation’s decision to oust the Freedmen, descendants of the tribe’s African slaves. The Freedmen say their ancestors are on the early rolls, so by the rule of lineal descent they are Cherokees. But the tribe has repeatedly voted them out, citing their lack of Indian blood.
The lineal descent system sometimes rests on a shaky foundation. The “base rolls” that list the original members of a tribe are often flawed. In the 19th century, federal agents sometimes determined how Indian a given person was simply by examining their skin and hair. Some Natives likely exaggerated their white ancestry because it brought privileges, and others resisted registering with the federal government altogether.
Yet from a purely mathematical perspective, those tribes that require their members to have a certain proportion of tribal “blood” will either have to change their ways soon, or else calculate themselves out of existence. At this point, the alternatives are limited. The tribes can lower the percentage of blood required, create subcategories of membership or choose to include the blood of other Indian nations in their calculations. But none are permanent solutions.
“They’re kicking the can down the sidewalk,” says MSU professor Wayne Stein. “That’s all they’re doing.”
The lineal descent method is perhaps the only way to preserve the tribes far into the future, as Indian blood proportions dwindle over generations. And if it comes down to closing the doors or letting in too many people, Garfield argues that the most generous option is the latter.
“We have to claim our grandkids,” she says. “I have to give the same amount of love to all my family. I can’t say I’ll only give you an eighth.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).