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Blood quantum – the percentage of blood that is tribal due to bloodline – has shaped Native identity and has been the primary determinant of deciding who is an Indian for over a century.   

“The Great Vanishing Act: Blood Quantum and the Future of Native Nations,” edited by Norbert Hill and Evanston Township High School alum Kathleen Ratteree, plays on the myth of the “vanishing Indian,” a concept that reached its height in the late 19th century, when most Native peoples in North America had been “contained” on reservations or reserves and were facing physical threats of removal, genocide, forced assimilation, and boarding schools.

In the 21st century, this myth has shape-shifted into more subtle and insidious forms. Blood quantum – the concept that being Native requires a quantifiable attribute, i.e, blood – has become the new “vanishing Indian.” Dropped below a certain arbitrary fraction, the Indian has disappeared. Poof.

Although the idea for the book began in Oneida, Wis., the final product spans the globe. Authors and artists from Native nations across the continental United States, Canada, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Japan have contributed, a colorful spectrum of people who have been deeply and personally affected by blood quantum policies made during their parents’, grandparents’, or great-grandparents’ time.

The book was born out of the Oneida Trust and Enrollment Committee (OTEC), a group of elected Oneida citizens responsible for managing tribal trust funds, processing enrollment requests, maintaining membership records, and recording population changes. Decades ago, the community realized something alarming: the number of Oneida citizens who meet the 1/4 blood quantum requirement to enroll in the Oneida Nation was declining, but discussions were not happening.

In 2008, the Committee engaged the Oneida Nation, because unless blood quantum requirements are changed, there will be no eligible Oneida left to enroll. OTEC began a tribal-wide campaign to educate Oneida citizens about their population realities. This book is a natural outgrowth of this ongoing work. All royalties and proceeds are being donated to OTEC to continue their important work.

This scenario is playing out all across Indian Country. Although the term “blood quantum” is in the title of this book, this collection is really about belonging. It attempts to ask and answer the question of what it means to belong and who gets to decide.

The editors’ mission was to create a volume that would be accessible to a primarily Native audience – citizens, lawmakers, and tribal leaders, some knowledgeable and some approaching these issues for the first time.

The editors and contributors looked at blood quantum and identity in four broad categories: as metaphor, as biology, as law, and as politics. The collection has what Mr. Hill calls “two-way vision,” one nearsighted and one farsighted. The former considers the immediate challenges in U.S. Indian Country, the latter reflects on belonging, identity, and long-term survival of indigenous peoples around the world.

The collection opens with personal accounts of blood quantum and identity through essays, satirical fiction, poetry and a play. Next, a group of essays combines personal and historical views; a third group offers analytical and political perspectives; the fourth section turns to lessons on nation building; and finally, four authors tie together the various themes and ideas while looking to the future.

Interspersed throughout the text are original art pieces by talented Native artists, from political cartoons to traditional beadwork to metallurgy and jewelry to acrylic on canvas.

Clinical psychologist Mary Pipher wrote that “Cultural change is a million subversive acts of resistance.” Our world is in turmoil. Ethnic relations, have taken on new, sometimes frightening, often complex dimensions.

The authors and editors say they are ready to change the script on what it means to be Native, to engage with the most difficult questions: “Who are we?” and “Who gets to decide?” They hope the book will fuel readers’ excitement and frustration and spur them to engage – to share constructive ideas and, above all, to listen – to spread the fire.