Writes Claudia Schwarz
“When a [DNA] test kit can tell you who you are, the very notion of identity begins to fall apart” – Hina Walajahi.
Defining Native American identity is an almost unsolvable problem. What does it mean and, more importantly, who is allowed to define and describe it? A lot of people with indigenous ancestors struggle to find the right label for themselves. A number of Native American poets have tried to illustrate this constant state of uncertainty through poetry. Paula Gunn Allen, poet and novelist, had an especially difficult task of marrying American Indian, Arab-American, and European DNA into one identity. In her experience, people of mixed heritage don’t completely fit into any category and end up “commonly feel[ing] alien to themselves above all”.
The term “Indian” has alienating and racist connotations in the U.S., but has been reclaimed by Native Americans. However, referring to a person’s specific tribe is generally preferred. Legally, someone is considered “American Indian” when he or she is not only enrolled in a tribe but also recognized by the government. Blood Quantum, the idea that a person must have a certain degree of Native American blood to be considered as such, was initially a restrictive system the US government implemented in 1934. It was designed to limit Native American citizenship and the accompanying governmental benefits. A number of tribes still use it in their own enrollment process, but specific requirements vary.
Those who use Blood Quantum essentially rely on a statistic to determine whether or not someone is eligible for tribal membership. However, every tribe requires a different percentage of American Indian DNA, or specific tribal DNA. The majority of tribes expect 1/2 or 1/4 blood quantum, equivalent to one full-blood Native American parent or grandparent respectively. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe only demands 1/16 blood quantum, so one Apache great-great grandparent automatically qualifies you. But, for a few tribes such as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, a person would need to prove that one of their parents is a full-blood Miccosukee to be considered a member. This process can be perceived as dividing the self. Mathematical equations take the body apart until the only thing left is percentages – a fractioned identity. But what if all these fractions don’t add up to the right number? And if they do, at what cost?
“In my left pocket a Chickasaw hand
rests on the bone of the pelvis.
In my right pocket
a white hand. Don’t worry. It’s mine
and not some thief’s.”
(Linda Hogan, “The Truth Is”)
Being of mixed descent and honouring both cultures equally is a challenge that poet Linda Hogan is very much aware of. She does not feel like a complete human being but instead is “taped together” and has “two empty pockets”. Her tribal affiliation is Chickasaw. Growing up as the daughter of a white woman from Nebraska and a Chickasaw, she had a difficult time connecting with both cultures. She was denied the chance to grow up within the Chickasaw tribe, but visiting them in Oklahoma was when she finally felt at home.
“I think the split between the two cultures in my life became a growing abyss and they were what I did to heal it; weave it back together. (…) You are Indian and could pass for white. Go to powwows and to the opera with equal ease. (…) One life does not fit neatly into the other always”.
Elizabeth Woody’s poem “Translation of Blood Quantum” is a more literal, mathematical example. The narrator adds up all her ancestries, neatly lines them up in an equation and ends up with the correct result. Because of this she gets awarded with a Tribal Roll number – her new identity. Instead of accepting this form of identification, Elizabeth Woody concludes by saying that she is not just “31/32 Warm Springs – Wasco – Yakama – Pit River – Navajo” but “THIRTY-SECOND PARTS OF A HUMAN BEING”.
Poems such as these criticise the impersonal way in which blood quantum determines a person’s identity. This process eliminates important factors that can’t be identified by algorithms, such as traditions; understanding tribal culture and community relationships. U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren is an example of this. After claiming Native American heritage, she published a DNA test in support of this in 2018. She received immense backlash by the Cherokee Nation: “DNA and family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only — only — by Tribal Nations”. The message behind this: DNA does not define you.
If you are interested in reading more poems of this sort, I highly recommend looking up Linda Hogan, R.T. Smith, Paula Gunn Allen, Simon Ortiz and Elizabeth Woody.