August 29, 2012

Beyond Blood: Questioning Quantum

Beyond Buckskin will feature Chickasaw artist Kristen Dorsey this week, and as a part of her featured collection, Dorsey has created all new Blood Quantum Earrings.

Anybody who has any connections to a Native American community has a blood quantum story - actually, probably a series of stories - of how you came to learn about this controversial system of determining Indian identity.

Dorsey herself notes,
As a blonde, blue-eyed enrolled Chickasaw citizen, I have never been a moment without an inner debate about my personal blood quantum fraction. These issues began early on when I was a small child who knew that she was Chickasaw but was afraid that she wouldn't be if she got a cut and bled out all of her "indian blood." Yes, unfortunately for many a Native American identity gets rather complicated and confusing.
Native American identity is very complicated, and like most artists, Dorsey uses her medium of choice - metalsmithing - to question norms, to highlight personal experiences, and to incite thoughtful discussions.

Blood quantum might be one of the most controversial aspects of Indian identity. It has a dark history for Native Americans, and it is rooted in European practices of determining lineage. Furthermore, when Native people were first being 'assigned' blood amounts, the process of labeling Indians as either full bloods or half breeds were based upon racism, prejudice, and silly things like hairstyle.

For Dorsey and Southeastern tribes, she explains,
After Southeastern tribes survived the horrific ordeal of the Trail of Tears, they had to face further tactics of colonization and assimilation. These included land ownership and blood quantum (among others). After each removal, the Dawes commission wrote in their "official" books, the Dawes Rolls, documentation of each family in each tribe, detailing who was "full blood", "half blood", who was a non-Indian married to and Indian, and who was a "freedman".

These actions, made long ago, continue to affect how we understand Indian identity today. I can't tell you how many times strangers have said this little ditty: "You're Indian!? How much?"

Of course, I always respond in a way that forces the stranger to realize their ridiculous question of asking me 'how much' I am (come on guys, you all know I'm 100 million percent awesome Native American kung fu).

Some tribes have already realized that blood quantum shouldn't be the basis of determining membership, and they have created, or are working on creating, other membership criteria.

With all this in mind, Dorsey has created a set of earrings that feature numbers to reference the fractions that define our lives and she asks us to question these numbers on a daily basis. She's coupled these numbers with a laser cut barcode to emphasize how we're categorized and counted. One final element - the actual shape of the earring - echos the shape of a drop: a blood drop, but also the many tear drops shed.

You don't like the government's system of math? Neither do I. So respond with your own system of math. These earrings take a jab at Blood Quantum systems, because now you can pick whatever numbers you want. No CIBs required. I'm going to select the numbers 2 and 2, to reference the day I was born, but also to honor my four grandparents and to reference ideas of multiplicity, of duality, and of doubling. Despite the U.S. government's repeated attempts to rid themselves of the 'Indian Problem,' our population numbers are on the rise, and we are regaining strength politically, culturally, and hey, even fashionably.

Read Dorsey's full artist statement on these Blood Quantum Earrings by clicking here.

Click the links below to read more interesting discussions about Blood Quantum:
Love in the Time of Blood Quantum
Will current blood quantum membership requirements make American Indians extinct?
Full Blood, Verifiable Native American: A Weird Experience at Trivia Night


  1. Interesting. Personally I won't be getting a pair of these earrings, not because I don't think they are beautiful and I fully support buying native made, but I don't have any connection or recognize the system of BQ and neither does my nation. We have remained matrilineal. I agree other tribes should determine their own process of enrollment and question the system of BQ. But here is where I question how in promoting these earrings there seems to be a big generalization that all tribes follow BQ and that is simply not true.

  2. Hi Lucifer, yes, I mentioned that some tribes use other requirements when determining membership. But your comment emphasizes my point: even though your tribe doesn't use BQ, you still have an opinion on it, and it still affects how people think about Indian Identity.

  3. I don't think people should let blood quantum effect how they think of themselves. I have always been a "mama's girl" (coincidentally my grandmother's people are matrilineal :) ). My father was adopted so I don't what his heritage is (some kind of European.....) and we aren't close. My grandfather had some welsh blood but he never knew the person. I love my family and I really don't care about a piece of paper. Also I suck at fractions, so I'm generally stuck at "more than a quarter less than half...wait I think I have a scientific calculator app on my phone"