is a bodily substance and a rich and handy referent to a host of social
meanings. “Blood is thicker than water”. Blood is not just a
fluid it is also a permanent biogenetic relationship “thick” with
obligations. Blood can be the symbolic vehicle for the emotions of social life
“His blood is up” and “there is bad blood between them“.
During the War in Vietnam, soldiers identified as African American were
referred to (and referred to themselves) as “bloods” “One of
the bloods was killed today.” Here “blood” stands in for
“blood” is not a static repository of linked social meanings, it is a
flexible sorting tool. It can include or exclude. It depends on who is wielding
it and for what purpose.
1887, the Dawes Act gave the Federal government the authority to break up
Indian reservations into “allotments” to be doled out to individuals
and owned on a fee simple basis. The de jure purpose was to hasten the
assimilation of Native Americans into (capitalist) society. The de facto result was that 100 million
acres of Native American treaty land was opened to development. In order to preserve the fiction of
“fair” allotment, the Federal government had to count Native
Americans. In order to count Indians they needed a measurement of “Indian-ness”. From the current Bureau of
Indian Affairs website (note that the B.I.A does not put quotation marks around
the word blood):
Blood quantum is the amount of Indian blood you possess as determined by the number of generations of Native people you descend from, and it is the process that the federal government uses to determine whether they consider you a Native American or not.
Bureau of Indian Affairs
“full blooded” parent makes you 1/2 Indian. One “full
blooded” great grandparent makes you 1/8 Indian etc. Depending upon the
tribe, a fraction less than 1/4 may make a person “non-Indian” and ineligible
for tribal membership. One drop of Native American blood does not an Indian
“blood” fractions were (and are) totally foreign to Native American culture and
they were not based on any scientific theory. But they were based on ideas of
relatedness still held by “white” people and these ideas provided cover for
powerful economic interests to subtract Native Americans from their land and
reduce the Federal government’s financial obligations to ever fewer “Indians”.
Contrast this to the “one drop rule” under which
any person with one ancestor of African descent was legally a “negro”. Why
weren’t the children fathered on enslaved women by “white” owners considered
The ownership of human beings had to be
justified on the basis of the “natural” biological inferiority of the “race” being
owned. Linked metaphors of race supplied by notions of “white” and “black” reinforced
the hierarchy of slave ownership. The color white is achromatic. If colors are mixed
into it, it is no longer white. A substance is “pure” when it has no
other substance commingling with it. For
the slaveholders of the South who labeled themselves “white”, one
“drop” of “black” blood was a demarcating impurity that
separated “white” from “black”.
Given that there is
no black or white on the color wheel of human skin, why the insistence on an
imagined impurity? For one, the putative superiority of the owners was a belief
which needed to be tightly held. Moreover, the “one drop rule” had the fiscal benefit
of adding to the number of human assets on the owners’ ledgers. Fractions of
blackness in children were rounded up to whole numbers of slaves.
Blood quantum is subtractive
for Native Americans. They are meant to disappear. Blood quantum for “black”
people is additive, a mark of inferiority that never disappears.
The moral of the story is this: when the
ravening maw of capitalism has to be fed, pay attention to the pronouns. Better
it should happen to “them” than to “us”. Pay attention to the words used to decide who “they” are.