Who is considered Iroquois? Who belongs, who does not, and who gets to decide? ...
These definitions and designations form the basis of hiring, tribal rights including voting, participation in ceremonies, residency options, and other components of cultural and community participation.
Traditionally, Haudenosaunee/Iroquois membership was inherited solely through the women’s lines. Today most communities in the Six Nations Confederacy still proudly uphold this foundational structure. However, centuries of contact and intermarriage with other Native groups and non-natives have increasingly changed the once homogeneous composition of Haudenosaunee families and communities. Today, the objective of building and growing community, while preserving the character and integrity of Haudenosaunee culture has produced a surprising conundrum.
Positions on these complex concerns vary widely across Iroquois Country, from individual to individual, from community to community. We invite you to consider their political, and often polarizing, ramifications through the creative commentary that comprises this exhibition.
Identity/Identify was partially funded with support from a Humanities NY Action Grant. Project advisors Andrea Chrisjohn and Melanie Printup Hope. Panel design by Richard Skiermont of Ditch.
Would the Real Indian Please Stand Up?
What is blood quantum and why does it matter? Blood quantum standards determine tribal status by mathematical equation rather than cultural practices, knowledge of history and language, or contributions to the community.
While the concept dates to the 1700s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (USA) began using blood quantum laws for identification of Native people in 1934. Certified Degree of Indian Blood cards were issued and benefits distributed accordingly. An individual’s quantum numbers are based on his/her direct relationship to enrolled original members of a Native nation. Despite its scientific sounding name, blood quantum is not based on a biological test, but rather on tribal and/or census records.
Its true intention is not without concern, as Native scholar Elizabeth Rule explains. “It’s really been a societal project to racialize what is actually a very diverse group of political entities and sovereign nations. Blood quantum emerged as a way to measure Indian-ness through a construct of race so that over time Indians would literally breed themselves out and rid the federal government of their legal duties to uphold treaty obligations.”
For many Haudenosaunee, these persistent remnants of colonization in the form of federally issued identification cards attesting to one’s degree of Native-ness based on blood quantum continue to evoke resentment and challenge Indigenous sovereignty. While most tribes recognize their own membership standards, the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin currently employs such a system. In 2019 the Oneida Trust & Enrollment Committee recommended a reevaluation of their membership criteria. “Today, enrollment is necessary to receive most of the tribe’s benefits, and enrollment is contingent upon having at least 1/4 Oneida blood quantum. This is a concept that would be foreign to our ancestors. Our ancestors identified fellow Oneidas by clan identity, by family connection, by a common language and by shared values, beliefs, and more.”
Among both individuals and leadership across the Confederacy there is pressing concern that a blood quantum standard will result in cultural extinction in a not so far off future. Others reject it on the basis of its opposition to traditional ways which impart membership through the mother’s lineage.
Inclusion -- Exclusion
“For reasons that have escaped the most astute philosophers, most societies are obsessed with separating their populations into smaller groups, usually for the purposes of throwing rocks at one another.” David Arv Bragi, Muscogee Nation.
While mixed race partnerships are not uncommon among Haudenosaunee their repercussions can be significant in terms of how an individual identifies, how that identification is perceived, questioned, and sometimes challenged. It can also determine where one resides and, in the case of the communities in Canada, not so long ago precipitated the permanent or temporary loss of an individual’s Native status.
Touted as a measure intended to accelerate assimilation, the Indian Act of 1876 outlined the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government. Most significantly the Act defined who could, and by what means, hold Native status. Under this ruling, First Nations women who married non-natives found their membership and land rights revoked, while non-native women who married Native men and their children were granted enrollment.
The Elephant in the Room
In 1985 the Indian Act was challenged as gender discriminatory and Bill C31 introduced, reinstating status to women and their offspring impacted by the earlier law. Despite its apparent attempt to address discrimination, approximately 60% of the Mohawks of the community of Kahnawake recently expressed opposition to Bill C31. Core to this resistance is that the Bill undermines the authority of the Mohawk Council to determine its own membership.
Concerns for the burden an expanded population would put on Kahnawake’s limited land base and resources were raised, but an equally common concern is less quantifiable. A community member explains, “This will clearly extend eligibility to hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom were not raised with an Indigenous identity, traditions, language, customs, etc. This will transform, unjustifiably, the very fabric of what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada.”
Membership, or what Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson calls “the conditions of belonging,” remains a point of unresolved contention in many Haudenosaunee communities. It is a pivotal question on which the future and unity of Haudenosaunee communities rests uneasily.