By Martin J. Kidston
Four generations on his mothers side are buried on the land of the Fort Belknap Reservation. There, just north of the Little Rockies, Robert Upham was raised as a Gros Ventre Indian proud of his lineage and ancestry, proud of his people and home.
When the time came, Upham went to college, gained working skills and moved to Denver where, as time would have it, he became an apprentice in the fight for Indian rights. Now, 20 years later, Upham wants to return to the land he calls home, to help his people and become, once and for all, a full citizen of the tribal nation.
But theres one problem: He doesnt meet the blood quantum specified by the tribal council. Its a fact, both historical and personal, that Upham is all too familiar with.
Blood quantum, Upham explained, is a tool used to screen tribal applicants by tracing the strength of their Indian lineage. Its a practice he calls racist and oppressive, one that pits tribe against tribe, Indian against Indian. Whats more, the blood quantum, he says, has deep-rooting, negative consequences.
We are the only people in this country that have to prove who we are with a piece of paper, Upham said. Tribal enrollment is racist, and measuring blood quantum is nothing more than political positioning that makes your existence competitive from the day you are born.
Upham said the blood quantum was a practice created by the U.S. government as a means to document the enrollment if tribal numbers. Under the law, it required all American Indians to register and receive an enrollment number, which tied them to a particular tribe.
However, in the mid-1900s, the U.S. government gave tribal councils the right to draw their own requirements for tribal membership. Now, Upham said, some tribes require a blood quantum that can link half of a persons lineage back to the tribe, while other tribes simply require proof of decent. Nevertheless, on the Fort Belknap reservation, like many others, the blood quantum remains, and some American Indians think its time to change that.
I dont agree with some of our tribal policies, Upham said. They want to lower the blood quantum, but I think we should get rid of it altogether. There has to be a way of measuring someones commitment to their own community, their own people, other than through their blood.
Upham said he and many other American Indians are fighting for a naturalization process, similar to what a foreigner might undergo when applying for citizenship in the United States. He said that by testing ones knowledge on areas such as tribal history, tribal language and ones willingness to aid his or her tribal community as a civil servant, would help unify American Indians instead of dividing them on the basis of blood.
We are fighting against each other, trivializing our struggles into a form of club membership, Upham said. Were still defined by the white man and the federal government. Its time we unified as one people.
Coming off the First Nations Stand held in Denver during a March Powwow, Upham and thousands of other American Indians used the event to stir debate in regards to the blood quantum issue.
He plans on approaching the Fort Belknap tribal council on the issue this week.
If a buffalo calf is born, another buffalo cow will take care of it, Upham said. Cattle do not do that, and we are becoming cattle. If you look at cattle in a storm, they face away from it. Buffalo, they face into the storm. We need to be more like the buffalo.