American Indians and Authentic Blood

In Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Dwanna L. McKay explores the “real Indian” trope that polices American Indians. This trope of legitimacy stems from exclusionary policies set by the U.S. government, which regulate who is legally considered an American Indian. It is evoked when those identifying as American Indian are questioned based on legal status, culture, and phenotype. McKay further argues for ceding the scholar as the point of authority and privileging the perspectives of Indigenous people. Indigenous people are more than capable, McKay urges, of telling their own stories and making sense of their own realities.

McKay interviews 45 self-identifying American Indians from 29 different tribes across the United States. She finds that the racialized concepts of blood quantum (ancestry by blood percentage) and “Indian cards” are internalized by American Indians as the most important criteria for authenticity. These cards—racialized objects—are the result of a U.S. government money-saving efforts in which only registered tribes are able to access cards (so-called proof of Indianness). The Indian cards help tie blood quantum to a racial category of American Indian, and they are legitimized in a cultural and communal context that allows American Indians to rationalize their exclusionary nature. That is, American Indians have come, through marginalization by the U.S. government, to view blood quantum as a form of protection, culture, and belonging, and the Indian cards as signifiers of pride, responsibility, and belonging.

Though blood has become racialized, it has other Indigenous meanings that are useful in decolonizing how American Indians are labeled. Blood as a literal and figurative concept is essential for resistance and survival. McKay advocates for resistance against the stagnant racist trope of “real Indians.”

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