It’s a pretty common question, and usually asked innocently. But if you’ve ever delivered the ‘how much’ question to a Native person and seen them bristle, or choose their next words extra carefully, there’s a reason. Natives are the only people asked to document, prove, or quantify their ethnic identity. Think about it. Do you ask a Black person how much Black they are?
It’s easy to be curious about Native cultures. There’s nothing wrong with that. Indian Country is a world many Americans have little or no knowledge of. Most Natives are happy to share about their cultures in the spirit of education and cultural progress. But these are some of the reasons the ‘how much’ question is not constructive to those ends.
It’s Super Personal
Before getting into any underlying history or cultural background, it’s just an intensely personal question. A stranger shouldn’t have to account for their family history on the spot. So if you’re going to approach this topic at all, make sure you’ve established an appropriate level of trust and friendship first.
Furthermore, Native family histories are almost without exception steeped in pain and intergenerational trauma. A Native might look white because four generations back their great-grand escaped from the physical and sexual abuses of a residential school, married white to have white-looking kids, and dropped the culture and language to keep those kids safe. The fact that they did so may be the only reason this person is alive to tell.
Alternatively, a Freedman (that is, a self-emancipated slave who joined a Native tribe) or their descendent may not have a drop of ‘Indian blood,’ but might still be Native.
Many Natives don’t fit what you might think of as ‘looking Native’. There’s a history there. And it doesn’t make for light conversation on the subway. So have good manners.
Blood Quantum is a Racist Invention Used by Colonists and Nazis
But now to the deeper issue. The ‘how much Native are you’ question refers to a thing called blood quantum, or BQ. It’s the idea that you can be ‘half Asian’, ‘one sixteenth Jewish’, or ‘a quarter Cherokee.’ It’s not an Indigenous concept. In fact, it’s rooted in a racist European idea called eugenics, which arose from the same culture that brought us such treasures of world heritage as post-industrial child labor, flavorless food, clamp-kneed prudery and terrible hygiene: Victorian England!
European eugenics is a pseudo-scientific method of controlled human reproduction aimed at ‘breeding out’ undesirable qualities. Colonial Australia explored this during the stolen generation with their efforts to ‘breed out the black’ from indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations. It was pioneered by the first American colonists here on Turtle Island as a way to deal with the ‘Indian problem.’ The idea, in short, is if they breed Natives with white people long enough, they’ll disappear.
The American weaponization of blood quantum and eugenics against the Indigenous was so admired by Hitler that he used it as the basis for his own genocidal breeding program to extinguish Jewishness.
You read that right. America’s genocide against Natives inspired the Jewish holocaust. Asking ‘how much Native are you?’ expresses verbal support for this crusade.
The One Drop Rule, BQ’s Opposite
Here’s part of why blood quantum doesn’t make sense. It’s the inverse of the ‘one drop rule,’ which said that if an American had one drop of African blood, they were counted as Black, and treated as inferior. With Natives, the colonial institutions demands the opposite: you have to have a certain amount of drops of blood to qualify. Why the difference? Because America needs black bodies for slave labor and incarcerated labor. But it needs Native bodies to disappear altogether. Two different goals, two opposite ‘blood drop’ rules.
Both rules are racist. Neither is rooted in anything even resembling good science. But they’ve been used to strategically marginalize those the founding fathers wanted to keep suppressed, and to subtly indoctrinate the dominant populous against people of color.
Asking ‘how much Native are you’ perpetuates the ongoing genocide of disappearance by making an appeal to eugenics. You didn’t know that when you asked it, so it’s cool. But now you know.
Non-Natives Using BQ to Speak Over Native Voices
Native communities suffer when white-passing, white-coded colonial folks without cultural knowledge (in short, non-Natives) use commercial DNA test results or even family rumor to claim they represent Native voices. Some have become infamous and even risen to office on the winds of such lies. The danger of these ‘pretendians’ is no joke.
Let’s say a pretendian proclaims that the Redsk*ns logo doesn’t offend them, and therefore is not racist. This flies in the face of Native voices that have overwhelmingly decried racist sports logos since forever. But, empowered by the pretendian’s proclamation, racists will more boldly declare that if their ‘Native’ friend isn’t offended, the logo isn’t problematic at all. Other Natives must just be too sensitive. And so the racism and genocide continue, virtually unobstructed.
People using blood quantum to speak over Native voices do real damage to Native communities.
BQ Destroys Native Communities From the Inside, Too
There’s a flipside, as well. Blood quantum destroys Native communities from the inside.
Native ancestry is a treasure and a privilege. But blood quantum gives a convenient, culturally arbitrary yardstick for measuring one’s ‘Nativeness.’ Many ‘full-blood’ Natives are proud to be full-bloods, and it’s easy to see why. Almost anyone would be. But rifts can form within a tribe between those who ‘look Native’ and the ‘thin-bloods.’
Over the generations, many Natives have internalized the racist construct of blood quantum as they’ve watched their cultures erode and their people change in physical characteristics. It can be frustrating and sad, but Natives infighting about who’s ‘more NDN’ only destroys the communities further. Every time this happens, a ghostly cackle seems to echo from Washington, D.C. Blood quantum is a spectre that haunts us from within and without.
What to Say When Someone Says They’re Native
If someone tells you they’re Native, ask them which Nation they’re from (pro tip: ‘tribe’ is fine, but using ‘Nation’ instead acknowledges sovereignty and shows respect for culture). Ask whatever questions curious you has about their culture and background. In most cases, they’ll be happy to share whatever’s appropriate for public knowledge. Acknowledge your ignorance. Don’t stress about it. Respect their boundaries. Ask what you can do to support Native communities. Talk to them like a normal person, because they are. But don’t ask them to corroborate their identity claim with an appeal to the racist concept of blood quantum. Now you know, and now you can be a better ally.