Oregon Family at Heart of Sticky Issue: Does Intermarriage Threaten Native American Culture?

Richard Cockle, The Oregonian, November 6, 2009

Aaron Luke is only 7, but his father, Marcus Luke, is already coaching him on whom to marry when he grows up: a Native American.

It’s ironic advice from a man who married a white woman and still takes grief for it from relatives. But intermarriage has become so rampant, says Marcus Luke, that Natives are in danger of losing their culture.

“It’s a touchy issue. It’s tough, really tough,” says Luke, 38, who lives near the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton with his wife, Rachel, and their son. “Too much assimilation is what it comes down to. My son is half Native American and half Caucasian. Which way does he go?”

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For both individuals and tribes, questions surrounding intermarriage strike at the heart of what it means to be a Native American. Just how much “blood quantum”–a term U.S. officials coined in the 19th century–does it take to be considered a Native American?

And where do tribes set the bar for enrollment? If they set it too high, they risk shutting out members and dwindling into oblivion; too low, and they spread resources too thin or render their identity meaningless. The proliferation of casinos has raised the financial stakes.

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“We do need to let the people know, ‘If you continue on this way, there will be a sunset to our tribe, maybe in 70 or 80 years,'” he [Brooklyn D. Baptiste, vice chairman of the tribal government at Idaho’s Nez Perce Reservation] says. “What is the point of fighting for all these treaty rights if there is nobody left to exercise them?”

Estimates of intermarriage rates are imprecise. A 2000 book by Harvard professor Werner Sollors says more than half of married Native American adults in the U.S. in 1990 were married to a non-Native. The Encyclopedia of American History puts that number at about two-thirds in 2000.

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Paradoxically, intermarriage has played a role in increasing the Native population. The U.S. census counted just 240,000 American Indian, Eskimo and Aleut in 1900, down from estimates of as many as 12 million or more in North America before Europeans arrived.

But last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the American Indian and Alaska Native population at more than 3 million (nearly 5 million counting those who identify themselves as Natives of mixed race), with 54,000 in Oregon. Those numbers are expected to grow.

Not everyone thinks intermarriage is a problem. Joseph Myers, executive director of the National Indian Justice Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., says Natives should focus on educating people about their heritage.

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The issue is playing out in varied and unexpected ways. At the Nez Perce Reservation, members must be one-quarter Nez Perce to qualify for tribal enrollment. That’s excluded about 200 young residents from the tribe’s enrollment of about 3,400.

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Nationally, a trend is under way to boost membership by lowering blood-quantum requirements, says Garrison of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation, for example, requires only that candidates prove descent from a Native American who lived there between 1896 and 1907, he says.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation accepts anyone with an enrolled parent or grandparent and who can prove they have one-quarter Native blood from any federally recognized tribe.

At the same time, a trend of “disenrolling” members is gaining momentum on other reservations. {snip}

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Rene Granados, 34, is also among those who saw tribal status slip away. Granados, a truancy officer on the Umatilla reservation and one-sixteenth Native American, qualified for enrollment in Oklahoma’s Delaware Tribe as a child. But her mother procrastinated. By the time she tried to enroll her daughter in the 1990s, the tribe had changed its blood-quantum requirement to one-eighth.

Now Granados doesn’t qualify for a share of Delaware tribal lands, dividends, education or other benefits that were birthrights of her grandfather.

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