What’s in our Blood?

By: Jaime Battiste, KMKNO Citizenship Coordinator

Over the past several years as the Citizenship Coordinator for Kwilmu’kw Maw-Klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO), I have had many fascinating conversations with different people from throughout our Mi’kmaw communities. Many of these conversations have happened at meetings, while others were at community gatherings, dinner tables or social events, yet many have brought up the same underlying point, “we can’t water down our blood” or “we have to keep our bloodlines strong”. I’ve often pondered during these moments, what is it within our blood that we are trying to maintain? Is there anything within our blood that makes us Mi’kmaq? As a result of the feedback I’ve received and my ongoing research, I have found some information on blood, genetics, and whether there are any biological markers within our blood that makes us Mi’kmaq. In writing this article, I am attempting to share some of the work that has been done on this topic, in order to help us gain a better understanding of exactly what is in our blood, and how it can assists us in defining who we are as Mi’kmaq.

According to the book Race and Reality by Guy Harrison, one of the big stories in the year 2000 was about the mapping of the human genome and the announcement that all humans are 99.9 percent alike. This was not shocking to many scientists who see race as not as scientific or biological phenomenon, but rather a cultural and social phenomenon. This simply means that basically, most of the stereotypes or traits that we attribute to a certain race of people are not a result of what race they were born into but rather what they have been taught.

We have all heard stereotypes about differences in cultures or races, but scientifically there is no proof that certain races are physically any better, or any worse, than other races. Jarred Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author, of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel wrote that, “history followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples environment, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves”.

What the scientists, anthropologists and experts have stated is that there is no biological difference in race. Humans vary physically in appearance -we come in all shapes, sizes, and colors; however nothing within an individual’s blood can identify them as belonging to any specific race. Further to that fact, Guy Harrison writes, “DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable sub-species (races) exist within modern humans”. Therefore, there is nothing in our blood that can be identifiable as being Aboriginal. With this in mind, many people have heard of using DNA to determine whether people belong to a tribe in the USA; however, there are serious concerns in using DNA to determine if one belongs to a tribe or nation such as Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Cherokee, etc.

To try and summarize the problems with DNA, briefly, the current DNA Markers being used by some to identify Native Americans in USA, or Aboriginal in Canada, are not exclusively found in those groups. Rather, these DNA Markers can be found in other populations around the word; they just occur more frequently in Native Americans/Aboriginals. What is even more troubling about trying to use DNA when looking at your biological inheritance is that both women and men only inherit the specific mitochondrial DNA from our mothers. That means that if you look at your great grand-parents, you are getting your inheritance for this test only from your great grandmother, on your grandmother and mother’s side. Therefore, your DNA will not have these markers if any of your other great grand-parents were Aboriginal. Understandably this can be very confusing; however, Berkeley Professor and author Kimberly Tall Bear writes, “science cannot prove an individual’s identity as a member of a cultural entity such as a tribe, it can only reveal one individuals’ genetic inheritance or partial inheritance. The two are not synonymous.”

In the book Beyond Blood, Mi’kmaw Author Pam Palmater (2011) wrote, “the majority of the literature rejects blood quantum on any basis, characterizing such rules as racist criteria that only serve state attempts to assimilate indigenous peoples through blood dilution (out marriage)”. Palmater has gone on to point to the flawed science of eugenics as a reason for the continued use of blood quantum in early government policies. Eugenics was a failed attempt to create policy based on racist notions that believed certain races were inferior to others and created policies surrounding it which led to racist regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Apartheid in South Africa. Yet, in today’s society that recognizes human rights and strives for equality, many tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada under the Indian Act, continue to use blood discourse as part of their determination of who belongs to that tribe or First Nation.

Current registration of status Indians under the Indian Act policy uses terminology of section 6(1) Full status and 6(2) half status to determine whether one is able to pass on their status to their children.

Only 6(1) are able to pass on their status to their children, while section 6(2) can only do so if they have children with another 6(1) or 6(2) registered Indian. According to author Kim Tall Bear, most tribes in the United States use a one-quarter blood quantum rule, meaning that one must show at least one great grandparent as having full blood status; However, Tall Bear and Palmater have cautioned against the use of blood quantum as a part of determining one’s membership or inclusion within a nation. Both point to the calculations that some communities, within just decades, may not have any new children born who are considered part of the Tribe or Status because of mating between recognized status members and those who aren’t, which occurs when individuals marry outside of the tribe, called out-marriage or out-parenting.

In 1967, the United States Supreme Court rejected any furthering of segregation policy preventing two individuals of black and white race from marrying or having kids. In the aptly titled Loving case out of Virginia, Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1967 stated:

Over the years, the court has consistently repudiated distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry as being odious to a free people who institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality…Under our constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state.

It was this Loving case, at least in the United States, that ruled against policies that were based on race, such as segregation; yet in many areas Tribes and the Indian Act continues to follow federal policies created in an era where segregation and racism were the norms.

One of the quotes I found amusing and true from the book Race and Reality, Harrison writes, “People mate frequently with great enthusiasm across whatever cultural borders or artificial barriers have been placed in their way.” In many of the Mi’kmaq communities, we have seen this as a reality where many of our community members have children with those who are not Status Indian. As well there has been custom adoptions where many of our community members originate from those who were adopted into Mi’kmaq communities as opposed to being born Mi’kmaq and have been accepted and admired for their knowledge of Mi’kmaw culture.

In concluding this article, I am aware of the scholar Melissa Meyer who writes: “the metaphorical connection of blood with lineage, descent, and ancestry preceded its literal physiological use and that Indigenous peoples notions of family lineage come close to the origins of the term ‘blood’ than current physiological meanings.” This argument in plain English is that when some people speak of blood, they are not talking about what fluid actually flows in our blood, but rather our heritage from our ancestry and the teachings within our social networks that we wish to preserve; however this begs the question of why would percentage of blood matter in determining then our knowledge of Mi’kmaq teachings.

I have often heard that it is important to remember our teachings and to understand our heritage as part of what is important to being Mi’kmaq. Maybe when we speak of blood, we need to be clear about what we mean, but as of yet, as KMKNO’s Citizenship Coordinator I continue to research and ask questions of what is important to being Mi’kmaq. In closing this article on blood quantum I would like to end with a quote from a book For Indigenous Eyes Only” in hopes of creating some debate or discussion around ideas surrounding blood quantum when Michael Yellowbird (2005) wrote:

“It seems to me that if tribes are determined to maintain the blood quantum system, we must do either of the two following things to avoid ending up with the majority of our tribal population having less than the “required” level of Native blood: (1)Institute an arranged marriage system that ensures our children and grandchildren, who want to have children, marry within the race and tribe so they can produce more “little Indians” with the “proper” blood quantum required by our tribes: or (2) adopt citizenship criteria that do not care whether our children or grandchildren are quarter, half, or full blood but, instead, that they are productive, happy, committed, contributing members of our nations, who will keep our languages alive, protect our homelands and resources, and maintain a tribal way of life based upon the teaching of our ancestors. I personally vote for number two.

Something to think about, as always I look forward to hearing your feedback in community meetings or through emails or conversations.