The Difficult Math Of Being Native American
"It's a question that people have asked me, and that I sometimes wonder about myself," my friend says. "Are you only with him because he's Native?"
She's sitting outside at a picnic table. I can smell the desert and the cigarette smoke through the phone.
"And I guess the answer is that it's not not because he's Native. You know?"
I do know.
She and I were raised by different tribes on reservations 3,000 miles apart. As children, though, we internalized the same directive: Find yourself a Native man. Good blood for your babies.
I know how messed up it sounds. But it's about survival.
They're called blood quantum laws. Lots of Native nations use them to determine who can and can't enroll as a citizen. Here's how it works: Track down a tribal census document from the 1800s. Assume every person listed was a certified, "full-blooded" Indian and do the math from there. Choose an arbitrary fraction to serve as your citizenship cut-off. And if anyone's personal fraction happens to fall below that standard, they're out of luck. Traditional or not, blood quantum is the law of the land. You either buy in or you die out. Just another colonial reality we have little choice but to participate in.
For me, the hierarchy has always been clear—if not Mashpee Wampanoag then Aquinnah or Herring Pond. If not Wampanoag then Narragansett. Then Pequot. And if you find yourself too far from home to lock down an Eastern Woodlands man to father your children, he damn well better be Indigenous to somewhere on this continent.
Incidentally, the man I love now looks uncannily like John Smith from the Disney Pocahontas movie. He is German. Maybe English. He's not sure how much of either, and no one ever asks. Sometimes he'll ask me, "Is there any part of you that wants me to be different?" What he means is, do I ever find myself wishing he were Native. Three years into our relationship, I'm still not sure how to answer.
It's odd to think about high school-aged me, on the lookout for an Indian baby daddy. Especially because, even now, I'm not sure if motherhood is something I want for myself. But at 14 and 15, I was meeting Native boys on the powwow circuit and running equations in my head. How much Indian "blood" did he have? What kind? Did his fraction plus mine equal legitimate tribal citizenship for our offspring? Would his brown skin and high cheekbones survive the wild labyrinth of our genes so that my babies might not have to fight to be seen as Indigenous?
On the phone, my friend tells me that her current beau checks most of these boxes. They've only been together for two months, but she's done the math. (1/4 + 5/8) ÷ 2 = 7/16 and just like that, their babies will be Indian enough. The hard part is over. All that's left to do is fall in love and stay there.
Here's the thing about blood quantum: it's not real. It has no basis in biology or genetics or any Indigenous tradition I'm aware of. It's a colonial invention designed to breed us out of existence. But it's got all these smart people—traditionalists, university students, Indigenous language revitalists—running around doing mental math, convinced it's our best shot at keeping our cultures alive.
I won't pretend that I'm above it. The prospect of having kids even more mixed than I am makes me anxious. If, in a century, the Wampanoag tribe no longer exists—if we lose our land, our traditions, our language—will it be my fault? If my babies end up looking like him, if they feel more white than Wampanoag, have I wasted my ancestors' sacrifices?
My mom's five-year-old foster sons are blonde-haired and blue-eyed and right now they're learning to count in Wôpanâak. Pâsaq, nees, nuhsh, yâw, the words sound at home in their voices. "Savannah," they asked me once, "How come you're Wampanoag?" And I said, "How come you are?" They considered the question for a moment, then one of them piped up, "We're Wampanoag because our mom made us that way." I knew just what he meant because mine did, too.
My boyfriend also wants to learn the language. When we visit my mom, he points to labels placed around the house to help the kids build vocabulary and reads them aloud. Ushqôt, kunakuneek, wunôk, I repeat each word with the correct pronunciation and he tries again.
I love him because he can gut a fish and make a friendship bracelet, because he's 6'3" and he sings in the bathtub, because he asks for one French braid when he wants to look fancy and two when he needs cheering up. Do I want him to be different? God, no. But when I think about the future—not just mine but my tribe's, all of Indian Country's—I start to doubt myself.
One thing I know now that I didn't three years ago: If we have kids together someday, it won't be their blood that makes them Wampanoag.
Most days I think I'm done doing mental math. No more worrying that I'm being selfish, that I'm letting colonialism do its job. But when the guilt and the self-suspicion creep up on me, he will be there. He'll tumble onto the couch, arms outstretched, waiting for me. And together we'll divide 100 by itself.