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Blood quantum: Who says who you are?

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PABLO — It’s not everyday that you hear about someone turning down an invitation to the White House in order to fulfill a more local obligation but that’s exactly what a Salish Kootenai College student recently did. Invited to be a youth delegate at the annual Tribal Nations Conference at the White House, Robin Maxkii declined the invitation in favor of speaking at the University of Montana’s Native American Center’s symposium on “Walking Well in the Face of Historical Trauma.” 

While an invitation to the White House might look impressive on her resume, it would not grant her the same opportunity to work on her favorite subject, blood quantum. 

For Maxkii, the choice between working for changes on the blood quantum issue that might affect 547 tribes or further padding her resume with attendance at a Washington conference was clear. Blood quantum always needs explaining. 

In Washington she would be expected to talk to people about Diné, a Navaho college she attended in Arizona, and about her current college, SKC. By attending the U of M conference she could glean useful information to further her blood quantum research. So U of M became the right choice for her.

Maxkii spoke about blood quantum issues at U of M’s Tribal Center for 40 minutes and followed this with a 20 minute question-and-answer period. Quite an accomplishment for a freshman student but then, Maxkii is no ordinary freshman student.

The road from her small reservation in the North, to invitations from the White House, has been richly paved with wide-ranging opportunities. 

Attendance at Diné College, a two-year tribally-controlled college, resulted in two associates of arts degrees, one in Diné studies and another in social and behavioral studies. Elected student body president for all six Diné campuses, not once but twice, she was also the first non-Navajo student elected to their Board of Regents as an executive member.

Using her technology skills, she won two different awards at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Website Design Competition in Billings. 

Technology has been something Maxkii has enjoyed since early on. Her abilities grew from struggles with the cost of technology and software. She taught herself how to get the information she needed from the Internet. With a belief that Indian cultural identity is being taken away, she needed data to back up her belief. 

“The imposed system of requiring blood quantum for tribal enrollment puts a person’s identity outside their control,” she explains. She added, “There are only three systems in the nation that use blood quantum and they are: horses, dogs and Natives.”

As a teenager she committed herself to fight against blood quantum as the determining factor for Native American identity and enrollment. She says it is a system that was put in place by the government to make Indians fail and she thinks eventually blood quantum rules will exclude everyone from belonging to a tribe. Many people marry outside their tribe to non-natives or natives from other tribes, thereby lowering the blood quantum of their children. Maxkii believes how you live and participate in your community should be more important than whether you carry enough blood or hold a card from the government – that outsiders shouldn’t be able to tell you who you are.

According to Maxkii, many people don’t understand that blood quantum can impact Native lives in a myriad of ways. Maxkii explained that even Native people often don’t understand the implications of blood quantum until there is a death, an issue with employment eligibility, school opportunities or healthcare availability. 

Since technology has been an important tool for her research, she was quick to enroll at Salish Kootenai College, one of the few Native American colleges that offer a computer engineering degree. 

“People, native and non-native, come from all over to go to school here,” she said. Maxkii eventually enrolled in both computer science and psychology. 

She said she has felt very supported at SKC even though she understands her area of interest can be a touchy one. 

“This school is so open. The people have been incredibly open,” she states. 

Maxkii admits that blood quantum is no longer the cut-and-dried topic her angry 15-year-old self once thought it to be. She explained that she is now a lot more likely to ask questions than to feel like she has the answers. 

Since attending SKC, she’s learned more about the “gray areas.”

Advisors and instructors have guided her to classes that help her understand the many different nuances of the blood quantum issue and she’s learned that doing research in a proper and ethical way is very important. Being passionate about the topic is not enough and she’s learned to use “facts only” in her research. 

One requirement of her studies at SKC was to attend a Human Potential Seminar. While listening to people talk about what it is like to be Native, she understands now that some Natives don’t want to be someone’s case study and that issues related to blood quantum are often muddled … including what it means to be Native.

Maxkii’s studies in technology provide concrete answers and respite from her research on the more nebulous issues surrounding blood quantum.

Maxkii explains, “There don’t currently appear to be any answers to the blood quantum question. What else would tribes use to determine enrollment?” 

She’s not sure she will be the one to come up with an answer to this quandary but hopes her work will assist someone else in moving enrollment issues forward. If nothing else, she said, she is raising awareness of the many ways blood quantum impacts the lives of Native people.

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