For unenrolled or disenrolled Native Americans, the most basic of needs can be an endless, pointless journey through tribal bureaucracy 

For Kadin Mills, a first descendant of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, resources offered through his family’s tribe will always be just out of arm’s reach.

He will never be able to call himself a citizen of Keweenaw Bay — and with that comes limits on the sort of benefits, such as health, that he is able to receive. In desperate cases — like when Mills needs a prescription that would simply be too expensive at non-tribal pharmacies — he must depend on good timing, luck, and the generosity of his enrolled family members.

“If my mom has the same prescription, she gives them to me and refills hers,” he said.

Mills is just one of many Native American young adults and youths who are unable to enroll with their tribe, even when one or more of their immediate family members — such as a parent or a grandparent — are enrolled. Most, if not all, federally-recognized tribes rely on blood quantum and lineage requirements to determine whether an individual is eligible for citizenship.

The term “blood quantum” is exactly what it sounds like. It refers to the amount of “Indian blood” a person has — for example, if someone’s grandparent was fully Native, that person’s blood quantum would only be a quarter Native.

According to “American Indians without Tribes in the 21st Century,” a journal article published in the National Library of Medicine, one-third of mixed-race American Indians and one-sixth of single-race American Indians did not respond to questions regarding tribal affiliation or enrollment in the 2000 United States census.

In many tribes, including the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, a minimum of one-fourth of Native American blood is required to enroll. These requirements ice out mixed-race Native Americans such as Mills, something that he said promises a decline in tribal membership and an uncertain future for traditional ways of life.

Kadin Mills, a first descendant of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Courtesy: Kadin Mills

“I think it’s cultural genocide,” Mills said.

During the mid to late 1800s, the United States government began using the blood quantum measure in the hopes that “intermarriage would “dilute” the amount of “Indian blood” in the population,” according to an article by Maya Harmon published by the California Law Review at the UC Berkeley School of Law. The end goal was to breed out Native Americans and assimilate them into white society.

Other tribes, such as the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians in southwestern Michigan, rely on a model of “lineal descendancy,” where a person’s citizenship is determined by their ancestry rather than blood quantum percentage.

Blood quantum, according to an article published by NPR, “What Exactly is ‘Blood Quantum’?”, refers to the amount of “Indian Blood” an individual possesses. The manner in which this is determined is through legal tribal documents issued by a tribal official or government official. The difference with lineal descendancy is when individuals acquire citizenship by proving they have ancestors previously part of indigenous groups.

While uncommon, Mills pointed out that this model has significant potential to reshape tribal communities.

“I think that that’s the future of our communities, at least in this area,” he said.

Native Americans who are enrolled with any of the 574 federally-recognized tribes in the United States have access to benefits such as free or low-cost healthcare, subsidized housing and universal basic income, which grants citizens consistent payment to support during any socioeconomic struggle. In most tribes, no such benefits are offered to lineal descendants, even when a child’s parent is an enrolled citizen.

For Mills, whose mother is an enrolled member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, access to healthcare services has been a rocky journey, riddled with countless obstacles, financial barriers and disappointing dead-ends.

After his dad became unemployed and lost their health insurance over a year ago, Mills sheepishly explained that he hadn’t been to the dentist in over a year despite needing prescription toothpaste.

Even the primary care he once received as a student at Northwestern University was no longer accessible.

He believes that if Keweenaw Bay followed a citizenship model similar to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the quality of life for tribal members and their families would be much better.

“I think that it really hurts our ability to offer programs and services to people who are subject to ongoing cultural genocide that is blood quantum,” Mills said. “You keep them from actually accessing that culture and being able to be active participants in their communities.”

Even enrolled tribal members aren’t necessarily in the clear when it comes to citizenship. Such is the case with Summer Paa’ila-Herrera Jones, whose family was disenrolled from the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in 2004.

At the time, Jones was only six years old; she said she still struggles to fully understand what led to the situation.

“I feel like I don’t have a whole grasp of the whole picture of what happened to our family or why,” Jones said. “That’s a really hard thing to grow up in. I knew the term disenrollment. But what does that mean to a six-year-old?”

Jones said that she believes that around 210 tribal members — about 25 percent of Pechanga’s membership — were disenrolled. She was one of 76 children who were impacted by the disenrollment.

“In the name of sovereignty, it happened,” she said.

Disenrollment, while uncommon, is a serious matter, as enrollment status holds power, security and privilege that an individual might not otherwise have. In the case of the Nooksack Tribe of Washington state, over 306 tribal citizens were disenrolled in 2018; 63 of these disenrolled citizens were evicted from federally-subsidized housing on tribal land.

In Jones’ case, her family was outcast socially by enrolled members of the tribe, who she said treated them poorly and discriminated against them due to their enrollment status.
“[This woman] had confronted my mom at the clinic and basically said, ‘you’re not welcome here. You’re not allowed to come here with your kids. You don’t get services here,” Jones recalled. “She [had known] me since I was born.”

After this encounter, Jones’ parents began taking her and her siblings to a health clinic on the Rincon Indian Reservation in San Diego, a 45-minute drive from the Pechanga reservation where Jones’ family lived. As an adult, Jones said that she still experiences significant anxiety and stress around making appointments for her health, even when it comes to primary care.

“To have [the disenrollment] at the forefront, when I’m literally just trying to get a teeth whitening appointment, it can be a struggle,” she said, chuckling.

“I feel like it’s still like really, I don’t know, kind of taboo or strange to talk about,” Jones said. “I do feel like my family has suffered this extra layer of trauma that is very much invisible to people in society, but also to people within the Native community.”