Baby Veronica Case Stirs Questions About Blood Quantum: Hear Our Special Report
The legal battle over custody of Veronica Brown has brought up a rarely asked question: Who is a Cherokee?
The United States Supreme Court points out that Veronica is just 1.2 percent Cherokee. Yet she is entitled to full membership in the tribe and the legal protections that come with it.
Article Four of the Cherokee Nation constitution addresses citizenship. The requirements are simple, laid out in a few seconds by Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree.
"All citizens of Cherokee Nation must be original enrollees or descendants of original enrollees of the Dawes Commission Rolls," Hembree said. "There is no blood quantum requirement."
Yet the Supreme Court opinion in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl mentions Veronica's blood quantum four times. The assertions that she's 3/256 Cherokee don't sit well with the tribe, said Jason Aamodt, an attorney focused on tribal issues.
"It's described, I think, accurately by some Indian activists, this question of blood quantum, as a racial question -- a very charged racial question," he said.
Hembree has a bleaker view.
"Blood quantum is genocide in slow motion," he said. "The whole idea of the federal government imposing the blood quantum requirements of a half or a quarter was to eventually breed out the Indian tribes and assimilate them into the dominant society."
This description of ancestry has a limited use — a use many with a different perspective of it would like to see disappear.
"Blood quantum only comes into play when you're talking about Indian ancestry," Hembree said. "I believe it was a flawed system in the beginning and will do all I can to educate the general populace as to why we should not be paying that much attention to blood quantum today."
"How much American are you?" Aamodt asks. "Are you half American? Or 25 percent American? Or 100 percent American? And how does that relate to what your blood quantum is?
"Doesn't relate to it at all. It's the same thing with Cherokees and Chickasaws and Choctaws and every other Indian tribe," he said.
Blood quantum is still a factor in the federal government's relationships with Native American tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs issues a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) so people can prove their blood quantum.
Several tribes still use it to determine membership, requiring degrees ranging from 1/32 to 5/8.
Hembree said although the Cherokee Nation has no blood quantum requirement, obtaining citizenship is not easy. Applicants must have original birth or death certificates tracing their lineage to people listed on the Dawes Commission Rolls, which were mostly completed by 1907.
"We go over that documentation with a fine-toothed comb, and we reject hundreds, if not thousands, per month," Hembree said.
While lineage is important to the Cherokees, dedication and service to the tribe is valued even more.
"How much Cherokee you are is not how much is on the back of your CDIB card," Hembree said. "You know, it's what you feel in your heart, and what you do for your community, your Cherokee brothers and sisters."
It's been said that John Ross, the principal chief who led the tribe along the Trail of Tears, was only 1/8 Cherokee.