The Benefits of Being Indian: Blood Quanta, Intermarriage, and Allotment Policy on the White Earth Reservation, 1889-1920

By Ellinghaus, Katherine | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June-September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Benefits of Being Indian: Blood Quanta, Intermarriage, and Allotment Policy on the White Earth Reservation, 1889-1920


Ellinghaus, Katherine, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


Between 1889 and 1920 the allotment policy imposed by the US government on the peoples of the White Earth Reservation made tribal membership, once regulated by the Anishinaabeg themselves, an unstable and treacherous issue. Suddenly, no one really knew how to tell whether someone was entitled to call him-or herself Anishinaabe. Was it "because my folks knew her Grand parents and God hears what I said to be true [and] [m]y mother always said so," as Joseph Bellanger testified in 1897? (1) Or did the receipt of shares in tribal benefits demonstrate it, however small? This was what John and Maryann Clermont argued in 1891, sharing their recollection of Maryann's mother with government officials: "She gave mi wife a blanket. She told her in mi presen[ce] there is your share mi daughter." (2) Was it a matter of lifestyle or appearance, as the Circuit Court of Appeals heard in 1917? "She wore her hair down her back, made moccasins for sale, did bead work ... was an Indian doctor and midwife; she walked pigeon-toed, as most Indian women do ... she lived in a tepee," testified one witness on behalf of an applicant for tribal membership. (3) One thing was for certain--tribal identity was increasingly something regulated not by the Anishinaabeg themselves but by the US government. Even for the government this was a difficult task, as William M. Campbell, the first chairman of the Chippewa Commission, realized early in his term. "[T]here may be many difficulties ahead of me that I do not yet see," he wrote in 1894. "I have submitted a number of questions to the Secretary of the Interior for the purpose of securing his opinion, among which [is] ... 'Who is a Chippewa?'" (4)

The policy of allotment enacted by the United States government in 1887 and imposed unevenly on the indigenous peoples of that land was an instrument of some cruelty applied in the name of philanthropy and economics. Seeking to make Native American people self-sufficient, to break up tribal governments, and to stop Indians from being a financial drain on the government, allotment policy envisaged reservation lands divided into individual blocks handed over, welcome or not, to Indian people. The act allowed for a large amount of "surplus" land to pass immediately into the hands of white Americans. Thus, in 1934, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier reported to the Senate and House Committees on Indian Affairs a shocking statistic: that due to allotment policy Indian landholdings had been reduced from 138,000,000 acres in 1887 to 48,000,000 acres. (5) In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though, this breathtaking loss of land was still the unarticulated outcome of a complicated bureaucratic process. To allot land, the government had to undertake a mammoth administrative task. Indian nations had to be enumerated and listed on census rolls that were then used to calculate and allocate parcels of land. These rolls had to be constructed by agents in the field, in trying physical conditions, with often uncooperative subjects and blurry instructions from the Office of Indian Affairs on how the enumeration should be undertaken, how it should be advertised, how to deal with those who protested their own exclusion or demanded someone else's, and much confusion about who was, actually, an "Indian," particularly after decades of intermarriage between whites, Indians, and African Americans.

The policy makers who dreamed up allotment were seduced by the simplicity of the solution, and had little realization of how contested Indian identity might become once connected with rights to land. The Dawes Commission, the body established to allot the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles) in 1894, noted in its annual report for 1909 that the "magnitude of the work originally provided for by Congress ... was never fully realized even by those most closely associated with it until it was well under way, and the natural and unforeseen obstacles in the way of the completion of this task were materially augmented by the persistence shown by those whose claims were rejected by the department. …

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