I’ll Show You My Indian If You Show Me Yours

I’ll Show You My Indian If You Show Me YoursGetty Images / Photo Illustration by Mike Kim

It’s April 2024. As I lift my fifteen-month-old son, Charlie, from his crib at the early hour of 5:29 A.M., I’m enveloped in thoughts not just of our morning routine of changing his diaper and jammies but also of the deep, defining realities shaping his future. I pick him up and in his ear, I whisper, “Gwusis,” the Penobscot word for “little boy,” my mother’s term of endearment for me, now passed to Charlie, the grandson she never met, weaving our language into his early memories. “Kkəseləməl,” I tell him. He smiles, his way of saying I love you, too as we leave the room.

“Let’s go make some coffee,” I say, and Charlie and I descend the stairs.

Mundane yet profound, these moments in the early morning are shadowed by what Mom would call a “Goog’ook,” an evil spirit that will challenge Charlie’s formal and legal connections to his Indigeneity: blood quantum. In the early mornings, it’s as present in my mind as my need for coffee.

Defined as the degree of “Indian blood” one must prove to their tribe in order to be considered a member of a tribe, this measure was historically (and still remains) crafted by colonial powers to regulate and ultimately reduce the populations of Native American Nations. Today, blood quantum is the most widely used way to record “membership,” affecting not just personal identity but also political and social rights. For the Penobscot Nation, your body must contain at least 25 percent Penobscot blood to be considered “Penobscot.”

It’s funny: The first time Charlie bled, it was the same color as mine and his mother’s.

In the kitchen, as the rays of sunlight fill the room, Charlie helps me make coffee. We keep our coffee pods for the Keurig in one of our blue cabinets, where I carry Charlie.

“All right, gwusis,” I say, and I tell him to grab the pod in the cabinet. But he never does. I reach in, grab it, then hand it to him. I move him close to the Keurig, and with his arm stretched out, he sometimes gets the pod in there on the first try. On this day, he doesn’t miss. “There ya go, dude,” I say. “Fucking killing it.”

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Hearst Owned

It’s 5:31 A.M., and Charlie and I stand in the brilliance of our morning. Before I can even say “Tamakαlakittíyene” or “Tamakαlakittiyéhpənene!” he presses the button on the Keurig, and we watch the machine gurgle, splat, and hiss until it’s dripping coffee into the mug, until it’s full and Charlie watches me pour the white almond milk into the black coffee and see it change to the color of wet sand.

When he’s no longer fascinated with the machine, I set him down. He crawls to his toy shelf, where he will reach and grab for everything. Once he gets to the shelf, I am gone, back to constantly considering how blood quantum affects him directly. How it will affect him. How it does affect him, because he is not technically a citizen of the Penobscot Nation.

Nətalətónkαmα—I speak to him—with as much Penobscot as I know and am learning for him, so he knows more than I do and did and perhaps ever will, so that one day he can carry on the tradition of our language better than those like me, me who is covered in the dusty rubble of colonial violence. Nətalətónkαmα—I speak to him—tell him stories of Gluskabe, “the man from nothing,” who in one story shot an arrow into an ash tree and out burst us, the Penobscot. I tell him all I know, our stories that are old in the way the word old is meant to be used. I tell him how Gluskabe fought with Aglabemu, a giant frog, to end a deadly drought, and how Gluskabe, angry at the wind for pushing his canoe away from the ducks he was hunting, sought out Wuchowsen, the giant Wind Eagle, who used its wings to create the wind. I tell him how Gluskabe restrains the Wind Eagle but only later learns that without wind, you can’t have a story.

What will Charlie’s story be, I wonder?

Three hundred nineteen years ago, in 1705, the Colony of Virginia—a place where some say coffee was first introduced—was the location where the idea of Indian Blood Law was created. “Many Native People have become so used to the idea of ‘blood quantum’ (degree of ‘blood’) that the racist origin of this idea is forgotten,” wrote historian Jack D. Forbes. “Its use started in 1705 when Virginia adopted laws which made both a person of American race and a person of half-American race (a ‘half-blood’ in other words) as legally inferior persons.” Fellow historian Patrick Wolfe builds on this by writing that:

any amount of African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical appearance, makes a person Black. For Indians, in stark contrast, non-Indian ancestry compromised their indigeneity, producing “half-breeds,” a regime that persists in the form of blood quantum regulations. As opposed to enslaved people, whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive. In this way, the restrictive racial classification of Indians straightforwardly furthered the logic of elimination. Thus we cannot simply say that settler colonialism or genocide have been targeted at particular races, since a race cannot be taken as given. It is made in the targeting. Black people were racialized as slaves; slavery constituted their blackness. Correspondingly, Indigenous North Americans were not killed, driven away, romanticized, assimilated, fenced in, bred White, and otherwise eliminated as the original owners of the land but as Indians….So far as Indigenous people are concerned, where they are is who they are….

Where they are is who they are; where we are is who we are.

But where are we? And who are we?

Federally recognized tribes have retained the inherent sovereignty to determine “membership” eligibility, and more than half of those tribes have chosen to adopt blood quantum. However, some tribes use both blood quantum and lineal descent to determine tribal eligibility, while some use only lineal descent, either patrilineal or matrilineal. But when citizens marry outside of the tribe (or marry someone who has no Indigenous blood), there is danger for the tribes using blood quantum, that racist and skilled assassin silently committing genocide.

The blood, the very measurement that determines “how Native we are” (as a child, I watched two friends fight over who was more Penobscot based off the percentages listed in our Census book), gets “diluted” the more we marry out and have gorgeous babies, who then grow up and marry out and have more gorgeous babies until the tribe is on the brink of “extinction” based on the measurement of blood. Some tribes have had to change “membership” eligibility by lowering the amount of blood one needs to be enrolled, in order to avoid not extinction but a genocide where simultaneously nobody in the tribe dies yet everyone does, and all the non-Indigenous peoples—I’m talking about you, white people, looking you right in the face—get to enjoy their imperialist nostalgia, where they mourn and grieve the people they caused to be “gone.”

But we wouldn’t be gone—we’d still be right here, wouldn’t we? I’m thinking of the color of Charlie’s blood, thinking about how it looks no different from mine.

Charlie, Nə̀čičis gwusis, my little baby boy, you are so young. One day you won’t be, and when that day comes, you will grow and find what you were meant to be and what you were meant to do. Happiness is the most important thing I hope you carry, a happiness so strong that one day you might be an Indigenous leader—someone who will bring about change in the ways we need, like reclaiming our inherent sovereignty, stolen from us by Congress or in Supreme Court cases whose logic has been dumber than a high school freshman’s. Or an Indigenous teacher, someone continuing to pass down what we have lost in order to regain it. Or an Indigenous engineering environmentalist, working to preserve the earth for the earth’s sake. Or an Indigenous astrophysicist who studies the universe, searching and looking up for our origins. Or maybe you’ll be an Indigenous marine biologist, looking down into the dark. Or maybe you’ll be like an Indigenous welder, dirty and smoking and telling all the stories you know to people who are not Indigenous and didn’t know you were until you said so, and you’re all laughing while on break from building a new bridge and the wind blows.

Happiness, Charlie. Happiness.

Hearst Owned

But listen, nə̀čičis gwusis. Listen. It is probably easier to find out the secret of the universe than it is to change the state of Native Nations in the United States. That one is no easy task. Especially for you, you who comes from the people who burst from the ash tree Gluskabe shot with an arrow, you who are also at the same time not from those people.

You are not technically a citizen of the Penobscot Nation—you are an immigrant, a foreigner, a visitor, a plain old American. You are a person who carries the privilege of passing as white and who carries our language and stories. (Are you a thief?) Despite this, you are not entitled to any and all rights, duties, and privileges that come with “being” Penobscot, even though you carry the intergenerational trauma of our ancestors and are part of the many statistics, the statistics that tell us, that tell you, that we “continue to die at higher rates than other Americans,” that we “face rates of murder, rape, and violent crime…higher than the national averages.” Statistics that tell us, you, that four in five Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and 54 percent have experienced sexual violence. (My mother is not laughing.) Evidence suggests that 90 percent of Native American men “have experienced at least one act of violence committed by an interracial perpetrator.” Our chance of death by suicide is 20 percent higher than any other racial group in the United States.

I can keep going.

Charlie—the federal government has failed to fulfill its Trust Responsibility, its “legal obligation under which the United States ‘has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust’ toward Indian tribes” (Seminole Nation v. United States, 1942). Despite the Biden-Harris Administration’s recent Executive Orders to bolster and fix the federal government’s failed Trust Responsibility, such as awarding Indian Health Services with more funding to undo health disparities and violence against Natives, you, Charlie, a descendant, and all the others out there, are only eligible for such services until the age of nineteen.

To state again: For Indigenous people, the chance of death by suicide is 20 percent higher than any other racial group in the United States, yet when descendants turn nineteen, they are on their own. You will not be, Charlie, because you have your mother and me.

But many others do not have that privilege.

Charlie, it is not your fault that you are not technically Penobscot. It is not my fault. It is not the Penobscot Nation’s or Indian Country’s fault, even though in both places, Indigenous people—myself included—have been internally colonized to the point that some will say you aren’t a skeejin. “You should find yourself a nice Native girl,” a Penobscot woman said to me when I introduced your “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma” to this woman at a powwow long before you existed, long before I ever thought your mother and I would ever have a baby who makes coffee with me in the morning, long before I began worrying about my son, the trauma he carries, the language and stories, and the fact that he is and is not Penobscot.

Back then, as that Penobscot woman walked away from me, I didn’t yet carry the rage I carry now, which compels me to say that if you’re one of those Indians reading this, if you’re like her, go fuck yourself.

Charlie, you are no percentage. You are Penobscot. Full Penobscot. You are from the ash tree. One day you will have questions, like how can you be and not be? I should probably start talking to you about it now. Yeah, I should.

Sepač spαsahkiwike kətalətonkepəna, okay?

“I’m writing an article about blood quantum,” I told my aunt, who is the tribal clerk, over the phone.

“Oh, God,” she said. “Don’t publish it until I retire.”

“Do you plan on retiring in May?”


Do you know what happens when a tribe—let’s say the Penobscot tribe—hears talk about increasing its population? Fear and panic and anger and confusion and so many other unpleasant emotions that snuff out any space to embrace the optimism and opportunity of having more citizens. Those who oppose increasing membership worry about money or tribal per capita (money from investments and other sources of revenue that’s yearly distributed equally among citizens). They also worry about federal funding that supports various programs, like our small Indian Health Clinic, and how, if too many Penobscots exist, the University of Maine system might take away the Native American Tuition Waiver, as they did with taking away free room and board.

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Hearst Owned

Yes, these are all valid concerns. But know—all of you, Indigenous and non-Indigenous—that invested within us, our Nation, is the inherent sovereignty predating the United States and affirmed via law and policy, to direct and build the right kind of structure to increase our population as we see fit to maintain our balance. We have that control, and to use it, to use our inherent sovereignty in any way, is an opportunity to reaffirm Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution (which is in fact rooted in parts of Indigenous ways of governing) that reads, “[The Congress shall have Power...] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes” by which non-Natives, the state and federal governments, can maybe see how important we are to democracy. Three entities, pluralism, maintaining a balance that does not exist but should.

Let it be clear: I am not saying we should or should not increase our population. I am saying we have the power to shape our own future, to build and grow. And so why be frightened? Why, each time this subject is brought up, does most everyone lose their minds? As the overused Chinese proverb goes, “A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind”—the wind from Wuchowsen, the giant Wind Eagle, whom Charlie knows all about.

Once more I will say this: Our people are afraid of the consequences of such a thing. But listen—we have the inherent power to determine what that population increase looks like, and to establish a system that works to maintain what it means to be Indigenous, what it means to be Penobscot.

I hate to ask (this isn’t for the non-Native people reading), but do you—do we—even know what it means to be Penobscot? To be Indigenous?

No, we don’t.

It’s April 2024. The shadows of blood quantum and invasive policies linger, challenging our right to define our identities on our own terms. It’s no longer 5:31 A.M. but 5:32 A.M. The mundane yet profound morning is now unfolding. As Charlie grabs his stuffed kitty and drags it behind him, crawling back to me, the complexities of our situation become clearer: He is constrained by laws and perceptions he will eventually have to navigate. My deepest hope is that by the time he faces these challenges, we will have reshaped what it means to be Indigenous, not through the restrictive lens of blood quantum but through the richness of our stories and the resilience of our continued presence. And I hope our people help him and all the others get there.

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