Updated: 11:15 a.m.
Residents of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota are wrestling with questions of identity, culture, the possibility of losing their lands or even disappearing completely.
At the center of this is blood quantum, the system imposed by the U.S. government to determine tribal membership. A new Wilder Foundation Research study projects that unless there is a major change to the criteria, Red Lake, like many tribes across the nation, faces catastrophic population loss in coming years.
Wilder Research scientist Nicole MartinRogers is blunt about what's ahead for the Red Lake Nation.
"A tribal population that is right now about 16,000, is going to drop to 1,000 people potentially or under in the next 100 years, if they continue to maintain their current enrollment criteria of one-quarter blood quantum,” she said. “That's a pretty scary thing."
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To be enrolled at Red Lake an individual must have at least a quarter Red Lake blood. As time passes that's increasingly difficult to maintain. Critics say that's deliberate as the U.S. government has used blood quantum to limit tribal benefits.
‘The writing is on the wall’
MartinRogers helped project the Red Lake population numbers after working on a similar study for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe or MCT. It governs six of the state's seven Anishinaabe tribes. Red Lake is not a member. MartinRogers says that study projected similar results — a steep population decline over the next century. And she says the findings have broader implications.
"The writing is on the wall, the tribe really does need to, and not just Red Lake Nation, but other tribes are going to have to grapple with this because this is a reality if a tribe is using a quarter blood quantum that is coming down the road,” MartinRogers said. “And so, I think it's important for other tribes to look at as well and understand what's happening."
Six possible options
At Red Lake’s request, Wilder presented six options for going forward. Four, all involving blood quantum in some way, project major population losses over time. This was even if the formula involves descendants of other federally recognized tribes and Canadian first nations.
The other two projections use a lineal system based on a Red Lake membership roll created in 1958. Under those projections all descendants from that list would be eligible for Red Lake membership, no matter their blood quantum.
"That scenario results in very significant population growth, both for Red Lake Nation and for Minnesota Chippewa Tribes," MartinRogers said.
Both projections related to Red Lake would see membership numbers swell to between 56,000 and 82,000. One of those scenarios staggers enrollment over a 10-15 year period so Red Lake's infrastructure isn't overstressed.
‘A termination-era policy’
At a recent listening session at Red Lake, Tribal Secretary Samuel Strong said the idea of blood quantum was a termination-era policy imposed on Red Lake and other Indigenous nations.
"It's really not our traditional way. And in fact, it's a tool that was meant to divide our people to eliminate our people. And so, I think it should be talked about in that truth and that reality, and that we need to change it,” Strong said. “We need to embrace that change, otherwise, our future won't be protected.”
Strong added, not only does blood quantum reduce federal obligations over time, but it could also lead to the government taking reservation lands.
"They only use blood quantum to define, like dogs and horses and Indians, right? I've heard that said before, and I think from that standpoint, moving away from blood quantum is a must, right?” Strong said.
Red Lake has struggled with blood quantum in the past. In 2019, they amended their constitution so that every member who was on the 1958 base roll was changed to 4/4 degree of Indian blood. In turn, all of their descendants' blood quantum also changed. While that increased enrollment numbers by around 3,000 it wasn't enough.
Strong says out of the scenarios offered by Wilder Research, he favors the lineal descendance model phased in over time.
“That allows us to build our membership, maintain our lines, our unbroken line of band members and do it in a way that our resources are capable of handling and that our people are capable of embracing," he said.
Former executive administrator, Thomas Cain Jr., said the original draft of Red Lake's constitution included lineal descent but was later changed. He thinks it should revert.
“That's the direction we need to be going in now to stay above water with our enrollment,” Cain said. “So, I think that there needs to be much, much more dialogue on this issue. And I'm sure there will be in the near future."
Tribal Secretary Strong said this is a discussion about what it means to be a part of a nation.
"Being a Red Laker means your identity, your language and your culture, and your physical appearance is far less important than what's inside the human being," he said.
There is a lot at stake, and a lot to discuss. Strong says after educating the community in coming months and hearing feedback the next step will be meeting with tribal leaders to decide a course of action.
Correction (Jan. 4, 2023): An earlier version of this story misidentified Thomas Cain Jr. in a caption. The story has been updated.