ligika | catalyze
Yuguunga & Feelings of Validity typography
Legislative aide questions blood quantum and legal tools of Native identity
By Naruyaq’ Delaney Thiele (Yup’ik/Dena’ina)
I have been experiencing a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows. I find myself being grateful for the time that I can spend alone. It has been a while since I’ve had the opportunity or energy to focus on processing the feelings that I have been having. It felt as if I was letting the experience of working in the State Legislature, an institution that has historically gone against the interests of Alaska Native people, wash over me. I was reflecting yesterday on the work I’ve been doing and I had this intense feeling like I was drowning in a wave of my own emotions. I found myself thinking of all the ways that I am not enough. Not good enough to be working in the Capitol, not smart enough, not Native enough.

Please bear with me as I work out the complex reality of what it is like to live and love in an era of blood quantum. I have started and restarted this post many times now, thinking that I should pick a different subject to write on this week. However, despite the turbulent and abundant emotions that are present when discussing and analyzing colonial systems, such as blood quantum, I do believe this is a beneficial conversation to have with our Indigenous relatives and non-Indigenous friends. I want this blog to be an honest representation of the emotions that I have had and will likely continue to experience on my First Alaskans Institute fellowship journey.

Delaney Thiele headshot
Arnaq Naruyaq’ Delaney Thiele (Dena’ina Athabascan/Yup’ik)
If you are not familiar with the concept of blood quantum, it is a colonial tool that has been used by the United States Federal Government for generations. The blood quantum method has no scientific basis. There is no biological way to quantify the amount of Native blood that a person has because it cannot be calculated through genetics or DNA tests. This tool impacts and regulates so many aspects of a Native person’s life and can affect their identity, relationships with their community, and whether their children will be defined as “Native” under governmental law or Tribal Constitutions. The design behind blood quantum is that it starts with a “full-blooded” Ancestor. Within each passing generation, depending on if the Ancestor has a child with a non-Native person, the identity of the child they produce will be reduced into fractions of themselves.

Native people at birth receive a “Certificate degree of Indian Blood” (CDIB), which is regulated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This certification is incredibly outdated and out of touch with modern Indigenous people and their terms for identifying themselves. For example, my CDIB card reads that I am “Eskimo.” This term is a colonial word that is often regarded as racist within the Native community. It was used in the past to refer to Inuit, Yup’ik, and Iñupiat people, which in a way has contributed to the harmful erasure of these groups’ cultural practices. It is frustrating to see that word on my CDIB, and every time I need to use it, I am reminded that the Federal Government can not be bothered to research how Native people refer to themselves and their Native groups. This measure of Indigeneity was not invented by Native people but forced onto Tribes to extract resources, take away land, and to further the goal of forced assimilation of Native people into western society. Ultimately, it is an instrument to undermine the strength of Tribal sovereignty.

The topic of blood quantum is an extremely complex and sensitive one that has many legal implications and impacts on our Tribal Governments and Native people as a whole. It is a degrading and dehumanizing system used to determine who is considered to be Native. From a personal standpoint, blood quantum has dramatically impacted my life and feelings of validity as a Native person within the Native community. I have struggled with feeling like I am not Indigenous enough because of the way I look and how I grew up. I am a white-passing Native, I have pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. I grew up in an urban setting, disconnected from most of my culture, history, and traditional practices.

For a brief history of how blood quantum has affected Indigenous People within Alaska, I need to quickly introduce another incredibly complex subject, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. In a very diluted overview of ANCSA, the Act created 12 Regional Corporations and “granted” 10% of land to these for-profit corporations, exchanging 90% of our traditional lands, which were transferred to the Federal and State governments. The truth of the matter is that under ANCSA, I am not considered a Native person. I am what the Act refers to as an “after-born,” a descendant born after the Act was enacted in 1971. I have no rights to my Ancestors’ traditional homelands, and no way to gain shares within my Regional Corporation unless they are passed down to me through my father.

My family’s village, Alexander Creek, originally known by the Native name Tuqentnu or Tuqen Kaq, is located 27 miles northwest of Anchorage. The creek that flows through the middle of our village drains into the Susitna River, a few miles from the mouth of Cook Inlet. Tuqen Kaq was wrongfully deemed ineligible under ANCSA to form a Village Corporation or to establish a Federally recognized Tribe. Due to this, my family only has a small number of land plots in our family’s traditional Village. Our family has been fighting this issue with our State’s Congressional Representatives and leaders for over two decades now, the future is uncertain for Tuqen Kaq and its descendants. Native identity is tied so thoroughly to our land that it is easy to understand why I have an overwhelming feeling of anxiety when I think about the lack of land, resources, and economic benefits that I will be able to pass on to my future children.

Within this colonial structure of defining who an Indigenous person is, our society is so fixated on Indigenous pedigree. The question “what percentage Native are you?” is one that I am asked regularly, generally by non-native people. As if I have to answer the percentage correctly to determine my worth as a “Native” person, which will decide whether I am qualified by blood to talk about issues pertaining to Natives. I always try to indirectly answer this question; however, I often feel like I am at a loss for words when this happens and think of how strange it is that someone could ask such an intrusive and personal question without thinking of how it may affect me. It makes me feel like my pedigree is nothing more than that of a dog or horse. This question leaves me feeling dehumanized. I have been told that I am lying about being Native because of how I look or countered with something along the lines of “I took a DNA test last week that told me I’m part Cherokee.” We have established earlier in this blog post that Indigenous identity, of course, can not merely be determined by a DNA test; it is, as I’m sure you understand, so much more complicated than a DNA test could ever explain.

This weekend, upon reflecting on my feelings of not being the correct amount of Native, I started to ask myself, “can I be someone who works for the betterment of our people if I look as white as I am?” I still don’t know the answer. All this doubt makes me feel like I am an imposter and almost as if I can’t fully exist within the Native community. My feelings around Indigenous identity are so complicated and layered that it is often hard to wrap my head around how I feel, let alone explain it in writing. Some days, I am fully confident in my Nativeness, even with my blonde hair and blue eyes. Especially with the traditional hand-poked Inuit tattoos that I wear proudly on my skin and the copious amounts of Indigenous-made jewelry that I love to wear. And then some days are not so good, the ones where I do not feel valid because of how I look, the color of my skin, where I grew up, and the amount of (or lack thereof) Native blood within my body. When I feel that doubt creeping in, I am saddened to realize that some of the Federal Government’s goals of forcing blood quantum onto Native communities and assimilating them into their citizenry have been successful to some extent.

My feelings around Indigenous identity are so complicated and layered that it is often hard to wrap my head around how I feel, let alone explain it in writing.
It is strange when your government writes laws and enacts policies that directly dictate your identity. I understand that within the Native community and other BIPOC communities, “imposter syndrome” is a shared common experience amongst so many of us and has a direct correlation to colonialism and the policies that were put in place to assimilate our people.

Before moving on, I would like to state that I am aware of the privilege I have because I am “white-passing.” Under the current colonial society and institutions that we all exist within, the reality is that how I look comes with certain societal “advantages” that are complicated to discuss and acknowledge. I know that I will not face certain types or levels of racism, marginalization or harm because I do not appear to be Native. Being Native has, unfortunately, and disgustingly, impacted so many of our community members in awful ways. It has subjected them to hurtful biases and societal implications, physical harm, and even in some awful cases, death. Which is terrible to think about.

Blood quantum has continued to be utilized as a weapon against Natives to perpetuate harmful stereotypes that shape the misinformed knowledge about Native people’s identities and accurate histories. These stereotypes keep alive the colonial intention to group “Native American” as a homogenous or “pan-Indigenous” identity. In actuality, our cultures have had distinct and complex societies that thrived for thousands of years pre-colonization. However, the collective shared experience of Indigenous peoples since colonization began has indeed, in a traumatic way, tied Indigenous peoples together through the lasting effects of colonialism. It also continues to affirm that Native people stereotypically only have a few characteristics to express their identity. When truthfully, all Indigenous peoples cannot fit neatly into one big homogenous box. Understanding Indigenous identity is so much more complicated than simply knowing how much Native blood someone has. Continuing the practice of blood quantum within our society subconsciously enforces the ideology, amongst non-Natives and Natives alike, that some Native people are more valid than others because our society and Federal Government continues to uphold and implement colonial and genocidal policies. The sad reality about living in the era of blood quantum is that it is one of the main factors contributing to Indigenous peoples erasure of communities, sovereign Tribes, rights to access the land and its resources, cultural practices, languages, and so much more. It is sobering when studying the severe consequences that colonialism has had on erasing Indigenous knowledge and ways of life. Unfortunately, the tool of blood quantum has, to some extent, worked as it was intentionally designed to do so.

To be clear, I want to reiterate that my lived experiences, which have been shaped by certain societal advantages, does not negate the genuine problem of racism and intent to cause harm to our people, culture, land, etc.

When I was younger, I found myself yearning to have more Native features, so I would no longer feel suspended between my Native and European identities. When it comes to thinking of future children and the generation that will be after me, I get so overwhelmed that my immediate thought is that I do not want to procreate. I often tell my friends, “I want Native babies,” when the reality is that no matter what the Federal Government tries to mandate, nor the cultural background of the person I may have children with, my children WILL be Native because their mother is Native. It’s difficult to imagine my non-existent future children navigating the world with all these complicated feelings that I am still working to process through. I have found myself thinking that if I do not marry a Native man and have his children, I will not be valid as an Indigenous woman or potential future leader within this community.

Honestly, as I write this, I feel sad to know that deep down, I view my validity as a Native woman and leader to come from marrying a Native man and creating children with him. I don’t understand why I have these subconscious thoughts or why colonialism has affected me in this way. It leaves me wondering if any other Native people struggle with this feeling of inadequacy as well.

When I started writing this, I kept thinking of something that I heard La quen naày, Liz Medicine Crow, President of FAI, say that has remained ingrained in my mind. Please understand that the words she said were much more powerfully and more eloquently spoken than I will be able to write them. The essence of the words that I heard her speak is that the path back to reclaiming your identity and culture, from having to pry our ways of life out of the colonial hold that our people are still reeling from, can feel incredibly lonely and isolating. When walking this path of reclaiming our true selves and doing this intense and often traumatic work; there will be many people, even ones in our own family and community, dealing with their individual experiences and trauma from colonialism, who may not understand and therefore may not be supportive of your path. These words resonate heavily with me today as I reflect on the path I’m on and how emotionally taxing it feels in this moment.

Sometime I feel so guilty because it would be so much easier not to walk this path that I am on to let go of my Indigenous identity completely. Because the truth is that if I didn’t tell the world that I am an Indigenous woman, I would likely never again have to deal with the scrutiny of being told by some random person that I am lying or don’t have the appropriate blood quantum amount. I think of how horrible my thoughts feel as I am writing these words. Yet, it is the truth of what has been consuming my mind as I laid alone in my bedroom yesterday, feeling like a lonely boat at sea and wholly overwhelmed by these feelings of inadequacy. I know that this thought process comes from privilege to understand that I could leave Alaska, and no one would ever know that I am from a Native family. I feel guilty to entertain these thoughts because I know that there are so many Native individuals who have been negatively impacted or even harmed because of who they are and how they look. Even if they wanted to, so many Native people could not change how they look and have this backward “benefit” of abandoning their identity, culture, and so much more. I have wanted to quit the path that I am on because my real and raw reality is that the journey of reclamation is beyond any comprehension that I originally had believed of how challenging, uncomfortable, hurtful, and isolating this journey would be. As I said in my first blog post, I realize now that growing pains are excruciating, but how can humans change without exceptional circumstances? Does this mean I am growing? I still don’t have the answer.

It is irrational to measure our Indigeneity with an arbitrary and flawed process. I will never be able to extract being Yup’ik and Dena’ina from my blood, nor would I want to.
In the instances when I am stuck in my head thinking of my identity, my future, and the work that I want to do to benefit and further our people, I feel this overwhelming and powerful wave wash over me, one that is threatening to swallow me whole and stop me entirely on the path that I am on. This toxic and damaging wave is made up of my anxieties and cruel thoughts, and I have to remind myself that the feelings that dwell in the deep sea crevasses of my mind are not an accurate representation of who I am or how I truly feel. I no longer want these feelings that I am not good enough to be a member and leader within our Native community. As if I cannot speak on Native issues because I have lived a different reality than some Native people have. These feelings occasionally inhibit me from learning and exploring who I am as an Indigenous person. Deep down, I know that I could never and would never part with my Indigenous self because, ultimately, it has contributed so thoroughly to shaping who I am. I am not a pie, and I can not cut myself up into slices as blood quantum would suggest; it is irrational to measure our Indigeneity with an arbitrary and flawed process. I will never be able to extract being Yup’ik and Dena’ina from my blood, nor would I want to.

I want to say quyana (thank you in Yugtun) for reading my personal ramblings of my insecure identity. If you are Native and resonate with my words and feelings, I hope you find comfort in knowing that this is, unfortunately, a shared colonial experience amongst Native people, even individuals who present as Native. If you are reading this blog and are non-Native, I am glad you want to read and learn about my journey as an Indigenous woman. I hope that my words have also resonated with you, and this has hopefully helped you to understand and evaluate seemingly harmless questions and comments that can negatively impact our community members in ways you may not have known about before. I wish I knew the answer of how to heal all of us who feel like an imposter because ultimately, this doesn’t come from our people; it comes from a colonial and outdated structure of an intended method to breed out Native people from western society.

I want to sign off with a memory that I have of my grandfather, Reinhold Thiele. Two summers ago, I learned my first Yugtun words, and I was so excited to share my newfound knowledge with him because he only started speaking his language around me in the past decade or so. When I got to his house, I spoke some words I had learned in my broken pronunciations. My grandfather, or apa in the Yugtun language, spoke to me in his Indigenous tongue, “do you know the language of the real people?” As I was leaving, I told him “kenkamken, apa” which translates to “I love you very much” in Yugtun. My apa looked at me with wide eyes and said “my mother used to speak those words to us all the time.” At that moment, I realized that no one had spoken those words to him for far too long.

My friend Andrew told me a few years ago that if someone tries to reduce me to my outward appearance and state that I am not “Indigenous enough,” that I should reply with the word “Yuguunga,” which translates to “I am a real person” in Yugtun. Through writing this blog post today, I understand the subconscious and harmful standards as well as untrue sentiments I have been rigorously holding myself to regarding my Indigenous self. So I would like to reiterate one final thing to anyone who has ever questioned my identity, I say to you, “Yuguunga.”

This piece was originally published in the blog Naruyaq’ in the Capitol.

Arnaq Naruyaq’ Delaney Thiele (Dena’ina Athabascan/Yup’ik) from Anchorage with ties to Alexander Creek. Naruyaq’ recently completed a First Alaskans Institute’s Public Policy Fellowship where she worked in the office of Senator Elvi Gray-Jackson for the 2021 regular sesson.