From Indians to Blood Quanta to Asexuality

One of the many asexual fiction stories I’ve been reading and reviewing recently included this section:

“Yes,” [character] replied. “Shape shifters are beings that are mostly human. The only thing different is that they can change into any animal at will.”

“Like in the legends of the Sioux?”

[Character] sighed, almost wistfully. “I miss the Native Americans.”

[Note: these fictional characters have been alive for centuries.]

My reaction was “Why would this character ‘miss the Native Americans’? This story is set in the contemporary United States, and ‘Native Americans’ are still around.” I considered commenting on this in the review I wrote of this story, and looked up a reference from an American Indian source to back me up. The first reference I found was “‘Real’ Indians, the Vanishing Native Myth, and the Blood Quantum Question”.

I ultimately decided not to comment on this in the review, and I am not stating which story this passage came from because I do not want to single out this specific work of fiction. I am only pulling out this quote to describe why I started thinking about asexuality and American Indians. I’m going to discuss blood quanta for a while before I get back to talking about American Indians and then asexuality, but I assure you, this blog post WILL return to the topic of asexuality.

‘Blood Quanta’ Is a Culturally Specific Concept

I use the term ‘blood quanta’ to mean any system where people’s identities are measured in fractions based on their ancestry. For example, the wizarding world in the Harry Potter stories embraces a blood quanta system where they distinguish ‘halfbloods’ from those with exclusively wizard/witch ancestry and those with exclusively muggle ancestry.

American culture does not embrace blood quanta in quite as straightforward a manner as the wizarding world of Harry Potter, but it is still very prevalent. For example, it’s not unusual for someone to say something like ‘I’m half black [African-American] and half Japanese’ or ‘I’m half German American and half Scots-Irish’. This is not necessarily bad. In particular, I have no problem with people using blood quanta to define their own identities.

Now, when someone asks me ‘are you Jewish’ I simply answer ‘yes’. That is because I understand the question from a Jewish point of view, and Jewish culture does not recognize blood quanta (well, considering the complex variations of Jewish culture out there, there are probably exceptions, but they are just that – exceptions). There are many ways to define who is and is not a Jew – and by some definitions out there, I am not Jewish. However, all Jewish definitions of what makes someone a Jew that I know of boil down to ‘yes/no’. According to Jewish culture, there is no such thing as someone who is ‘half’ Jewish.

The most widely used criteria to determine who is and is not a Jew are those used by Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, which can be briefly described thus: anyone whose mother is Jewish is a Jew, and people who were born to non-Jewish mothers are only Jews if they have properly converted to Judaism.

My mother is Jewish, therefore, by these criteria, I am also Jewish (note this has nothing to do with what I believe or whether I observe halakhah). The fact that my father is not Jewish is irrelevant, in fact, my Jewish relatives generally forget that my father is not Jewish because it’s not particularly important to them. Since this is how I have been taught to think about Jewish identity, I do not think about my Jewish identity in terms of blood quanta.

It’s also worth pointing out that my mother is an immigrant, and many of my Jewish relatives are not American and often do not view things through the lens of American culture.

In any case, Jewish culture is not unique in its non-recognition of blood quanta. Taiwan is a multi-ethnic society where nearly none of the ethnic groups recognize blood quanta. In Taiwan, questions such as ‘do you belong to ethnic group X’ tend to have a yes/no answer, just as in Jewish culture. This is in spite of the fact that inter-ethnic marriage has been common in Taiwan for centuries, with the result that most Taiwanese people can trace ancestry to multiple ethnic groups.

The main reason I went on this detour is to emphasize that blood quanta is a cultural construct, and that not all cultures think in blood quanta terms.

So, the Indians

To quote the article I linked to at the top of this blog post:

For you non-Native readers, keep this in mind. Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions.

Now, I am finally getting to the part of the article I really want to discuss, which I am going to quote right now:

Blood quantum is perhaps the biggest determinant of Indian authenticity, but even those who are full blood can be deemed not real based on some stereotypes or legal definitions of what real Indians are. All Indians are subject to being judged for their authenticity, and even despite high blood quantum or enrolled status they can be deemed inauthentic simply by virtue of the fact that they live in the modern world.

Because after all, the real Indians were the ones who dressed in buckskins and hunted buffalo and deer for their living, and didn’t speak English. And they’ve been gone a long time.

Non-natives, whether they know it or not, are conditioned to determine the authenticity of Native people whenever they encounter them, especially those that live in places where Indians are highly invisible, like large cities or in states with low Native populations. Because they have been indoctrinated with the idea of the vanishing Native their whole lives, the assumption that there is no such thing as real Natives anymore is like a software program constantly running in the background. So when they meet someone who claims to be Native, the unconscious impulse is to automatically determine the truth of the claim.

The only comment I have to add to this is that, even though this is an excerpt from a book published in 2016, none of the ideas in this article are original or new. Ten or so years ago I’ve saw books by American Indians which were basically saying the same thing, and I suspect those books were mostly repeating things that American Indians have been saying for a really long time.

The Assumption Is That Such People Do Not Exist, and That Anyone Who Says They Are Such People Is Wrong, and Must Be Proven to Be Wrong

First of all, a disclaimer: I do NOT intend to say that aces, as a class of people, suffer more or face more institutional hostility than American Indians. Not even close. If you think I am saying that the oppression of aces is equivalent to the oppression of Indians, then you are misinterpreting me. Indians, as a class of people, have to deal with much more pervasive and harmful institutional oppression than aces.

As Dina Gilio-Whitaker says, non-natives are taught to think that all of the ‘real’ Indians are gone, so when they encounter an (American) Indian, their impulse to try to prove that that person is not a ‘real’ Indian rather than, say, realize that Indians are still around. The article clearly explains how non-natives have been programmed to think this way because denying the existence of Indians makes it easier to exploit them and drive them out of their homes to exploit the resources there (I do not think most people do this consciously, rather, this is why the myth became embedded in American culture). The Dakota Access Pipeline is a recent example of exploitation that has gotten a lot of media attention, but there are other actions liked that going on right now (another example is the proposal to flood the home of the Wintu people in Northern California).

Another form of exploitation which the ‘vanishing natives’ myth helps enable is that of criminals who want to assault Indians. The U.S. legal system is set up in such a way that (cw for link: sexual violence) a non-Indian who goes to an Indian reservation and commits felonies on Indian victims is immune from prosecution. This has led to the result that non-Indians who want to commit violent felonies has swarmed Indian reservations so they can do so without fear of law enforcement. One can also read more about this in the book Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life by David Treuer (incidently, David Treuer is an example of Not Recognizing Blood Quanta – his father is Jewish, his mother is Ojibwe, and if IIRC, he simply identifies as Ojibwe, not as Jewish or half-Jewish/half-Ojibwe).

The article I linked is a bit dated – a law went into effect in 2015 which allows for the prosecution of domestic violence committed by non-Indians upon Indian spouses/partners – but the legal situation of non-Indians who commit felonies upon Indians who are not their spouses/partners is the same today as when the article was written. Though I can’t prove this, I strongly suspect that this legal situation would have been changed a long time ago if the ‘vanishing natives’ myth were not so widespread. Most people can readily understand the injustice of making a criminal immune to prosecution just because they are a non-Indian whose victim is Indian (though some members of Congress seem to have trouble understanding this), but because so many people believe that the real Indians are gone, they has been little motivation to change the system – why bother protecting people who ‘no longer exist’.

Anyway, Bringing This Back to Asexuality

The problems caused by invalidating ace identities have not been nearly as severe as the problems caused by denying Indian identities, the comparison still leaps at me.

The process by which people question Indians until they can prove that they are not ‘real’ Indians seems like the process by which people question aces until they can prove that they are not ‘ace’. If an Indian is not a ‘full-blood’, then they aren’t a real Indian, and if they are a ‘full-blood’, then they aren’t a real Indian because they speak English, etc. Likewise, an asexual is not really asexual if they have had sex, or if they have never had sex, they are not really asexual because they masturbate, and if they do not masturbate then they are not really asexual because they are mentally ill, and so fort. One can read more of this at the carnival about the ‘Unassailable Asexual’.

Why so many people have the idea that people cannot be asexual, and that anyone who claims to be asexual must be assailed until they admit that they aren’t really asexual, is more of a mystery to me than why people believe in the ‘vanishing natives’ myth. I’ve encountered hypotheses – such as the hypothesis that non-asexual people take comfort in the idea that everyone deals with the same sexual urges they do, and the existence of asexual people takes this comfort away from them – but I do not know if these hypotheses are the best explanation.

Does it matter why so many people are programmed to assail asexuality? In a sense, I think the answer is no, it does not matter. But to the extent that understanding why people assail asexuality can improve efforts to stop people from assailing asexuals, such understanding is useful.

Just as people dismiss problems Indians have by claiming that Indians do not ‘really’ exist anymore, people also dismiss problems aces have by claiming that asexuality is not really a thing, or even if they acknowledge that it is a thing, they claim that the problems are not related to asexuality. For example, some people claim that asexuality should not be included in anti-sexual-orientation-discrimination because we are not discriminated against. Well, first of all, some aces have experienced discrimination in the workplace and other places because they are asexual, and second, such laws also often explicitly protect heterosexuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. If heterosexuals can get legal protection, why not asexuals?

Obviously, there are vast differences between the issues Indians deal with and the issues asexuals deal with, but the similarities are educational. And I would not have made the connection if I had not run into that quote from an asexual fiction novel and thought about how to explain my reaction to that quote in a review.

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4 thoughts on “From Indians to Blood Quanta to Asexuality

  1. Pingback: Linkspam: February 3rd, 2017 | The Asexual Agenda

  2. Wow, thank you for writing such a long and informative post on this topic. It’s unfortunately not something I never had to think about because my parents taught me that Native Americans (first of all prefer to be called ‘Indians’, I’m told, because it’s a reclaimed term) are very real people with living cultures. Living cultures are allowed to grow, change, and adapt as their environment changes. I think people tend to forget that. You can be Lakota and have WiFi. You can be Navajo and have a smart phone. Living in the present isn’t a valid argument for invalidating a culture with ancient roots and it’s saddens me that some folks rationalize like that. I’m personally at a loss at how to correct issues like this (and asexual issues) other than calling out prejudiced when I see it or hear it, promoting reliable information on my social media accounts, and writing/calling my congressman.

    • I have actually read conflicting opinions about terms such as ‘Indian’ from, errr, people the term is supposed to describe. Some say they do not like the term ‘Indian’ for various reasons, and prefer terms such as ‘indigenous people’ or ‘First Nations’. Some prefer to simply be referred to by the name of their tribe (i.e. Lakota). Since there does not seem to be a consensus among them, I cannot pick a term which all of them like, so I go with ‘American Indian’ since it is a term which I think most readers will at least understand and hopefully is not too offensive.

      • I think part of the issue is we are lumping together several very different ethnic and cultural groups under a single term without carrying over the understanding that they are many *different* groups and customs. It’s like saying “European” and lumping French and German people in the same catagory or saying LGBT+ and thinking asexual and transgender are interchangeable. So, I agree that specificity is the best practice. The other issue is that it seems like the majority of information readily available about indigenous persons is from outside authors and researchers. I know that’s one thing that irritates me as an asexual is non-ace writers (particularly Internet news sites) speculating among each other about asexuality without actually asking an asexual for their opinion.

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