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Photo curtesy of Matthew Taylor | Group of Native American nursing student in Arizona circa 1920s. Lowest, left woman is Julia Eileen Beauchamp, a Wiyot woman and ancestor of Matthew Taylor.
Photo curtesy of Matthew Taylor | Group of Native American nursing student in Arizona circa 1920s. Lowest, left woman is Julia Eileen Beauchamp, a Wiyot woman and ancestor of Matthew Taylor.

The blood quantum conundrum

Wrestling with being Native yet socially white

by Matthew Taylor

Over a century ago, two young women hid in the vegetation alongside the bay waters surrounding the small island of Tuluwat. Lying just off the coast of Eureka, Tuluwat is also known as Jaroujiji in Soulatluk, the language of the Wiyot Tribe. Those women’s English names were Matilda James and Nancy Spear. They were two of the few survivors of the Feb. 26, 1860 Wiyot Massacre. The massacre took place the night of the tribe’s most sacred of holy days, the World Renewal ceremony. Over 200 Wiyot people died that night at the hands of white Humboldt settlers. Nancy Spear and her sister Matilda James are my ancestors. I am a descendant of the Wiyot people, and yet I’m also white and thus experience white privilege.

When my mother was little, my grandpa would often take her to the local powwows here in Humboldt. My grandpa is a registered member of the Wiyot Tribe and carries within him the history of our family’s struggles – a long history of generational trauma, mental illness, and alcoholism.

My grandma, a non-Native person, was embarrassed to go to these events and cultural celebrations. She felt that because neither her husband nor children looked Native enough, they didn’t belong in that space. My mother and I grew up completely separated from that part of our family. Even today we are reluctant to reach back out to the tribe, not because we want government benefits or even full membership, but because we wish to gain what our family has lost – culture, history, heritage.

Eddie Carpenter, a fellow reporter at the Lumberjack and registered member of the Hoopa Tribe, has had similar difficulties as a white-assumed Native person. Carpenter prefers not to be labeled as white-passing due to the term’s colonial history.

“Despite being a tribal member I get mistaken a lot for being a white person,” Carpenter said. “As a child I kind of got bullied a little bit for being mistaken for that identity. Most of it was little microaggressions such as, ‘you don’t look native to me.'”

We do differ in some experiences, though. Unlike Carpenter, my grandpa and his sister are the only members of my family who still make the federal minimum “blood quantum.” Also unlike Carpenter, I didn’t get the opportunity to be raised within my culture.

“White-passing is an outdated term,” Carpenter said. “Because it is based on the ‘one drop rule’ of the Black/white binary categories within U.S. politics.”

There is a lot of debate within Native American communities on the usefulness of blood quantum minimums. Some believe it helps to deter white people with minimal Native ancestry from taking government benefits that they often don’t need, while others, like Carpenter and I, believe that it is a harmful colonial system that has historically erased – and continues to erase – the existence and power of Native people. However, there is no doubt that Carpenter and I experience significant privilege due to our perceived whiteness. This is a truth we do not deny, and one that we try to actively be aware of when in Native spaces.

“I do not self identify by colonial tools from imposed social structures that were used to conquer and divide my people from the inside out,” Carpenter said.

I don’t wish to take up space that is not mine to take. But I don’t wish to deny a history that my family has nor reject a people, the Wiyot people, that are part of me.

The experiences and connection that the Wiyot people have to this land is represented within my family. We are still healing from our generational trauma and we are still deeply in love with the land we now call Humboldt. In the years to come, my hope is to bring my family back into the community and to use my resources, connections and skills to give back to the tribe that gave me my mother, my grandfather, my great grandmother, and my life.

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