Story by Hunter Pauli, photos by Jake Green
Francis Bauer drives south in his brother Eddie’s brown single-cab away from Poplar, Montana, the tribal seat of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The brothers, both in their late 20s, spend the afternoon exploring the country with Francis’ son Killian, recently liberated from another spring break afternoon spent playing Grand Theft Auto in his grandmother’s small basement apartment.
Francis stops the pickup at the reservation’s border in the middle of the graffiti-covered Poplar Bridge spanning the Missouri River, and Eddie takes the wheel. Eddie was recently detained by tribal law enforcement for driving while on the do-not-drive list. He’s been on it for six years, but still spends his free-time cruising a circuitous route along the back roads south of the river where tribal police can’t touch him.
“One perk of associate membership is you still have the right to get thrown in tribal jail,” Eddie Bauer says.
Like many tribes, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation define membership through blood quantum, requiring at least one-quarter Assiniboine or Sioux blood to be considered a fully enrolled member. The tribes’ associate membership is an additional classification for those with less than one-quarter but at least one-eighth. However, these tribal members are all but confined to second-class citizenship.
Under the Fort Peck tribes’ constitution, associate members cannot vote or run for tribal government and do not receive resources from the tribe. They do, however, still qualify for federal benefits as tribal members.
“I get more support from the federal government than I do from my own tribe,” Francis says.
Despite their second-class status on the reservation, the federal government sees no official difference between associate and full members. Bureau of Indian Affairs census reports from the Fort Peck Indian Agency may not distinguish between the two but the tribal enrollment office keeps track.
According to tribal enrollment reports, there are more full members than associates, but the ratio is decreasing. More enrolled Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine are constitutionally denied suffrage on the reservation than voted in the last tribal election. If the tribal government doesn’t change its membership requirements, the tribes could disappear on paper through miscegenation in only a few generations.
Light-skinned Native Americans catch flak across Indian Country for not-looking “Indian” enough, but on Fort Peck, tribal members of perceived significant mixed blood are denied basic civil rights if they cannot or will not prove a significant enough percentage of qualifying Indian blood.
The BIA definition of race is binary: Native American or not. State governments and the BIA don’t recognize any legal difference between associate members and full members of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. It’s a definition that only exists on the reservation and leaves associate members as a racial contradiction in legally disenfranchised limbo.
The brothers are a contradiction in and of themselves. Eddie wears a John Deere trucker hat and gives Francis grief for combing his hair, a modern high fade comb over. The wind will ruin all his work anyway. Francis wears Adidas and a poly-cotton University of Montana Grizzlies track jacket, Eddie a four-pocketed duck jacket and cowboy boots.
Past the town’s eponymous poplar groves, the rolling scrubland of the floodplain gives way to the exposed clay-rich hills of Makoshika – the badlands. Eddie isn’t much for religion, but knows as much about the spiritual significance of the rocky terrain as its geologic history. Leaning through the car window, he points out the hills’ rings of mica and shale punctuated by seams of black – coal Eddie says is too poor to burn profitably.
The region is rich in hydrocarbons, but the Fort Peck tribes failed to get much shale oil out of the ground before prices plummeted. The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation just across the eastern border in North Dakota made billions from fracking, but profits weren’t equally distributed among all tribal members. If the Fort Peck tribes ever make significant money off extraction, associate members will never see the financial benefit.
Eddie takes the truck deeper and higher into the badlands before veering off the dirt road and driving cross country to the edge of one of many ravines, with Killian bouncing along in the bed. Wary of snake holes and cacti, the three dismount and descend the cliff face toward the valley floor. Killian scrambles up and down like a mountain goat, but Eddie takes his time, sore and winded from too many days of working out in a row.
Eddie’s years in the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program, from which he dropped out six months ago, weren’t for nothing. He quotes seminal postcolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon between asthma attacks, detailing how the author’s theories of subjugating colonial identity and colonization of the mind manifest on the reservation and in himself.
“When I think, my thoughts aren’t in Nakoda, they’re in English. Our whole identity is defined in relation to colonialism and the pallid oppressor,” he says.
Although they’re both associate members, the Bauer’s say they technically have enough Sioux and Assiniboine blood to qualify as full members. Killian too.
But the burden of proof for qualifying blood quantum falls on the applicant, and it’s not easy. The first step is tracing one’s family tree back far enough to find an ancestor on early tribal census rolls and determining the blood quantum of every descendent since then. Most of these records are not digitized and exist only in a ring of file cabinets within Poplar’s sprawling tribal administrative building.
Francis says he applied six years ago but gave up after his application was denied. He says he wasn’t ever told why. Since then, his views on tribal identity have changed and he doesn’t see his sense of belonging through the binary lens of blood quantum.
“People think blood defines culture,” he says, “but blood is political, not cultural.”
Although associate members are eligible to reapply every 60 days, Francis never does and says he never will. He’s sworn off the concept entirely.
“I don’t want to reinforce a dysfunctional system,” he says.
MIKE TURCOTT is a Nakoda language instructor at Fort Peck Community College. Despite carrying the weight of passing on Assiniboine oral tradition, the 42-year-old can’t prove enough qualifying blood for full membership.
“Bloodwise, if you really want to be detailed and do the math, it’s like nine one-hundredths, a really minute insignificant number that doesn’t allow me to be enrolled as a full member,” Turcott said.
He has enough Ojibwe blood to qualify as a member of the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota, but he’s never been there and considers Fort Peck home.
“Growing up as kids in the community, non-Indian people don’t view us as full tribal members or associate members, that’s just an Indian person. But in the Indian eyes it varies, and that’s just a personal choice people have,” Turcott said.
Although restricting the civil rights of those with less qualifying blood is relatively new to Fort Peck, Turcott believes people on reservations tend to treat those with non-Native American features disdainfully because they embody the brutality of colonialism.
“That ugly history carries some resentment, so of course when you have some Indian people start to marry non-Indian people their children obviously have European features. I think that resentment carries over,” he said.
Turcott also teaches Native American studies courses where he challenges his students to think how blood affects the future of their families and tribes.
“It’s a discussion I bring up a lot in class. What are you gonna do when you can’t get your child enrolled somewhere?” Turcott said.
Turcott thinks enrollment numbers are naturally peaking for many tribes. If Native American blood becomes further fractionalized, enrollment will fall after a certain point. Turcott implores his students to think seriously on how to solve the problem of enrollment requirements such as blood quantum, as they’ll be leading the tribes when enrollment begins to dwindle even as the reservation population still rises.
“I put that in the back of their minds,” Turcott said. “Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, they might find themselves in that position of leadership to determine who is and who isn’t a member of the tribe. I’ve been posing that question for the past six, seven years of my courses and nobody has really come up with a solid answer on how to address that well.”
What little data the tribes’ enrollment office keeps on its associate member population shows the Fort Peck tribes haven’t reached peak enrollment yet, there are still more full members than associate members. But current enrollment trends are not sustainable.
As of March 31, there were 13,274 full members and 2,526 associate members enrolled with the Fort Peck tribes. While that’s about 2,200 more members than 2009, the last year similar data is available, almost half of the increase is in non-voting associate members.
Seven years ago, one-in-nine tribal members on Fort Peck were associate members. Now it’s one-in-six. The tribe isn’t shrinking yet, but greater numbers of members are both unable to participate in tribal politics and at greater risk of having kids in the same or worse position.
The tribes’ 2015 election saw the worst voter turnout in 20 years, with only 46 percent of the reservation’s 3,768 registered voters showing up to the polls. Out of the reservation’s 16,000 members, 1,751, about 11 percent, decided who would run the tribal government for the next two years. That’s the fewest voters since 1995 when 1,200 less voters were registered. 2015 was also the first year on record to see a drop instead of a rise in registered voters, losing about 150 from the previous election year.
Fort Peck’s voters elect 12 candidates to the tribes’ executive board. With such a small electorate, leadership can be decided by single digit pluralities. The Bauer brother’s father, Edward, won the last seat with 438 votes, just 4 more than his closest competitor, who conceded only after a recount.
The first generation of a family to drop below one-quarter blood quantum loses voting rights and access to tribal benefits. If that generation further marries outside tribal bloodlines, their children will fall below one-eighth, losing associate membership status and any constitutional right for enrollment altogether. Not being enrolled in any tribe complicates the application process for federal aid programs like Indian Health Services, where tribal membership is the common standard for qualification.
Executive Board member Tommy Christian said the Fort Peck tribes created associate membership as a strategy to qualify more people for IHS. A constitutional referendum passed by the tribe in 1988 created associate membership for those with one-eighth or more qualifying blood, granting federal benefits to many previously unrecognized Native Americans.
Christian is a strict cultural traditionalist. A fully enrolled Sioux, he wears his hair in twin braids that drape over a rough cotton western vest and terminate at an enormous beaded belt buckle. He considers his attire not as affectations of assimilation, but rather, in his words, as trophies of war.
“None of my kids dress like this,” he said.
Despite his traditionalism, Christian sees no cultural reason to deny full tribal membership to those whose blood doesn’t meet the tribes’ current demands. He may not speak the same rhetoric as the Bauer brothers—few conservatives do—but just the same, he says blood has nothing to do with identity.
However, that doesn’t mean Christian thinks it prudent to open up enrollment. Because Fort Peck’s enrollment requirements are in its constitution and not its bylaws, only a constitutional referendum passed by a majority of the tribe can change membership stipulations.
Christian voted against just such a referendum in 2011 that would have mandated membership through lineal descent instead of blood quantum, despite the fact that all seven of his children were associate members at the time. Blood from the Sioux and Assiniboine bands enrolled on 13 of Canada’s First Nation’s reservations doesn’t count, which disqualified Christian’s mother’s side.
In this case, Christian’s cultural conservatism is at odds with his fiscal conservatism. He said the tribe already can’t guarantee a quality standard of life for the 13,000 full members who receive benefits, much less the 2,500 associate members who could qualify overnight if eligibility requirements were relaxed.
“We just cannot accommodate them,” he said.
As Francis Bauer sees it, “people are in a survivalist mindset.” He isn’t interested in the monetary benefits of full membership, but rather the right for all tribal members to participate in the community as equals, regardless of blood.
Conversations about opening enrollment on Fort Peck often start and end with allegations that people just want money from the tribe.
The Bauer’s uncle, Bob McAnally, believes it’s the tribal executive board who are greedy, not associate members, considering government handles all the tribal money.
“Greed, that’s what it is. Any money that comes to the tribes in the form of sales, revenues, land pieces, settlements, education grants. They don’t want to share it with the category five members,” he said.
“Category fives,” what McAnally calls associate members, references their bottom position on the Fort Peck tribes’ constitution’s enrollment ordinance. A fully-enrolled Assiniboine,
McAnally graduated with a law degree from UM and was appointed as the tribes’ first in-house legal counsel the same year associate membership was ratified. One of his first duties was implementing associate membership into enrollment office procedure but he soon opposed it on principle.
“Not being able to vote is a violation of basic civil rights,” McAnally said.
What began as an egalitarian move to extend health benefits to vulnerable community members became a method of legally denying a minority population’s equal rights.
“You can easily see what’s going on here, the dichotomy of this thing is amazing, and why we stand for it, I don’t know,” McAnally said.
A United States Supreme Court ruling in 1978 found sovereign tribal courts immune from federal law, meaning the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Fort Peck’s associate membership provision violates, are unenforceable.
Until the tribes’ constitution has a bill of rights, associate members have no avenues to sue for a violation of their equal rights.
“As long as we keep electing the same tribal governors and legislators this is going to continue,” McAnally said.
It’s conceivable the Fort Peck tribes’ rolls will deplete if they keep strict enrollment requirements, but there are a variety of solutions ranging from the restrained to the extreme.
Christian thinks it prudent to accept blood from the Sioux and Assiniboine bands across the Canadian border, which he sees as arbitrary.
“The sad thing is, that line exists, and it shouldn’t, because that’s all our territory,” he said.
His seven children eventually achieved full membership only when Christian proved his mother’s bloodline back to Cheyenne River, South Dakota, not Canada.
Turcott supports including all Native American blood regardless of tribe, in quantum calculations, but understands why others criticize it.
“I think some people would have a difficult time accepting that. ‘They’re more Potawatomi than they are from this tribe, why are they sitting in a position of leadership here?’” he said.
Allowing Canadian or all tribal blood into quantum calculations still keeps a race-based membership system in place that excludes people from tribal communities with the lowest concentrations of Native American blood.
“A lot of tribes are going with lineal descendancy,” McAnally said. “Now that’s what I’d really like to see, because that puts everybody on the same level.”
But allowing anyone with an ancestor on the tribal rolls into the tribe is contentious. The Cherokee Nation is commonly derided in Indian Country as the largest tribe only because lineal descent grants enrollment to many thousands of members with less
Francis sees tribal membership by racial descent indicative of how colonized the conceptual horizons of tribal identity have become. He sees the ability of sovereign states to grant citizenship to aliens as tantamount to their independence.
“Until the Fort Peck tribes can enroll a member with no Indian blood, we are not sovereign,” he says.
Back in the Badlands beyond the borders of the reservation, Eddie points out the hillside religious markers that denote the area as a vision quest site. This is sacred land, essential to the coming of age rituals that define tribal membership through communal spirituality instead of constitutional formality. Eddie isn’t religious, but says someday he might like to go through the rite of passage.
A broad vista stretches before the hillside, with Poplar and its three distinctive water towers visible on the northern side of the Missouri River border.
Much like associate members, this part of the Badlands hasn’t technically been Native American since colonization, but bureaucratic formality doesn’t stop the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux from seeing the hills as any less authentic to their people. Families like the Bauers hope someday for that same acceptance.