Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Perspective written by Raven (Madison) Cunningham
The Qargizine, Spring 2019 #9
The traditional homeland of the Eyak people covers the Southeastern shores of the Prince William Sound in the North Gulf Coast of Alaska. The Native Village of Eyak is a federally recognized tribe with 420 tribal citizens. As of 2015, 44 percent of Eyak tribal members did not have the required one-fourth blood quantum to legally harvest marine mammals under the current MMPA regulatory criteria. Although I descend from many generations of Eyak people who harvested marine mammals, I am among the growing number of Eyak descendants that are legally unable to carry on this part of our culture. This is especially important given the gradual loss of culture and language that Alaska Natives have experienced since contact. This is harming our communities. Our culture is at the brink of extinction, as well as many tribal members being made criminals for teaching and mentoring.
We Cannot Become “More” Native
The reality today is that with each successive generation, Alaska Natives blood quantum continues to decline. Currently, over 60 percent of Alaska Natives within the Gulf of Alaska are under one-fourth blood quantum (SeAlaska Heritage). This presents a significant issue for Alaska Native descendants who harvest and use marine mammals for subsistence and cultural use.
The Criminalization of Tradition
Congress enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to prohibit the taking of marine mammals in danger of extinction. Recognizing the impact that such law would have on Alaska’s first people, the late Senator Ted Stevens created an exception for Alaska Natives to continue harvesting marine mammals for purposes of subsistence and handicraft. Tragically, this exception only applied to those Alaska Natives with one-fourth blood quantum or higher.
Under the current law, Alaska Natives of less than one-fourth blood quantum can be criminally charged for harvesting the very animals that their ancestors have for thousands of generations. Marine mammals are especially critical Alaska Natives that dwell in coastal areas who harvest them for food, clothing, regalia, art, and income. The reality today is that with each successive generation, Alaska Natives blood quantum continues to decline. Currently, over 60 percent of Alaska Natives within the Gulf of Alaska are under one-fourth blood quantum (SeAlaska Heritage). This presents a significant issue for Alaska Native descendants who harvest and use marine mammals for subsistence and cultural use.
Blood Quantum in Alaska
The use of blood quantum to determine a persons’ degree of Native ancestry is a construct that has long used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In Alaska, the term “Native” was defined in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 to mean persons’ of one-fourth degree or more Alaska Indian (including Tsimshian Indians not enrolled in the Metlakatla Indian Community) Eskimo, or Aleut blood, or combination thereof.” In the absence of proof of a minimum blood quantum, the law also included those who were “regarded as an Alaska Native by the Native village or Native group of which he/she claimed to be a member and whose father or mother was regarded as Native by any village or group.” (Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act. Public Law 92-203, Sec. 3 (b)). Although blood quantum has never been a true indicator of Native identity, it continues to pose a threat to tribal peoples in the form of laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.