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Jill Doerfler and Tribal Citizenship

Jill Doerfler

What determines identity? Is it culture, history, language, religion, family, or heritage? Or is identity solely determined by ancestry? These are some of the questions Jill Doerfler, an assistant professor in the UMD Department of American Indian Studies, is pursuing. She is also working in conjunction with the White Earth nation in western Minnesota as they take on constitutional reform.

In spring 2007, the White Earth nation held the first of four constitutional conventions. One main change in the proposed constitution is the elimination of the blood quantum requirement for voting rights. Blood quantum refers to the pseudo-scientific measure of American Indian ancestry used to determine tribal citizenship, i.e.: one-half, one-fourth, etc.

Doerfler got involved with the White Earth constitution reform because of her interest in the various ways in which identity is determined. While researching her dissertation, “Fictions and Fractions: Reconciling Citizenship Regulations with Cultural Values Among the White Earth Anishinaabeg,” Doerfler examined White Earth history at the beginning of the 20th century. “Fraud and corruption caused thousands of acres, a full 80 percent of White Earth land, to pass into private ownership,” she said. An investigation ensued.

Images from Doerfler's article, "An Anishinaabe Tribalography: Investigating and Interweaving Conceptions of Identity during the 1910s on the White Earth Reservation," in The American Indian Quarterly, Volume 33, Number 3, Summer 2009.

“I came across hundreds of interviews for court cases where government agents tried to determine the legality of the land sales at White Earth,” she said. “The Anishinaabeg of White Earth were asked to determine who was 'mixed blood,' and who was 'full blood' because only those who were 'mixed bloods' could legally sell their land allotment.” Most telling in Doerfler’s research was the Anishinaabeg did not define themselves by biology or blood. “They resisted pseudo-scientific measures of blood quantum as a means to define identity. Their identity clearly came from lifestyle, the choices a person made, relationships, and how individuals defined themselves,” she said. Anishinaabeg recognized that the whole concept of basing identity on blood was flawed. “It could be compared to asking American citizens today, how much American blood do you have?” Doerfler explained.

After inconclusive interviews, two anthropologists arrived to categorize people by phenotype. They looked at characteristics of hair and skin along with the shape of the nose, brow, cheekbones, and foreheads, finding less than 10 percent of the 5,000 “full blood” and concluding 142,000 acres did not have to be returned. Doerfler presented her research findings at the White Earth Constitutional Conventions and in the Anishinaabeg Today newspaper.

The Constitution of the White Earth Nation includes many political reforms in addition to the membership definition. It was ratified by the delegates in April 2009 and White Earth plans to hold a referendum vote soon, which will determine if the constitution is implemented or not. During the constitutional reform process, Doerfler worked hand-in-hand with Gerald Vizenor, an author who inspired her to work in the field of American Indian Studies. "It was amazing working with him, even surreal in some ways," Doerfler said. "He's published more than 40 books and is regarded as a leader in the field of American Indian literature."

Born and raised on the White Earth reservation, Doerfler attended college at the University of Minnesota, Morris because she was attracted to its rich American Indian studies program. It was formerly an Indian boarding school, so the campus itself is a piece of American Indian history. She graduated with distinction from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2001 with majors in history, American Indian studies, and a minor in anthropology. As an undergraduate, she received Scholar of the College honors, the Ted Underwood Award for outstanding history graduate the President’s Outstanding Minority Scholarship, and the Ethel M. Curry Scholarship for American Indians. Doerfler referred to herself as "a tour of the U of M campuses,” as she attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for graduate school and now works at UMD. She also earned a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois.

Doerfler teaches classes on American Indian literature and the American Indian experience. "Many students do not learn much about American Indians in high school and are interested in learning more at the college level," Doerfler said. "When I teach, I do my best to cover many different nations and their identities. People aren’t aware there are over 500 different American Indian nations, each with their own stories and traditions. I like to challenge my students to always be mindful of the vast diversity among American Indians. We aren’t one single group.” She will be on leave in fall 2011 to finish her book, Blood v. Family: The Struggle Over Identity and Tribal Citizenship Among the White Earth Anishinaabeg, which will be published as part of the Native Traces series by SUNY Press.

Written by Zach Lunderberg and Cheryl Reitan.

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