Q: Why does a person have to be a quarter Seminole to be a member of the Tribe?
A: You ask why the Seminole Tribe of Florida simply doesn't drop its blood quantum requirement and accept as a member everyone who claims to be an Indian - not just a Seminole but any Indian, and use the resultant numbers as a political tool. And, indeed, some tribes (notably the Western Band of Cherokee, in Oklahoma) have chosen to lower their blood quantum requirement in favor of raising their membership. But this is a very complex and controversial subject across Indian Country and many tribes, including the Florida Seminoles, believe that more problems are created by such a decision than are solved. I could not possibly explain all of the ramifications of the issue here, but I will try to outline several of the central points.
First, let me begin by saying that the whole question of measuring cultural affiliation by using a blood quantum has only a limited value, no matter who is using it and how they are using it. Membership in any society is a product not only of a genetic relationship but, to a great extent, of the communal standards established and enforced by the members of that society. That is, only the society's members can determine for themselves who should be "in" and who should be "out." And the criteria that they use for determining this are unique and varied. These may (or may not) include one's "blood" relationship to accepted members of the group; residence (living with the group or away from it); cultural orthodoxy (adherence to a common set of beliefs); linguistic orthodoxy (speaking the same language); and the public will of the group (adoption or intermarriage). In the final analysis, however, all of these criteria are dependent upon a single criterion: group recognition. Which means that, after all is said and done, if the group recognizes you as a member, you are a member and, if they do not, you are not.
In colonial times, when Indian cities and towns and villages were geographically separate from Euroamerican settlements, when differences in cultures and societies and clothing and materials culture and languages and - yes, even skin colors - were very obvious, discussions of blood quanta were irrelevant. Indian groups were distinct, and controlled their own memberships absolutely, and admitted or rejected whomsoever they pleased. And, being a member of one group did not give automatic admission to any other group. Nor does it do so today. Indian tribes are not like automobile parts - they are not interchangeable.
Only within the last century has the concept of using a blood quantum as a principal determinant of membership been imposed upon the Indian tribes by non-Indians, specifically, by the U.S. government. For the most part, the U.S. government began to require Indians to be able to prove that they had one-quarter Indian (not tribal-specific) blood in order to receive services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs or BIA, a part of the US Department of the Interior. (The Indians say that BIA actually means "Boss Indians Around.") Thus, this single criterion came to have clear and demonstrable political and economic values - things that the U.S. government likes and understands.
So the U.S. government focused on this single criterion, and took it out of the context of the numerous criteria that the Indians themselves used, and assigned to it an unrealistic degree of importance, and expected the Indians to live with that, whether they liked it or not. If the U.S. government were to fulfill its moral and legal responsibilities to the Native American tribes, then tribes would cost the U.S. government money and, therefore, the U.S. government saw itself as having a vested interest in deciding which groups constituted tribes, and which did not.
At the same time, however, one of the few facets of Indian life that the U.S. government has not sought to control (at least, not completely) is tribal membership. It is universally recognized as one of the basic powers of a sovereign nation that it has the right to establish its own laws regarding citizenship and, so, the Indians have fought hard to maintain control of this facet of their sovereignty. And, in today's world, this fact has taken on increased significance because every tribe has lost members to the much more numerous and visible non-Native world. They have left their culture and their relatives for a life of better pay or more material comforts or, at least, the possibility of hiding their Indian-ness within the Euroamerican society that was (and remains, all too often) so bigoted against them. In other instances, a child who resulted from the sexual union of an Indian and a non-Indian has been raised by the non-Indian parent and never permitted to claim their Indian life. In either case, several generations may have grown to adulthood before some family member has chosen to seek out that Indian heritage.
But no individual can ever completely leave one culture or completely enter into another. Nor can simply deciding to become an Indian make you one. The fact that an individual, even one who may have some distant Indian heritage, has to seek out that heritage, is a critical reminder that, at whatever point in the past, an ancestor made a life-altering decision to leave their culture and heritage behind. And no amount of interest, or even a fervent desire, can recover that lost culture now. No amount of dressing up like an Indian, wearing feathers and buckskin, sleeping on the ground, or using phrases such as "Oh, Great Spirit" or "My Red Brothers" will make anyone an Indian either.
People call the Seminole Tribe every day, saying "How do I register [sic] myself as an Indian?" or "How do I sign up for benefits?" or "My grandmother told me that I'm a Seminole." They're always sure that, because they have black hair, or they're the only one in the family with "high cheek bones," or their grandfather was born in the Everglades, they should be admitted to membership now and welcomed home as prodigal sons and daughters! They are sure that their ancestors were all chiefs or princesses or, at the very least, great warriors. But no amount of interest or desire can make that become a reality.
And so, I hope that you have some clearer understanding of the situation now. The Seminole people of Florida have struggled, successfully, for almost half of this millennium, to preserve their culture. What purpose would be served by opening their ranks now to people who know nothing of their history, their society, their languages, their world view? Rather than preserving their culture, they would be diluting it, rashly, out of existence. What all of the wars and treaties and diseases could not accomplish - the destruction of the Seminoles - would be accomplished now, for the sole sake of a mis-perceived political expediency. Indians are not simply dark-skinned Americans who hold themselves aloof from the rest of "American" society out of some arbitrary desire to be "different." They are different! And the Seminole people believe, quite strongly, that the only way to preserve their uniqueness is to set clear boundaries for membership in the group.
To be enrolled as a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, an individual must meet three requirements. The first is a direct relationship to a Seminole who is listed on the 1957 Tribal Roll, and not on any prior censuses or rolls. That is considered by the Tribe to be its 'base roll' because 1957 is the year in which the Seminole people created a Constitution and By-laws and formed the political entity that they named the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Further, if the applicant is directly related to someone who was living with the Tribe as recently as 1957 then she or he was born inside the culture or has parents who were. Either way, the cultural association is still very current.
This currency is reinforced by the second requirement, that the applicant's blood quantum should be no less than one quarter, which indicates that she or he is no more than a single generation removed from the cultural heritage. In this process, the burden of proof lies with the individual, not with the Tribe, and anecdotal evidence is not sufficient (that is, it is not enough to say, "Well, of course, I'm an Indian; my grandmother told me so!"). Finally, the applicant must be sponsored for membership by a current Tribal member, and accepted by vote of the Tribal Council. And, with that, we return to the point where I began: the centrality of community approval or group recognition. Even if applicants meet the other requirements, they still must have community approval.
Those individuals who have Indian heritage - and even those who only think they have - have every reason, and every right, to honor that heritage. But do they have the right to assume that they can simply step into another culture and negotiate successfully its lifeways, or assume that they have the knowledge to speak with authority for that culture? The Seminoles think not.