Accounting Identity: Blood quantum and the Christian politics of assimilation – Blood Book Event

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.

-Robert Lowry, 1876

 It is no secret that “the history of Christianity [is] the history of blood. And vice versa.”[1]  It comes as no surprise that Anidjar should call blood the element of Christianity. Christianity has always known this, perhaps better at times than anyone else.  Of course Christianity will always deny the atrocity of that which flows as freely through its fingers as through its veins: “It is the life-blood!”

Wasn’t life-blood precisely what the settlers sought to pump into what they saw as the overgrown dead body we now call North America? To resurrect the dream of a promised land, a Christian empire? (Of course there was also the rhetoric of taming the wilderness, the savage garden, etc.).  The missionaries carried with them bible-sized bags of lifeblood that they would use to transfuse their white gospel into the veins of sinners: the Indigenous peoples of this land.

 O precious is the flow that makes me white as snow.

Indeed the redness of sin and whiteness of salvation was sedimented in the racialization of the doctrine of original sin. For Native peoples conversion meant conversion to white amer-european Christianity.  In his study of Protestant missions between 1787-1862, Robert Berkhofer observed that Protestant mission societies across the board maintained that the teaching of original sin preceded the teaching of salvation/redemption.  The missionaries “had to teach the Indians the conception of sin before they could save them. To this mighty task of value transformation, the missionaries bent their every effort.”[2]  Missionaries constantly complained to their superiors about the inability of the Native peoples to comprehend their sinfulness.  One Chippewa missionary wrote that “even the church members “have never manifested such pungent convictions of sin, as I have desired to see, though I have taken much pains to instruct them correctly with regard to the nature of sin.”[3]  Berkhofer’s analysis goes on to demonstrate how the constant monitoring of the conversion of Native peoples to white Christianity ensured a purity amidst the church, the body and blood of Christ.

As it turns out, it was not the blood of the white Jesus that washed away the sins of the Native peoples, but their own.

In Blood, Anidjar talks about the one-drop rule. In Canada we have a document called the Indian Act.  It is a piece of government legislation first passed in 1876 designed to deal with the “Indian problem.”  The act has gone through a series of amendments but one of the elements it continues to rely on for assimilation is blood quantum.  The Indian Act itself does not use the term blood quantum but Mi’kmaq lawyer and scholar Pamela Palmater has offered a compelling analysis of the legislation and the politics of identity and assimilation in her book Beyond Blood.  Essentially, the Indian Act controls the flow of Indigenous identity by mandating “a basic concept of blood quantum or descent-based rules designed to assimilate all Indians through legislative extinction…because the registration provisions incorporate what amounts to a second-generation cut-off rule that is based on racist concepts of blood purity.”[4]  That is, two generations of marrying out of Indigenous blood equals 25% indigeneity, and this is the blood limit to accessing the legal rights and entitlements of an Indigenous person as identified by the Indian Act.[5]

Indigenous peoples have always had other ways of identifying themselves, yet the system imposes blood quantum as only valid measure of obtaining legal identity as an Indigenous person.  The Indian Act accounts for Indigenous identity through a numerical system of blood purity.  This accounting is of course an assimilationist strategy. The increasing number of people who cannot legally identify as Indigenous yet daily face the socio-enconomic discrimination of the vampire state are effectively erased. The more one politic can divide and erase identities the more control it has over them.[6]  This is the one and the many. The many always in reference to the one. The One-of-many. This reference to Christianity should come as no surprise. Where did we think the Canadian government got their thirst for blood if not from Christianity?  The Indian Act is a product of a vampire state.  Here again we see a site where politics and theology seek to divide themselves from each other only to reveal their unique co-operation.

As Anidjar so lucidly writes:

This, then, is where necessity lies: the bloodless body of the vampire state rules over, it lives with and feeds on a community of blood, whether that community is the nation it upholds or the races it excoriates, whether the blood is the one it sings, spills, cleanses, or feeds on, or whether it is “the extravasat blood” of the body politic. […] For a hematological perspective enables us to observe a more general dependence on a community of blood, a dependence that is more or less exploitative, more or less bloody. It is a question of degrees, in other words, not of kind. It is a matter of blood quantum, if I may put it that way, a continuum of blood that defines the vampire state. And I do wish to inquire further into this commensurability of the community of blood, later the national or racial community, and to do so precisely in order to demonstrate that its distinction from a theologically founded community of blood is fragile at best, obfuscating at worst, and rather clearly located, at any rate, on a hematological continuum.[7]

What I mean to say is this: The accounting of/for identity is political and theological. Original sin and eugenics. Conversion and assimilation.  This and is a mark of the hematological continuum. Blood quantum is a piece of legislation that works in a very definitive way, but it is also the device and the logic by which identities are counted and accounted for, by which percentages of purity and contamination are marked. (Of course, one could just as easily replace purity and contamination with orthodoxy and heresy here).  I hope that I have shown that the measurement of conversion that regulated the flow of identities in missionary/residential schools was the same device as the blood quantum that accounted for and continues to account for the flow of identities in the politics of assimilation. That is, the logic of blood quantum is a hematological continuum that in-corporates conversion (from sinner to saved) and assimilation (from red to white).



[1] Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 206.

[2] Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787-1862 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977), 51.

[3] Berkhofer, 54.

[4] Pamela D. Palmater, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity (Saskatoon: Purich Publuishing, 2011), 29.

[5] Palmater, 41.

[6] The blood quantum that continues to work in the politics and policing of identity in Canada is more multifaceted than I can articulate here. I would encourage those who want to know more to check out Palmater’s book.

[7] Anidjar, 128.

5 Responses to “Accounting Identity: Blood quantum and the Christian politics of assimilation – Blood Book Event”

  1. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    The posts for this event have been wonderful. Melanie, what you’ve done here is really interesting and it made me think a little bit about Nietzsche’s own critique of Christianity as the will toward truth (narrowly defined). You talk about identity in your post and the way in which identity is mediated through the blood quantum. What is the minimum amount of blood that gives one this identity and not that? And does so before the law? This way of identifying, as you bring our attention, has nothing to do with the way the people who are identified by the law identify themselves, and yet they must submit to it for their to be recognition before the law. This move towards measurement seems to me to be a part of the history of Christian blood.

  2. Kampen Says:

    Definitely. It’s this measuring/mediating/policing of identity that I wanted to highlight as it occurs in the Indian Act but also in Missionary Schools and in Christianity in general. What is the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy but this kind of measurement/accounting of/for identity? I hinted at this but I could have said more. For instance, where the Indian Act accounts identity on the biological level (blood quantum), orthodoxy accounts identity on the level of beliefs. And because the history of Christianity in Canada & USA is the history of a colonial blood pump, Indigenous identity gets mediated both biologically/racially and doctrinally. Or to put it another way, Indigenous identity is subsumed/assimilated by the law of the state (via legislation like the Indian Act) and the law of the church (via missionary catechisms in boarding schools).

  3. biqbal Says:

    I like this — the colonial blood pump. It reminds me of Chris Bracken discussing the Delgamuukw case in class years ago and describing Crown/aboriginal reconciliation as a catachresis, too. Let me see if i can find a published version of that.

    [edit: here]

  4. Kampen Says:

    Thanks for recommending that article!

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