New Research

Blood and the Ethics of History

By Dr Kat Ellinghaus

I began Blood Will Tell with the idea that I was going to tell a settler colonial story.  The book begins in the United States in 1887, when the horrific government attempt to assimilate Native peoples began, resting on the platform of a piece of federal legislation which divided Indigenous-held reservation lands into privately-held allotments. It traces the story of the increasing salience of the discourse of blood during the assimilation period arguing that, at least in part, it was a convenient settler colonial strategy of the US government to reduce the amount of land allocated to Native American communities. At the same time it tries to pay attention to the ways in which Native Americans resisted and refused these efforts.

In Australia, states and colonies passed a plethora of “Protection” legislation from the late nineteenth century which defined, in detail, who was an “Aborigine” and therefore who was under the control of the government. So it was a surprise for me to realise that the 1887 General Allotment Act did not include a definition of “who was an Indian,” especially when it required so much census-taking. Instead, a discourse of blood seemed to do the work from behind the scenes, dictating who was authentic and who was not according to an unofficially-defined logic that was a subtext rather than a clause of the legislation.

The discourse of blood operated in ways that were beneficial to the settler population. Settler Americans arrogantly portrayed people of mixed Indian and white descent as cunning, exploitative and undeserving of enrollment, allotment or any of the financial benefits that came with Indigenous ancestry. Numerous fraudsters complicated the process, but these ideas meant that, quite simply, without a legislated definition of “Indianness” fewer people were officially recognized as being Native American by the U.S. government. If you were seen as having mixed heritage in the early twentieth century it was, in general, just a little bit harder to make it on to the rolls, just a little bit easier to be declare competent (which removed special legal protection of your land), just a little bit harder to be officially recognized under the 1934 Act if you were not already a tribal member and, if you had African American ancestors, almost impossible to be seen as Indigenous and not just as “colored.” As the late Patrick Wolfe told us, settler colonialism often defined Indigenous people in ways that erased them.

But the theme of settler colonial erasure was only part of the story. Influenced by Indigenous critical theorists such as Devon A. Mihesuah, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Scott Lyons, Audra Simpson, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Kim TallBear, Joanne Barker, Aileeen Moreton-Robinson and others, I did my best to also pay attention to Indigenous resistance, negotiation, and manipulation of US government attempts to pin their identities down on paper. I tried to unpick the moments when Native American people resisted, manipulated or negotiated the discourse of blood. The records are full of instances when people organized political movements, sent emissaries to Washington, sent protest letters or refused to participate in the processes of enrollment and allotment at all. They also applied, enrolled, passed their own tribal laws, and navigated government policy in the way that best suited their families and communities.

And as I wrote and researched, I watched from afar the many controversies relating to claims of Native American identity in the last decade: the introduction of DNA testing, the public figures outed as claiming Native American identity with no tribal ties, and debates over tribal membership laws. I began to see that the material I had uncovered, with its lists of names, and heartbreaking bureaucratic discussions about blood quantum had the potential to impact on people’s lives in the present day, and I realised how important it was to treat the sources I had uncovered – often simply by walking into an archive and requesting them – with some kind of ethical consideration. My decision not to include names and photographs in the book were directed by this realisation. I wanted it to be a history of U.S. government policy and pushback from Native peoples, not a means through which a person might find one of their relatives discussed in the U.S. government’s brutal racially determinist language.  To an American audience the removal of identifying information might seem strange. Here in Australia, though, records containing intimate information about Indigenous people are often, for better or worse, restricted. Many state-run archives require permission from an individual’s family to access a single file, and it is often impossible for a researcher to simply turn up to a research facility and make their way through an entire series of records as it is in the United States. If they are given permission it is with the proviso that they remove names and identifying information. While these restrictions are ostensibly in place to protect families and communities from the unknowing release of sensitive information, they can also, as Australian researchers John Maynard, Raymond Kelly, Laurie Bamblett, Lorina Barker, Jakelin Troy and Victoria Haskins have found, have the effect of keeping important information out of the hands of Indigenous communities (  It does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that these restrictions might also be in place to protect government bodies from potential lawsuits and scandal.

In my next project, I am teasing out an aspect of Australian legislation called ‘exemption’ (which has similarities to competency). This project also entails accessing sensitive and intimate archival material to write a history that, like Blood Will Tell, I hope can be used as a tool of decolonisation. But to be so, it needs to be written with ethics in mind. If anything, the experience of writing Blood Will Tell has taught me that, as historians, we need to take our heads out of the dusty archives and try to understand that the histories we write (even the dryest, most academic ones), can impact on the present-day communities whose past we write about.