January 23, 2017

Tribe reflects on blood quantum enrollment change

Otoe-Missouria Tribal Member Jennifer Kessel of Somerville, NJ (left) receives her CDIB card from Enrollment Clerk Walterene Hare. Kessel was the first member to enroll after the historic amendment passed in June 2009. PHOTO COURTESY HEATHER SARLESRed Rock, Okla. – It has been a little over a year since the Otoe-Missouria tribal membership voted to lower the enrollment requirements from ¼ degree of Otoe-Missouria blood to 1/8. In that time the tribe has seen an 88% increase in membership.

Chairman John Shotton says the motivation for changing the requirements was simple—a shrinking tribal membership.

“At the time we started this initiative, we had about 1,400 members,” Shotton says. “Many of those on the role were less than 1/2 Otoe-Missouria. This was due to a number of reasons, primarily intermarriage between other tribes and non-Indians. Something had to be done to address the issue, if enrollment requirements stayed unchanged, we would be facing a rapidly dwindling enrollment over the next 20 years or so.”

With that prospect on the horizon, the Tribal Council began a push to change the enrollment requirements. However, the enrollment requirements themselves are set forth in the tribal constitution. Any constitutional changes had to be performed by secretarial election, which is the BIA equivalent of a referendum.

The responsibility of coordinating this effort fell to the Enrollment Committee for whom the first step was to begin a petition and acquire 300 signatures from tribal members who supported the change in the enrollment requirements. Tribal Council Secretary Barbara Childs-Walton served on the committee at the time and was responsible for coordinating the effort.

“Chairman Shotton gave me the job of seeing that this task was taken care of,” Childs-Walton says. “Of course I had other people on my committee and we worked to get the petition signed. It was an exciting time.”

Once the signatures were acquired the next step was to hold a secretarial election. The referendum to lower the blood quantum requirement passed on June 12, 2009 and has had a dramatic impact on the membership of the tribe over the last year. Prior to the change there were 1,363 enrolled members of which only 129 were below the age of 18. Today there are 2,560 total members and 479 of those are minors.

Chairman Shotton says these new members mean the future of the tribe is more secure both physically and financially. He notes that a majority of the departments and services offered through the tribe are funded by grants. The higher the number of tribal members served by the grants means that the grant funding is generally higher as well.

“Our Tribe has gotten younger,” Shotton says. “A majority of our new members are younger people. This ensures a strong future for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. With a larger membership, we should be able to obtain additional funds from government agencies.”

In addition to the financial well-being of the tribe, the Chairman is also optimistic about the long-term prospect of maintaining and passing on strong traditional values to the growing tribal membership.

“I hope that future generations will bring additional ideas and skills to our tribal community,” Shotton says. “I also hope that we can get more people interested in learning and preserving Otoe-Missouria Culture and Customs.”

Childs-Walton also foresees a bright future for the tribe in the youth of the tribe.

“My hope for the future of our tribe is to grow and to have a larger land base,” Childs-Walton says.  “I want to see our younger generation go on to college, and come back and be our leaders.”

While so many things in a government are measured by numbers and figures it must be remembered that these numbers represent people. Many of whom are celebrating their new recognition.

“I have heard from many of the new members,” Shotton says. “They have always considered themselves Otoes, but are now very proud to be able to be included in the tribal membership.”

One of those new members is Jennifer Kessel. Kessel was the first member to receive her tribal membership card when the blood quantum requirements where lowered. For her the acknowledgment was emotional.

“It meant that I belonged,” Kessel says. “I always knew that I did, but I had been excluded. I was never accepted. At give aways when they gave away eagle feathers to my cousins, I was told I couldn’t have one because I wasn’t enrolled. So when I got my card, I finally felt like I belonged. It was very emotional. I always knew I was Otoe, but now I was accepted.”

Kessel expressed her gratitude to Chairman Shotton in person this summer during tribe’s annual encampment.

“I shook the Chairman’s hand to thank him for letting us on,” Kessel says. “I’m very proud of my heritage.”

Although some people questioned lowering the blood quantum requirements before the referendum, the Chairman says that he has no regrets about the enrollment change.

“People have been talking about updating our enrollment requirements for years,” Shotton says. “I am Proud to be the Chairman of the Tribe when this endeavor was finally undertaken.”