Black Indians are constantly confronted with the fact that they do not fit any of society's stereotypes for Native Americans. Those stereotypes are imposed by both whites and sadly, other Indians. This lack of understanding of another nation’s history has interwoven ignorance thus extinguishing fact. Nevertheless, despite their own distortions and mutations of the past, it is interesting to note how the right to remember or forget are not going unnoticed; where personal biographies have intersected with historical watershed events (i.e. slavery, blood-mixing, cultural blending) is now producing historically-conscious discourse about race, racism, and who is a “real” Indian.
Raymond H. Brooks, 72, Montaukett Nation, Long Island, New York, was made furious from a recent posting he read on Facebook. The post read, “My good friend is a real Indian because he lives on an Indian reservation and the government gives him money. That’s how you can tell who a real Indian is.”
Those who hold the power, get to set the rules; and according to Brooks, “Our tribe had its status taken away in 1910 because a New York State county Judge Abel Blackmar said, “We were no longer a tribe because we had intermarried with blacks and whites. And that when he looked around the court room, He didn't see any Indians” The tribe has been fighting to get their State recognition restored ever since. You can go to the tribes website and read their history and what is currently happening with their Bill (montauktribe. Org).
Brooks continues, “Some ‘full-blood’ or near ‘full-blood’ don’t recognize us as being Indian. They themselves hold a stereotypical view of Indian, and much worse, some “mixed” Natives don’t recognize each other as being real Indians. It isn’t just government that labels us, or the miss-informed Non-Indian, but we who label each other.”
The Harford Courant story, “Of Blood and Citizenship” (July 27, 2002) supports Brooks’ assertions when former adjunct professor, Delphine Red Shirt, of Connecticut College, stated “What offends me? That on the outside (where it counts in America’s racially conscious society), Indians in Connecticut look more like they come from European or African stock. When I see them, whether they are Pequot, Mohegan, Paugussett, Paucatuck or Schaticoke, I want to say, “These are not Indians… there are no remnants left of the Indigenous Peoples that had proudly lived in Connecticut. What is here is all legally created. The blood is gone.” Red Shirt ignores the history of slavery and its impact on the eastern seaboard. She fails to understand that culture is not biological. Red Shirt is using federal criteria to measure authenticity by blood degree and has come to see this as a natural way of interpreting the world.
Red Shirt has absorbed an institutionalized racial ideology into her thinking and is applying it to the rest of us. Blood quantum will guarantee physical and cultural extinction. “Culture,” is the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and the distinct ways people living in different parts of the world classify and represent their experiences. We are no longer the Indians that you read about in text books, with long, black, straight hair and dark piercing eyes, hidden deep in the forest like mythical creatures from a golden past. We are a people who have overcome an identity imposed by Christianity and racial folk myth. Enlightenment theories about race, first introduced by Carolus Linnaeus, asserting that groups of humans, defined by physical appearance, are superior or inferior to other groups of humans are false. Although biology plays a role in obvious, superficial phenotypic traits, such as skin, hair and lips, they are tied to genetic markers that we can use to sort people into ancestral groups. However, the only alleged racial difference is one of gradation (melanin production), and so there are no biological lines between races. Rather, people occupy many locations on a spectrum of skin shades, from very light to very dark. Similar variations also exist in hair types and facial features. Once we recognize this fact, biology remains continuous and replicates itself in future generations. Thus, “any system of racial classification based on visible traits must be imposed upon nature by us.
Intermarriage with blacks and whites created a unique multiracial Indian community, where a pattern of selectivity with other mixed blood Indians developed, usually in isolation from the glaring eye of the “other.” Nowhere was there a blending of Native American and African people clearer than in Massachusetts. “Black historian, Carter G. Woodson discovered an 1816 report by the state senate that listed Black Indians among most Massachusetts Indians. In 1919, Woodson interviewed many of the black Indians and found they could trace their ancestry to the famous Massasoit”
Mashapaug Pond, located in Providence Rhode Island was also a community of mixed race Indians, with surnames, Jennings, Waldron, Green, Butler, Craighead and Williams to name a few. Many of these families have remained in contact with one another and are often seen at local gatherings and powwows. This practice of clanship was perceived by outsiders as a dilution of blood and culture instead of an assimilation into a new Indian way of life, without loss of traditions. What Westerners fail to understand is that Native political and social organizations are founded on kinship, locality, common experiences and the permeability of other cultures.
Employing discredited biological over cultural definitions of who is an Indian and who is not is an assault on our self-determination. We have endured 450 years of forced assimilation which included slavery and post slavery intermarriage, making our walk one of plurality. We are therefore all multiracial. Blood mixing is also believed to be the reason certain phenotypes (physical characteristics) common within Native people also occur in African American populations.
The 2000 U.S. census reported that black Indians represent 182,494 of the total population. However, researchers say as high as 90% of the African American population may be mixed with Native America descent (Census 2000 Summary File 2 (SF 2) 100-Percent Data). Today, Native Americans are the most heterogeneous group in the nation. We are people who are piloting a daring break from the oppressive social constructions of race, and are legitimizing a long neglected history through self-liberation and discourse.
Race can no longer be seen as something biological, but a social phenomenon based on ignorance, instead of what we have always been as human beings. Adaptable. As tribes become increasingly blended, new criteria for membership must be redefined, otherwise, they face shrinking populations and stricter federal court scrutiny of tribal laws. It is essential that tribes begin eliminating race as a criterion for membership as a means for cultural survival, and foster new racial boundaries in an age of self-determination.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.