FBIs (Full Blooded Indians) get weary of hearing about the vicissitudes facing mixed-blood Indians, for understandable reasons. FBIs bear the brunt of anti-Indian racism. “Race,” having no freestanding reality, is most often conflated with color, and so racial stigma follows color.
Then there’s the history of colonists searching for Indians to sell out tribal interests. Who hangs around the fort but mixed-blood political shape shifters? You get this weird social reality in some places (hello, Oklahoma!) where representing as “part Indian” is cool but representing as Indian is at least poor judgment and at most evidence of a character flaw, an attempt to take advantage of helpless white people by stealing a ride on the mythical Indian gravy train.
My own tribal history confounds the stereotype. Chief John Ross, the one-eighth-blood great grandson of a Scots trader, led the Cherokee Nation through its most tragic confrontations with colonial greed. Ross’s National Party, supported by most full bloods, was undercut by the largely mixed-blood Treaty Party, opening a wound that persists to this day.
Like anything you say about Indians, one size does not fit all, in spite of the great historical colonization machine in which we are all cogs, a machine with no room for individuals. Hey, you’re a “tribe,” right? Everybody knows there are no individuals in a tribe.
Another layer of complication is the differing treatment of African Americans, for whom the colonists created the “one drop rule” to maximize the number of humans subject to ownership. This coexists with the idea that any non-Indian blood takes a person outside eligibility for compensation when Indians are separated from their land. Can anyone explain these two diametrically opposed notions of “race” in a manner other than the economic interests of the colonists?
The Five Tribes, to varying degrees, caught the white man’s disease of racism and took up chattel slavery, toting along the racial mythology that justified it. In the Cherokee Nation, this fever continues in the opportunism of former Chief Chad Smith and the gutlessness of current Chief Bill John Baker. Racism remains a tiger for politicians to ride, with the challenge to not wind up inside the tiger.
Observe how this history plays out for our kids, who remain the least successful ethnically defined group at all levels of education.
My class hit Oklahoma history in middle school, and the teacher was The Coach. You have to be from football country to understand the status of The Coach. He’s not just another teacher.
The Coach gets to the part where the white locusts descend on the Osage Nation to plunder the oil wealth, and he launches into a narrative about the stupidity of the Indians, buying washing machines when they had no electricity. As The Coach’s “haw haw haw” echoes in the classroom, the Indian kids develop a sudden fascination with their shoelaces. We left that class quietly and didn’t even make eye contact with each other, let alone the other kids.
Still, there is mixed-blood advantage. Barely a teenager, I walked into the barbershop where I got my first haircut in the middle of the barber’s rant about the shiftless Indians who don’t pay taxes and get checks from the government. I was there to deliver the newspaper, as my government check had been lost in the mail all my life.
The barber noticed me standing there, apparently with a stricken look on my face. He mumbled, “I didn’t mean you.” He tipped me that day, something he had never done before.
The guy who ran the service department at the local Ford dealer was FBI Creek, and his talent with tools earned him admiration from car-crazy kids, but we could never have wrapped our young minds around the idea of an Indian car dealer. Our blood defined our destiny.
The African-American civil rights movement changed the facts on the ground when it gave birth to the resentful, entitled white man, who loses his job to a colored person of lesser qualifications and gets dumped on for telling the racial stories he took in with his mother’s milk. All of a sudden, minorities are empowered to be touchy about insult and everywhere white people look they feel trumped by the “race card” their ancestors put in play in the first place.
The resentful white man and the FBI can agree on one thing. If a mixed-blood who is light enough to pass finds it painful to be Indian, he should just pass. I showed up early to speak at a meeting of archeologists about repatriation and overheard this backhanded compliment: “If that guy worked half as hard at being a white man as he does at being an Indian, he could.”
He could what? Make his life better by pissing on the graves of his relatives? Excuse me if that appears a corrupt bargain.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.