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My Experience on the Indian-Negro Color Line

A column by Julianne Jennings on growing up part black, part American Indian.

Growing-up on the Indian-Negro color line (I am the daughter of a European mother and a black and Indian father), I lived with mixed signals and coded information by the dominant culture. It had determined that white European culture and people were superior in contrast to those who were generally classified as darker, “primitive” and “uncivilized.” Applying the adage “write what you know,” my master’s thesis was titled "Blood, Race and Sovereignty: The Politics of Indian Identity." This work would not have been possible without the professors in the Department of Anthropology at Rhode Island College (RIC). They taught me how to challenge racial paradigms and stereotypes that Western society has about Indians; and how to brave racial orthodoxy and search new ways of thinking about our country’s seemingly insoluble problems with race.

Classroom discussions about race motivated me, at the age of 46, to reclaim my Indian ancestry by having my birth certificate changed from “Negro” to “American Indian.” The experience was emotionally overwhelming as I had been denied my birthright as an E. Pequot-Nottoway. Changing my birth certificate was not because I was ashamed of my multiracial identity; it was an affirmation of my survival as an Indian and an act of self-determination in a country that has gone so far to erase my ancestry from history. I assert my tri-racial identity, but most of America’s forms, like birth certificates, at present allow listing only one race. To employ biological over cultural definitions of American Indians reflects a fundamental ignorance of American history and its unprocessed shame of slavery and American Indian traditions. Thus, issues about race are especially important to me, as “mixed-blood” Indians are not considered “authentic” by mainstream society. We have to dress in buckskin; feathers and beads to be taken seriously, yet those with European ancestry do not have to wear tall black hats or buckled shoes to convince others of their ancestry. Mainstream society has effectively marginalized our inherited way of being, but it is past time to tell our story:

In New England, after the Pequot War (1636-1637) and King Philip’s War (1675-1676), many Indians were executed, forced into indentured servitude in colonial households alongside Africans, served as concubines, divided among other eastern tribes, or sailed to Bermuda, the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal and Africa to be sold as slaves. Today, “eight out of 10” Native Americans are of mixed blood as a result of slavery and post slavery intermarriage. It is estimated that by 2100 that figure will rise to “nine out of 10.”

Further, the infamous “one-drop rule,” which grew out of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation, was systematically employed to strip southern New England Indians of their identities. Cultural purity has been replaced by “alleged” blood purity. It decreed that a single drop of black blood, or a single ancestor who was African, made an individual of mixed race black, causing Native Americans to suffer racial reassignment. Indians became classified as “Colored,” “Negro,” “Black” and in some cases “White” on census records and birth certificates as a means to codify and strengthen segregation, discrimination and the disenfranchisement of Indian people. Moreover, being a member of multiple races adds to the internal and external turmoil of trying to decide whether to choose one race over the other can be disheartening. For many years, I would dress as “Strong Woman” giving talks and demonstrations on Indian history and culture, a pandering and watered-down sort of act, playing the white man’s Indian. After 15 years of doing classroom and public programs under this pretense, I decided I had enough. It was time to line my scholarly discipline and passion together, and put my regalia back into its proper cultural context as something sacred for ceremony and not as show-and-tell.

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Being Indian was never a matter of blood degree, but rather based on community, shared experiences, traditions with resources from the land and sea. For example, under Indian custom, it is possible for a man to be born a full-blooded White man and die a full-blooded Indian. In popular culture this was exemplified in the movie Dances with Wolves. “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. There is only a Sioux named Dances with Wolves.” The decolonization of attitudes about who is and who is not Indian is necessary in order to restore the truth; which is to transform the perception of Indians in the eyes of the “other” into what we have always been.

In a few short years I will have earned my doctorate degree in anthropology at Arizona State University. I have persisted toward this goal raising three children as a single mother, overcoming extreme poverty, homelessness, racism and sexual abuse. I will tell my students that the woman who stands before you, not wearing buckskin, is an American Indian.

Julianne Jennings (E. Pequot-Nottoway) is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University