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Not All American Indians Are Red

Mainstream America has effectively marginalized our inherited way of being and, although restricted, it is still very much alive despite the history and purpose of the Europeans, which was to produce people who might appear to be “look-like Indians,” but shall be European in spirit and habits of mind. It has uprooted us in the sense that there is complete disjunction with our traditions and culture which has infused in many of us a spirit of self-denigration. Further, celebrated photographer, Edward Curtis (1869−1952) worked tirelessly to capture images of Indian people that became the dominant culture’s popular conception of “noble savages.” The widespread belief that Indians were a dying race created both a fascination with them as a people and lent a sense of urgency to Curtis’ massive project. His work focused principally on real Indians, whose traditional ways of life were coming to an end as the U.S. frontier began to fade, and they served as a necessary element in the grand story of America’s nation-building mythology. Certain American Indian tribes, who had close relations with Africans, especially those where slavery was prevalent, would probably never be considered in his photographic odyssey because they did not fit his or others racial stereotype so confidently assumed.

Difference in appearance was and is a result of (subtle or blunt) contact and intermingling, which are cultural constants, the world over—the physical, geographical, political and strategic evolution of all humans. However, multiracial blending has been a mark of shame, and challenges societies discomfort with its historical past. Multiracialism has been institutionalized throughout history, whether through the “one drop” rule, BIA imposed blood quantum policies, Walter Plecker, the first Virginia state registrar of vital statistics, who reclassified Indians as black, Sir Francis Galton, who founded the science of eugenics or media depictions. Our walk of plurality—a learned balance from the inalienable habitants of the soil, and as representatives of newcomers—is the fluid new face of Native America.

Indians of southern New England, and Virginia for example, were the first to take the brunt of European invasions. Native combatants were executed, forced into indentured servitude in colonial households alongside Africans, served as concubines, divided among other eastern tribes, shipped to Bermuda or the West Indies, and in some cases Spain, Portugal and Africa as a consequence; and condemned to perpetual slavery; Members of the Five Civilized Tribes held enslaved blacks (later called Freedmen), who migrated to the West with them in 1830 and later. In peace treaties with the US after the American Civil War, the tribes, which had sided with the Southern Confederacy, were required to emancipate slaves and give them full citizenship rights in their nations. The Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole have created controversy in recent years as they tightened rules for membership in their nations and excluded Freedmen who did not have at least one Native American ancestor on the early 20th-century Dawes Rolls. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole are applying the very same criteria that the federal government uses to eliminate claimants of their heritage and any services they feel owed to them. Freedmen descendants believe that their exclusion from tribal membership, and the resistance to their efforts to gain recognition, are racially motivated and based on the tribe’s wanting to preserve gambling revenues for fewer members. Historically, Native Americans never use blood degree as criteria for membership, but through community and shared experiences. Today, our “red-black” humanity is about self-actualization and positive identity building.

Yet arguments continue to disqualify our existence. Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. purports “DNA testing reveals the extent of Native American ancestry among African Americans is only five percent. All black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent.” Numbers can be a sorcery game, so we need to question sampling methods on the size of the population being measured. In contrast to Gates claim, The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB) notes that, “Native American markers are not found solely among Native Americans. While they occur more frequently among Native Americans they are also found in people in other parts of the world.”

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The final writing of this piece is an attempt to recognize our own age as the accumulation of previous ages and the ability to look profoundly at the passage of time and recognize that people from the past did not necessarily behave or look as we do today. In other words, we must not entirely detach ourselves from the past, but look at events as they really are. The underlying principle of historical work is that the subject of our inquiry must not be wrenched from its setting. It is the interrelated conditions in which something or someone exists or occurs—the act or process of weaving all parts into a whole that gives meaning to character and identity. Thus, historical awareness allows for recognition of historical processes and their contexts—the relationship between events and people over time which endows them with greater significance than just an emotional response to the past—not all American Indians are red.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.