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The Ugliness of Indian-on-Indian Racism

This week I had a personal experience that was simultaneously painful and shocking, involving betrayal and a peculiar form of racism that exists in Indian country. Thinking that as a writer this could be useful material—a teachable moment perhaps—I ask that you please indulge me for a moment while I recount with broad strokes what happened.

I had a friendship with someone that spanned 15 years. When we first met I was a friend to this man at a time when few friends were available, owing in part to the fact that he had just been released from a several year long prison sentence for a violent crime committed against his then wife. Many times over the years he has thanked me for my friendship and acknowledged my willingness to trust him at such a fragile and vulnerable time in his life. He prides himself on his full-blood Native heritage and the fact that he lives on his home reservation, but like for so many of our people drinking continually complicates his life.

It came to my attention that the man who I thought was a friend had spoken about me to someone else in a very disrespectful and potentially damaging way, not knowing it would get back to me. It demonstrated unequivocally that this person was not actually my friend. The betrayal was disappointing enough; but what was more astounding was his use of the word “breed” in describing me.

I can speculate all day long about why this supposed friend would turn on me so viciously for no apparent reason (Booze? Drugs? A personal vendetta of another nature?), but that’s not what interests me here. I find it far more illuminating to explore the “breed” concept. The term is short for “half-breed” but common use of the term refers more generically to any person of mixed-blood heritage, especially those with less than one half Indian blood. It can be used in a teasing way in families, the way Indians do, but most Indians know that to call someone a breed is usually meant as an insult.

It is a particular form of Indian-on-Indian racism, or what we might call intra-cultural racism. It is based on the concept of authenticity, a peculiar racial logic which presupposes that a person’s genetic makeup alone deems who is “real” as an indigenous person, regardless of their lived experience, family history, upbringing, or markers of cultural competence. To be called a breed is to be condescended to by someone ostensibly more authentic, implying that you as a breed are “less than,” you are racially—possibly culturally—incompetent, and your identity claims are dubious. You are altogether genetically inferior.

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The use of the term breed is of course predicated not on Native concepts of identity and belonging through kinship and relatedness but on settler colonialism’s construct of blood quantum. It is no small irony that it is the same racist logic of the Social Darwinists of the nineteenth century who equated higher Indian blood quantum with evolutionary inferiority, an ideology that justified the genocidal practices of the US government and led to the massive land theft and assimilationist policies of the Dawes era.

Colonialism’s legacy on Indian people is manifest in a multitude of ways on the political, institutional, and personal levels. The psychological ramifications are legion as evidenced by a well established body of literature on postcolonial psychology and intergenerational posttraumatic stress disorder. Among the effects are internalized oppression characterized on the individual level by self-hatred, often surfacing as violence within the oppressed group. Violence is closely associated with mental illness. Another way of linking these concepts is to say that colonialism is responsible for the bulk of what shows up as mental illness in Indian country.

But violence can take other forms not limited to physical acts. Racism is a form of psychological violence when perpetrated by anyone. When Indians exhibit intra-cultural racism it is an exercise of internalized oppression, i.e. self-hatred, outwardly directed. It is the manifestation of a colonized mind.

Native American people marry and procreate outside their culture more than any other ethnic group in the US. This trend is not likely to end anytime soon, which means that there are fewer and fewer full bloods among us with the passing of each generation. It also means that there are virtually no families that don’t have mixed-blood family members, including that of my former friend who himself fathered a child with non-Native woman.

Colonization is a mental prison that draws no boundaries based on blood quantum. Full or mixed blood, we have all been affected. The common ground we share is the history of our families having been ripped apart, our languages stolen and our cultures violently disrupted. When we judge each other based on our genetics all we do is keep ourselves trapped in a prison of someone else’s making. And what is that if not a form of insanity?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.