Native American Ethnic Anxiety Part Two: Black Indians

There is something disturbing about the pleasure the press gleans from observing oppressed people turn on each other. Look! Once they have money they can be just as intolerant as we are! Or, as Wired puts it:

Once paragons of racial inclusion and assimilation, the Native American sovereign nations have done an about-face and systematically pushed out people of African descent. “There’s never been any stigma about intermarriage,” says Stu Phillips, editor of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper in central Oklahoma. “You’ve got Indians marrying whites, Indians marrying blacks. It was never a problem until they got some money.”

I think the real story here is not so much the natural tendency to draw divisions, no matter how arbitrary, once one has something to defend (land, money, etc.), but just how much effort went into defining these groups as racially distinct in the first place. Even if Native Americans have historically been more tolerant of racial differences than the rest of society, Native American identity has long been closely tied to US Government policies which sought to define racial difference. To his credit, Wired reporter Brendan Koerner does a great job on this, and it is worth quoting in full:

The Dawes Roll was the brainchild of a patrician Massachusetts senator, Henry Laurens Dawes, who wanted to “civilize” Indian territory by ending communal land ownership and allotting 160-acre plots to individual members of each tribe. At first, the tribes resisted the white man’s efforts to destroy a centuries-old way of life. One Creek official compared the Dawes Commission, which oversaw the roll’s creation, to the plague of locusts the Egyptians faced in the Bible. But the tribes relented, if only to avoid a conflict with the US government.

The task of enrolling the Indians was assigned to white clerks dispatched from Washington. They set up vast tent villages in Oklahoma towns and sent word through tribal officials that anyone interested in claiming their land had to register. Once the news spread, the tents were deluged with applicants, including scores of Caucasians claiming to have a sliver of Indian blood. More surprising for the clerks were the thousands of African-Americans who showed up. The 1890 census counted 18,636 people “of Negro descent in the Five Tribes.” With no ability to speak any Native American language, the clerks often relied on the eyeball test. Those who fit the stereotype – ruddy skin, straight hair, high cheekbones – were placed on the “blood roll.” The roll noted each person’s “blood quantum,” the fraction of their parentage that was ostensibly Native American. That number was sometimes based on documentation, but often, given the lack of accurate records and the language barrier, it was nothing more than crude guesswork.

Those with obvious African roots were sent to a different set of tents. There, they were added to the Freedmen Roll, which had no listing of blood quantum. Contemporary Freedmen believe the segregation was part of a government conspiracy to steal Indian land. Freedmen, unlike their peers on the blood roll, were permitted to sell their land without clearing the transaction through the Indian Bureau. That made the poorly educated Freedmen easy marks for white settlers migrating from the Deep South. Stories abound of Freedmen, unable to read the contracts they were signing, selling their 160-acre plots for as little as $15.

Even when a man had an Indian grandparent and should have been assigned a blood quantum of one-fourth, he might well have been placed on the Freedmen Roll. The eyeball test sometimes assigned siblings to separate rolls simply because one was born with less melanin. Full-blooded women married to black males suddenly became Freedmen with no blood quantum. It was a wholly arbitrary process, but it didn’t matter much. Freedmen and Indians continued to live in relative harmony – until money and politics entered the picture.

Its worth reading the whole thing.

This is the second post on the racial tensions and anxieties which are emerging as a result of Indian casinos. Earlier I wrote about Jack Hitt’s piece on white Indians. Also, Oneman had a post about Native American adoption battles. Finally, for more on racial/genetic confusions, read this older post I wrote on Keywords about a black man who isn’t black, and Ashkenazi Jews who might not be Jewish.

One thought on “Native American Ethnic Anxiety Part Two: Black Indians

  1. The interesting thing about this article (for me, anyway) is the different ways Indians with different interests are being forced into accepting as definitions of Indianness. You have black Indians, descended from crucial players in Cherokee history, playing strong roles in the local community, participating in religious rituals and so on, who have turned to DNA testing in order to establish their authenticity as Indians, while the article also quotes a council member insisting that all the DNA evidence in the world doesn’t matter if you are not on the Dawes Roll. Both involve an appeal to sources of legitimacy outside of the local communities of which people are a part, in a way that would be troubling to any Indian in any other context. I mean, there are Indians who refuse to carry blood quanta cards because they refuse to be defined by the Anglo government and it’s Dawes Roll. Meanwhile the Lumbee have besed their claim to legitimacy not on genetics nor on government censuses (of which there aren’t any) but on “know-one-when-I-see-one” local cultural recognition, exactly the kind of recognition the black Indians in the article are striving for.

    Another interesting thing about the article is how frequently these genetic tests identify Pakistanis as American Indians…. I will remember that next time a race-is-good-biology advocate confronts me with the “forensics question”. (The forensics question asks why, if race is “only” a social construct, foresics science can identify race “so easily” from human remains.)

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