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My Experience on the Indian-Negro Color Line

Julianne Jennings
12/27/11

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.

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

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member's picture
Thanks for the interesting article. Is there a way I can find a copy of your thesis to read?
member
curtj's picture
Even in Alaska, the Indigenous are racist to the Indigenous who are part African. While that the Indigenous that are part European can do no wrong. Why is that? All Indigenous who are half breed are the same. We should make no distinctions between black and white. I think back on my youth and young adulthood with shame for the racist thoughts and emptyheaded remarks I have made, and thoughtlessly make at times, though my true thoughts are not racist. Maybe if we had a concerted Tribal effort with ALL Tribes to stamp out racism, we could make a difference. I think of your experience and the experiences of the Cherokee Freedmen and think that as a people who have experienced, and are experiencing the discrimination and racism against us as well as the legalized theft of our lands and resources, while being enslaved, murdered and genocide foisted on us in order for the theft to happen, with the survivors herded onto concentration camps on lands that were and are deemed worthless to the whites. What gives us the rights and lack of compassion to continue to discriminate against others
curtj
lorenwoodson's picture
Thank you very much for this piece. I am embarked on research for a novel involving the capture by Civil War era Comanches (Nermernuh) of a mulatto boy who becomes a full fledged warrior. However violent the People, they were absolutely (from what I can read) only interested in the quality of the people who became part of their band, not the color of their skin. Good luck with your thesis! Keep us posted about it's progress. And where can we find a copy of your masters thesis?
lorenwoodson
shethebear's picture
It's amazing the way colonization plays out in our communities even still today. Looking back into history at the origins of the problem it has been stated: "To prevent Africans and Native Americans from uniting, Europeans played skillfully on racial differences and ethnic rivalries. They kept the pot of animosity boiling. Whites turned Indians into slavehunters and slave owners, and Africans into “Indian-fighters”. Light-skinned Africans were pitted against dark-skinned, free against enslaved, Black Indians against “pure” Africans or “pure” Indians. Those who have put history into books have emphasized differences between Africans and Native Americans. For example, they have stressed that Europeans encountered Indians as distinct individuals and members of proud nations, and Africans as nameless slaves. Little mention is made of the enslavement of Native Americans and nothing is said about the cultural similarities between the two dark peoples. In 1984, scholar Theda Perdue said: “By emphasizing the actual, exaggerated and imagined differences between Africans and Indians, whites successfully masked the cultural similarities of the two races as well as their mutual exploitation by whites." -William Loren Katz, Black Indian: A Hidden Heritage While this quote, of coarse, speaks about what happened during the initial colonization, I believe it's important to look and see where the root of the problem arose to be able to see how it has grown and changed or even stayed the same. Though solving the issue of bigotry in our communities will of coarse be a long and complex journey, looking at the root may make it easier to do. I am thankful that dialogue around this issue is increasingly coming up more and more, and being talked about both here on ICTMN and on blogging platforms like tumblr in the Native, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis community of bloggers. I hope to see more articles and dialogue surrounding this topic here on ICTMN. Thank you Julianne for writing this.
shethebear
ppmickey's picture
I admire you courage and strength Julianne Jennings. You will be such an inspiration to so many. I hope getting your doctorate degree goes smoothly for you. You certainly deserve it. You truly are a great American Indian who has overcome much during your life and I wish you the very best life has to offer.
ppmickey
loripotter413's picture
"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." - Brilliant! Thank you so much Julianne for your insightful commentary and research on such an important topic. As a fellow Pequot, I'm very proud of you! Your voice and message will travel far as you bring candid honesty to the world. Best wishes to you on your academic pursuits!
loripotter413
duwaynesmith's picture
Julianne, thanks for sharing your experience.
duwaynesmith
xxkristi's picture
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.” Is this statistic about 8/10 Natives being mixed blood specific to New England? Where does the data come from?
xxkristi
jennings5089's picture
Statistics Source: Mixing Bodies and Beliefs:The Predicament of Indian Tribes, L.Scott Gould. Columbia Law Review, Vol.101, No.4, May, 2001.
jennings5089
wovokanarchy's picture
Total historical revisionism. "Under Indian custom, it was possible for a full blooded white man and die a full blooded Indian''??? And then proceeds to reference 'Dances with Wolves" to support her incredibly stupid assertions!Jennings, and others who have very little or no Indigenous ancestry in the family tree, assert that ''culture'' and not "genetics" is what determines a person of his or her ''Indianness" is pure fantasy.(maybe she should have referenced Tatto from Fantasy Island on this one) If one didn't grow up in an Indigenous community nor have immediate family who lived as Indigenous persons how does one use ''culture'' as a criteria? Easy...just say ''I practice my culture therefore I"m entitled to be considered Indian". Sorry but it doesn't work this way in Indian Country. It's all about family, historical connections and relationships, and who your people are that makes one an Indian which all stem from pre-contact genealogy. Jennings sounds more like a self-loathing European and African American to me..nothing more. She should be proud of who she really is and not what she wishes to be.
wovokanarchy

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