Not All American Indians Are Red

Julianne Jennings

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.”

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.


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Anonymous's picture
I feel that the words "US" is not used in this article to speak for everyone, but US, the people of descent. I am the sum of all those who came before me, without which even one, I would not exist! I am Native of America descended from by both Mother and Father of whom descended from other races as well. Called Mulatto, Indian, White as well as a host of derogatory names, but that does not change those from whom I descended from. Whether by myth of spoken family history or DNA makers, I exist because someone in my past was there to contribute to my being. By family stories, I am Native American descent as well as the Mulatto and Caucasian. By DNA markers, I have been reaffirmed as so. However when you view my siblings and I, your confusion manifests as we all came from the same pod as well as the same father, yet we look nothing like each other in color, physical shape, height or even hair characteristics... yet, unless the DNA lies, we come from the same roots! Our differences don't isolate themselves on our outward appearance, but also on our cultural identity and community involvement as well. Does that make us more or less than our total genetic make-up? In a sense, yes. Culture is the key to identity of self because it is not only the memories held by your DNA, but the composite memories of your cultural life that shapes your being. I believe that I have bypassed the stage of acculturation via mind, body, and soul, and have acclimated to my natural being of Self identity of Community, that being Native of America, what some call "Indian." Therefore, when the writer uses the term "US" consider that as speaking for those who came before her... her DNA! I am not an Anthropologist, or an apologist. I am Human. I am ME, the composite of all those who came before.
sweetgrass777's picture
Meant to respond to this a while ago. You know what I think the problem is? It is the Western tribes. They hate and despise the Eastern tribes because many of them are getting recognition as Native peoples. The despise the "State Recognized tribes" or anyone who is trying to gain any type of recognition. The fact that they have long mixed with Black Americans is just an excuse to further complicate the matter. They are doing everything in their power in the BIA and the NCAI to halt this process. Yes it all boils down to they do not want anyone cutting into their Governmental funds that many misuse anyway. If there are "Red Indians and white ones" then logically there are going to be "Black Ones". Yall can call it what you will. After 500 years of being here with non natives what do you think? While white men where infiltrating their way into their recreated "Five Civilized Tribes" they encourage Native Americans to go against their Mixed Black Native peoples. To fight in the civil war on their side to keep people enslaved after what Native people themselves have been through. That is why you can count the amount of Black native descendants on one hand in these nations when we know many more are entitled. Not to mentioned the scores of Native people who where enslaved on Plantations with blacks and yes even some white indentured servants in the early 1600 and 1700's. Forgetting about the Black/Native people who helped to repopulate the tribes in Florida and fight the American Government. So even thought this continent was populated with Native people from North to south and East to West they want certain histories erased on others upheld. I believe Many Native people are "white washed and brain washed". They let the Europeans set the criteria for who is Native and who is not. You know what...we will hang ourselves by it. Miss Jennings this topic is not a secret and we all know that but for the so called "real Indians" who play right along with it are dying out as we speak do is the culture. As our people move toward black goth, same sex marriages, running after white women and hiding our Indianess we are getting depopulated. If Black Americans or Blacks of Indian ancestry want to embrace their heritage I welcome them with open arms as long as they have a tie to historical tribes and peoples (which many do). If we can accept Native Hawaiians, and people as indigenous from outside of the borders of the North American Continent as Native why should we ignore and forget the ones right here? Such hipocrisy.
Mary Magdalena's picture
Well said sweetgrass777 I've met plenty so called apples in my life walk that are just as hypocrite as the one who wrote the comment about the take a ride in a rez! waaaaa waaaaaa waaaaaa, always the crybabies, they are the worst racists on light skin Indians and northeast coast Indians, just last month I heard an Apache/Pueblo mix and for sure mentally mixed, call some Natives from the east-coast "Euro Indians" 500+ years of mixing hasn't been a good lesson, we still are our own worst enemies with the colonizer mentality, APPLES!
Mary Magdalena