Vincent Schilling
Coleman has gotten a lot grief—and joy—because she has black and Indian roots. (Vincent Schilling)

Exploring the Political Exploitation of Blood Quantum in the U.S.

Vincent Schilling

Arica L. Coleman is an assistant professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware. She is African American and Native American (Rappahannock), which may help explain why she has conducted research for the past 12 years on what she calls the “intersections between Native American, African American and European peoples in the southeastern United States with a focus on the etymology of race, the ideology of racial purity and its historical and contemporary effects on racial and identity formation.” In non-academic terms, that means she has done a lot of thinking about the relations and interactions of blacks, Indians and whites on the East Coast, primarily in Virginia.

Coleman has turned her Ph.D. dissertation into an upcoming book, That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia, and agreed to talk with ICTMN about her experiences as an African American woman who gets a lot of grief for also being an American Indian.

Wouldn’t you say that back in the day, American Indians and African Americans all went to the same parties?
Yes, we went to the same parties and we also worked the slave plantations together. This is what a lot of people do not understand when you talk about slavery. My African American brothers and sisters will have a problem with this because they like to look at slavery only in terms of black and white. The truth is—and specifically in Virginia—there was Indian slavery. The first slaves in the Americas were Native American and this business that the Native Americans died off as a result of disease and war [is inaccurate]—those were not the only reasons for their demise, there was the Indian slave trade, which is something we do not discuss a lot.

When you had people of African descent being brought across the Atlantic to the Americas, you also had Native American people throughout the Americas being dispersed throughout the world, including portions of South Africa and Angola. When you look at the records of the South—and specifically in Virginia—they talk about Indian, Negro and mulatto slaves…. From the 16th century through the 19th century, you had Native American peoples identified as Negro and as mulatto.

When you look in those records and see these terms you cannot automatically assume that these folks were African, because they could have been a mix of Native American or European as well. Racial labels have never been constant or used with consistency.

Is that what your book is about?
The book examines Virginia’s obsession with racial purity and the way that impacted African American and Native American kinship and friendship relations. When we talk about the racism that the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia encountered during its state recognition process—none of this occurred in a vacuum. This started long before then; Virginia has been obsessed with this from day one. They were going to hang John Rolfe for marrying Pocahontas—not everybody was on board for that marriage.

I tell my students all the time that there has always been the politics of difference, so as long as there are more than two or three people on this planet, somebody is going to find a reason why they are better than you. Before, it was religion. But now in our American society it is this myth of race, of separate biological races. So now we have Native people and this issue of blood quantum—it may take one drop of blood to make a black person, but it takes a lot of blood to make an Indian. That is politics. That is not scientific, or the law of nature, or the law of God—it is somebody’s politics.

In Virginia you could be of white Indian ancestry and still remain Indian, but once you brought in that African element, all of a sudden something magical happened—it became the myth of racial contamination. You hear about white people who love black culture, but you will seldom hear one actually acknowledge any African American ancestry. But they will claim Indian ancestry.

Can you tell us why Walter Plecker is so important to your book?
The title of my book is That the Blood Stay Pure because that was the premise of Plecker’s war against the Indians. In the 1920s, as the eugenics movement and the whole idea of good breeding and racial purity came about—it became the leading ideology in Virginia. There was a push to enact stricter legislation about racial intermarriage. Some states strictly forbade intermarriage with blacks while some states said whites could not intermarry with anyone.

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was created to define a white person in very strict terms. Originally, the definition was anyone with only Caucasian blood. But Virginia ran into a problem, because some of its prominent citizens stated they were descendants of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. They complained that that made them colored—so the state instituted the Pocahontas Exception, which said it was okay to have 1/16th American Indian blood.

Walter Plecker was the most dogmatic [of the eugenicists]; as Virginia’s state registrar, he used his office as a bully to get the word out: “We do not want America to become a mongrel nation!” In 1925, a few months after the Racial Integrity Act was passed, Plecker began a campaign against Indians and called them “Negro.” He did not allow anyone to have an Indian designation in Virginia [through the Pocahantas Exception]. This man was ruthless and relentless.

What are some of the things you have faced as an African American and as a Native American?
It is very hard as a person of African descent to be able to embrace both cultures. I get grief from black people who think I don’t want to be black—‘Oh, you are ashamed of being black?” I say “No, I love being black.” When I walk into my house the first thing I see is a picture of my slave great-great-grandfather. He was a slave for 40 years but died a free man. The photo I have is from 1910. This is my grandmother’s grandfather so don’t tell me that I am not trying to be black.

I was at the pow wow in North Carolina [recently]. Thankfully it was not a pow wow where people wanted to card you. I guarantee if it would’ve been one of those pow wows I would have been carded, because even my husband noticed there were people who were looking at me in a certain way because I was in regalia and I was in the dance circle. I remember one person at a drum who gave me a look like, “For real?” This is the kind of stuff I face.

We have embraced the myth that if a person has African American ancestry, that’s all they are and that’s all they can be unless they become famous like [President] Barack Obama—then nobody is going to acknowledge he is half white. Once Vanessa Williams and Tiger Woods became famous then they could discuss their mixed-race heritage. Again this is based on someone’s politics of putting people into categories. This is exactly what happened in Virginia.

This is the other half of the Walter Plecker story. Those who advocated on behalf of the Indians to save them from his “pencil genocide” engaged in this same practice themselves by erasing the historical realities of African and Native American relations. Instead of Plecker was determined to expunge Indians from Virginia’s official records. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)challenging this racial purity doctrine that said you can only be white or colored, they embraced it.

In the 1990s, Wilma Mankiller [first female chief of the Cherokee] said “One of the things that struck me when I came to the South was that I saw people who identified as African American who were Cree, Yakama, Oneida, and I said, “Wait a minute, I know you have this black thing going on, but I am seeing a whole lot of other stuff too. I am seeing Native ancestry.” However, the whole premise is to deny, deny, deny.

Writing about Virginia Indians and writing about the racial integrity act—this is a taboo subject. This is something you don’t talk about. This book started out as my Ph.D. dissertation, and when I told my advisor, he said, “You are going to do a dissertation on what?”

He warned me I was about to step into some serious stuff—he didn’t say stuff—and I had no idea how serious and deep this “stuff” was.

One thing that made it difficult to do my work—and my family is from Virginia—is that nobody in my family talked about Indians until my great aunt Mary. Before she died, she wanted to let me know that we had Native American ancestry. My grandmother was not happy about her telling me this. I said, “What’s the big secret, for God’s sake?”

Also, I didn’t know any better when I approached chiefs and asked about their association with blacks. I didn’t know that these are questions you are not supposed to ask. I learned that these are things people only whispered about in secret spaces.
I remember being at a conference a couple of years ago, and a woman from Syracuse University made a comment about our present capitalist system being made on the backs of black slaves, and a Native American woman in the audience was very offended. She talked about the dispossession of Native peoples and the two of them got into a very nasty argument. People were standing there and didn’t know what to do, and here I was belonging to both of these peoples. To see them in a fight like that and to see how the dividing rule had been used to create this type of animosity, I broke down crying right there. I said, “You’re both right.”

When [Nottoway] Chief Lynette Allston came to the University of Delaware to talk about such topics some people very disappointed because she wasn’t wearing her regalia!

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this topic?
I love all of me. I am not going to deny my blackness, and I’m not going to deny my Indian-ness— you can’t make me do it.

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aiahninchii ohoyo's picture
aiahninchii ohoyo
Submitted by aiahninchii ohoyo on
this is great it truly touches on the feelings of all of we who are a mix native and any other culture at least arcia has pulled it out and looked at it instead of pretending to be one or the other but not both yakoke!!!

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
It is so true in what you have said sister. Same can be said for whites who have African ancestry in them as well. Nothing is so shocking to a white family when they have a black child crop up ever so many generations. It was not because the woman had relations with a black man. It was because she or her husband had some African ancestry. What families don't want to talk about is that part of their far off ancestry. They are ashamed of it. They shouldn't be. They should be proud of every part of their ancestry. We are, afterall, one people, who the Great Spirit created in the beginning. Now we should get along as decent human beings of this planet & stop the feuding about "race" & start coming together as one species of this world for the betterment of all who are living on this world. This is what the Creator would want of each & everyone of His children on this world.

Cheryl McDonald's picture
Cheryl McDonald
Submitted by Cheryl McDonald on
I love your article, and I can relate to not looking Indian enough! Thank goodness my dad told me as a young girl to not take the opinions of others as the truth - know who you are even if you're the only one who konws it. Be proud of who you were created to be!

Nathan's picture
Submitted by Nathan on
Thank you for sharing the view from Virginia. I am glad its not like that everywhere. One sad part for me, that I also experienced, is her so called advisor. In academics its all about the orthodox foundation and how not to shake or crack it, then you can get on with the publish or perish agenda, that they find so important to themselves. Bless you.

casita's picture
Submitted by casita on
Thanks Erica, the tri-racial thing couldn't have been explained any clearer. Your family sounds like my family! I can't wait to read your book!

Darrell Shurney's picture
Darrell Shurney
Submitted by Darrell Shurney on
Thank you for your research. growing up in the south on both sides of my family have Native American ancestry but it was never talked about. Thanks to my sister she did the research and now is registered as a Native American I have yet to do so because it that that i would be made fun of living in Calif. Also even though my sister has her documents im not sure how I would be accepted if I tried to register with a local Nation.

Submitted by nativesister on
Great article! I too look forward to reading the book. What came to my mind when I read about the disagreement going on about 'who had it worse' was Paulo Freire's book 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed'. As long as we all bicker & fight about who had it worse (or better for that matter) we can never gain the strength and bonds we need to find against the inequalities and injustices as a united voice standing up for the oppressed. The oppressor STILL wins when we do this, will we never learn? Thank you again for voice, Arica, keep sharing :-). 's picture
You leave a lot of issues open and focus on a lot of generalized dilemnas among Indians, especially when speaking about blood quantum and it's origins and keeping your research localized. You leave me unfulfilled and wondering what your research would do if you captured other regions, such as the freedman and mixed blood quantums. just a thought...

Ellsworth Hawkins's picture
Ellsworth Hawkins
Submitted by Ellsworth Hawkins on
Being one of few? with certified birth certificate w/name change, and designated Black (1932?) - I concur!

janet martin's picture
janet martin
Submitted by janet martin on
I am of Native American, African American, Irish and English decent. i am proud of all my ancestry. Both of my Great-Grandmothers where white and they married men of African-American and Cherokee decent in the 1870's. My family is a beautiful rainbow, there is no color line. I am so glad that my Ancestors has the courage to marry the people they loved.

janet martin's picture
janet martin
Submitted by janet martin on
I am of Native American, African American, Irish and English decent. i am proud of all my ancestry. Both of my Great-Grandmothers where white and they married men of African-American and Cherokee decent in the 1870's. My family is a beautiful rainbow, there is no color line. I am so glad that my Ancestors has the courage to marry the people they loved.

Barker the Leather Maker's picture
Barker the Leat...
Submitted by Barker the Leat... on
This is a great article. I ran into this article after doing research on the Natives of south west Louisiana. I was looking for a venue to express my concerns about the Attakapas and how they " mostly died off from desease and poverty". Something smelled fishy and i was betting on slavery. The paintings depicted of them by the early settlers actually appeared "black", and that was a tad bit weird also. The reason for my research was because of how often I get asked if i'm part native american. Until resent i would look at people crazy and say.." no just "black"". For Mother's day a lot of my family was visiting my grandmother on my mothers side. Her younger brother, my great uncle, was there and i found myself standing behind him. He was in need of a hair cut. I couldn't help but notice how strait his hair was.. As a joke i asked him if he used some kind of relaxer in his hair.. He looked at me crazy and replied "no child". This really had me thinking those people may have a point to asking me if im part Native American. Surprisingly later that day while coming back from the Coushatta casino with my dads aunt i learned that my 4great grandmother died in a tipi because she didn't want to go in the house. When i asked, "Doesn't that make us mix native?" she replied "are you American Indian or African American?".. I had no idea what she was talking about so i just left it alone. Now most people on my mothers side, including me, has a silky grade of curly hair which comes in all colors mostly dark. Me on the other hand is a lighter tone. My dads family is mostly lighter some would consider them creole, but we all consider ourselves black. We barley accept the other origins we know we have in our blood, and we are raised to reject the idea that we could be anything other than black. My moms mother knows little of her origins. She never really knows what to tell us when we ask about her people, and to be honest the story changes every time somebody ask. I know she means no harm but to me that's a green flag on my moms side further more. Plus what she does know seems to all point to Native American. Her grandfather was a cow herder who's last name means leather maker. Maybe the reason she doesn't know anything is because her history has been erased and maybe people was shamed into rejecting their true origins in the past. This to me almost makes sense considering that fact that the name Attakapas means "people eater". To those who read my post, thanks for reading. To Arica, thanks for this educational article and ill be keeping an eye out for the book!!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
There is no certification based upon blood quantum for someone to identify themselves as American, Italian, etc. There should be no such requirement for Tribal members. Each Tribe makes their own constitution. Of the 566 federal recognized tribes, there are only a few who have chosen to break free from the original cookie cutter constitution and change the blood quantum rules. Descendancy and connection to the culture and community have replaced blood quantum.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
that is only because you have there education because you are not indian indians come from india you are the original native of north america and with all the phd dissertation i haven,t herd you say anything about that that is still the whiteman,s trick disinformation hotep peace namaste

Peter S Thompson's picture
Peter S Thompson
Submitted by Peter S Thompson on
Are you willing to deny any Caucasian Blood you may have... Sure seems like it... What's with the "AFRICAN-American" stuff anyway... Pick One for God's sake and be proud of it... Being "Native" has special Obligations as well... My Wife's a Russian/Aleut... My Daughter is 1/8 Aleut and 1/8 Russian, 1/4 Caucasian, 3/8 Scot 1/16 Basque & 1/16 Welsh... but, 100% an American Kiwi Chick... Me.. I'm an American BY CHOICE!!!!

patricia greene's picture
patricia greene
Submitted by patricia greene on
Virginia seems to remain the center of racism. It made me think of the very poor in Europe who was slaves to the very rich. They was treated very much like the African and Indian slave. It is off the subject of African/Indian, but I believe slavery existed in all countries, but certinally not like in this country. When I retire and have time to just read, I would love to read this book. I have to say, the mixture of African/Indian made some beautiful human beings. My great grand mothers was full blood and I would up not so beautiful and with thin light hair, but put me in the sun and I turned very dark. I am very thankful great people aree my ancestors.

Tanner Neely's picture
Tanner Neely
Submitted by Tanner Neely on
Thank you Professor Coleman - I am from Norfolk, VA (b 1954) and all my life my African American mother "whispered" about our Native American bloodline. Many years later when researching Plecker - I realized the systematic and horrific damage done to both populations. Bravo ! on your scholarship - just bought your book - I've been waiting for it.

Ben RedEagle's picture
Ben RedEagle
Submitted by Ben RedEagle on
Blacks are not Indians. whites are Not Indian. mix blood people are part Indian, but it does not make them Indian. I would say that unless your are majority Indian (3/4 or more) you should not be counted as native. these silly wannabe blacks and whites are not helping REAL native people by playing pretend. look at reservations. how many Native kids grow up and make gangs and get sold drugs by blacks? they beat their girlfriends and children, and listen to rap. they are not Indians. they are no better than apples. we need to focus on REAL Native traditions, lanugages and customs. not allow some supposed 'mix blood' liberal white and blacks to come up with them for us! I would like to see some actual Indians see Indians now. if only Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Sealth, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph or any other notable Indian Man could see our people now, they would weep and cut their own wrists!

Ben RedEagle's picture
Ben RedEagle
Submitted by Ben RedEagle on
Blood purity, or a bunch of liberal idiots will allow what our pure blood NATIVE ancestors fought against for the last 400 years. the right to exist as an individual group of people. when the last pure blood of any race dies, they are truly extinct. no matter how you wannabes may screech and moan how Indian you are, it does not make it a reality.

rangerchick's picture
Submitted by rangerchick on
Ben RedEagle: how great of you to be a spokesperson for ALL native groups. I mean, you must know EXACTLY how Every. Single. NDN must feel to post such a straight up all-encompassing thing like that. Good on you, bro...for precisely illustrating the problems groups like the Nottoway encounter. *sarcasm is another language I speak.

rangerchick's picture
Submitted by rangerchick on
Ben RedEagle: how great of you to be a spokesperson for ALL native groups. I mean, you must know EXACTLY how Every. Single. NDN must feel to post such a straight up all-encompassing thing like that. Good on you, bro...for precisely illustrating the problems groups like the Nottoway encounter. *sarcasm is another language I speak.