The Ugliness of Indian-on-Indian Racism

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

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.

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.

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Dina, I know exactly what you are talking about my friend. You are correct that our own First Nations people are racist as well. I, too, have also witnessed this all. Some of our brethren of various peoples are guilty of this even today as we speak. It is WRONG! It is not ones skin tone that makes us be of the People. It is the condition of our hearts & our spirit my friends. The Great Spirit made each & every one of us. In the times of the ancestors it was not ones origin or skin tone that made someone a member of the People. As anyone knows who knows our various histories, what made someone a part of a tribe or clan didn't always have to do with being born into a particular family, etc. Sometimes others came into our villages from other tribes, had various skin tones & place of origin as well. Sometimes someone was captured in battle, but over time, they became one of the People through being adopted in time, proving their self worth through helping out in the village, etc. In some places the People pride themselves because of how dark they are, what percentage of native blood they have or because of the position they may hold in their community. This is foolishness & pride of the wrong sort folks. We should each be looking at pleasing the Creator & be concerned at what He says is right or wrong. None of us are ever going to be perfect, but we can each strive at living in a good way & all that entails each day we are granted one more breath. Our time in this world & this realm is so fleeting my friends. Our time here is to learn until we transition into the next state of being in the spirit world. Every stage is to learn something that would not be possible to learn in the next stage. It is all connected & teaches us something as we travel from stage to stage. Put aside all of this foolish & arrogant pride of the wrong kind my friends. Listen far more than you speak each day my friends across Indian Country. It is far better to strive to please the Creator than to try to please mortals. Life isn't about a popularity contest, it's about right & wrong, the forces of Light & Darkness, being pleasing to the Creator & living in a good way my friends. Let today be the start of a new life for you. Let it be the beginning of living in a good way in your community, your tribe, clan & family. Help someone today. Say a kind word to others who have lost hope. Set the example of what it is to be a good person through the kind words you say, encouragement you give & standing up for those who are unable through one reason or another at this time in their life. Be the example & exception of what it is to be an inspiration to someone out here today my friend. Be the example & set the example of what living in a good way is that brings pride of a good way to our native communities all across Turtle Island. Today may be the day that changes a life in a good way for someone you have no idea about that has lost hope. Be a light & shine the Light that causes the Great Spirit to be proud of you as one of His warriors of goodness, kindness & compassion towards each person we come across daily.
Two Bears Growling
bootanner's picture
I completely agree, except for calling it racism. Racism is an entity of power and privilege, which institutionally and systematically make it normal for discrimination to take place. I like the term "Lateral Oppression," whereas people of the same race bring each other down because they themselves are so oppressed, systematically they can only oppress each other. I always found it strange and annoying when people ask how much Indian I am. Why should I quantify my Indianness by colonial standards? Great article!
hesutu's picture
Brilliant essay, thanks so much for speaking the truth about these matters.
Lightfoot92's picture
I can relate to this topic. I am half Native American and half white. I am the son of a woman who is predominantly of Irish heritage and a man of full-blooded Narragansett Indian ancestry. My Dad is 1 of a very few full-bloods remaining. The Narragansett tribe is from Rhode Island and is a federally recognized tribal nation and I am an enrolled member. I was raised by my mother after my parents got divorced when I was only 5 years old. I only saw my father a few times a year, though every time I saw him, he took my brother and I to visit other relatives or go to cultural events on our reservation. I grew up having to cope with insults and comments about my middle name being Lightfoot and the fact that I got a dark tan in the summer while everyone else in my neighborhood got sunburns. I even had an uncle on the white side of the family who would make comments about my brother and I being "Indian boys". I understood at a young age that, despite being half white, my brother and I were seen as "Indian boys" by the white community in and around our neighborhood. Odd looks and random statements were made about my Native heritage in my years of attending Catholic schools. My middle name of Lightfoot seemed to draw attention from the nuns. On the flip side, when I was around my father's side of the family and the rest of the tribal community, I was just seen as one of the family. Granted, my cousins also were of mixed Native and non-native ancestry too. However, when social media was in its early days of exploding, I began to chat and befriend full-blooded Natives from the western US, searching for a bond with other Natives. In large part, I did make many new friends who were full-blooded Native from the southwest. But I had a few who made comments, as "jokes", about me being half white. Furthermore, some even questioned the legitimacy of my tribe's existence. It was as if they felt that Native tribes east of the Mississippi were all extinct now. I have always felt insulted by this. But there will always be some who are ignorant, in all races, ethnicities, etc,. I am currently engaged to a woman who is a full-blooded Navajo and her family has accepted me as a fellow Native American, respected that I am half white and treated me like I am family.
smartphoenixnavajo's picture
Perhaps you are referring to the tribes in the east or north, in the southwest, I have never heard Indians use the term "breed". You yourself start out by marginalizing the other Indian by the description of his prison time and possible crime, which immediately dehumanizes the other Indian. Its written like a police report and we are the judges. The other thing, is this over use of Indians always saying Indians things like "..our people drinking...". Its everyone, not just Indians, so in the future, leave it at that. In my own world, I do not deal with anyone who appears to have a problem with drugs and alcohol. Their thinking is just not ever going to be on keel with healthy thinking. You would be best to stay away from such people. Your parents should have told you this, if they did not, now I am telling you this, "Stay away from people who do drugs and alcohol." If they did, you should have listened. The whole other diatribe is just that. Nothing new there, its all on the books and any semi-literate Indian knows all this. Your just mixing it up in your heart and mind. The bottom line is the other Indian is not in the right mind, the alcohol and drug thinking is that way and any attempt to rationalize it is futile. Move on.
tmsyr11's picture
Just reading the article, it DOES almost sound like a scorned lover's story mixed in with bits of past relations (based on projected 'racial' issues) and sprinkled-covered with colonialism(?).
metis22's picture
Dina: first I question the "friend" who felt the need to tell you this - why? That Iago character embedded in your friend felt the need to stir the pot, cause trouble, make you question your other friend. Regardless if the "friend" who told you is Native or not, THEY too are guilty of thinking "white." Your other friend has been in prison, and survived, the worst male culture possible. It might be it was male bravado and crowing - not right but a definite norm in today's world. May be being FBI is the only pride he still has. It's a good one. I know the difference of being called "breed" from an all-white community and then, when older, because I was metis, so I somewhat agree with bootanner about racism being an entity of power and privilege yet when a community looks at its' own and sees differences - alas, the domination from outside has set in. The reason I use to (past tense) appreciate the southeastern peoples is because they respected each other: if the immigrants wouldn't respect them, they at least called each other Mr., Mrs. or Miss - I never knew any adult without two names - Miss Sara, Mr. John, etc. Ok, even in the mountains, that's almost gone. But the idea is right - if no one else respects you, respect one another. Read the stories of Sitting Bull, Dull Knife, the Trail of Tears: what really drove the white soldiers/men nuts? - they couldn't turn The People against each other, use jealousies and scarcity as tools against them. They couldn't make them negative toward each other by starting rumors or spreading lies. Not true today, is it? One other possibility is that your long term friend who was in prison learned something else from the white world - he talks just to hear himself talk and doesn't even realize when he's running his mouth or what he's saying. Did you ask him? Prison, drink, abuse are all known to do that to a person. I also agree with most of what smartphoenixnavaho says. The only thing I would add is: think about why you start talking about any other person not around when you're in a group. then try to walk out on the conversation without the group getting angry at you.
onehawkh's picture
I also have seen this change in our people. We used to say "be mindful that you do not become like those that hate us so much". But hating one another is something that we have assimilated into with with out an effort. I seen the name calling from one tribe to another. It has become easy for our young and old to use the "N word" and to wear our pants down around our knees. Then in the turn of a minute talk about discrimination and cast blame on another race for what is happening to us now. We can stop the hate by starting with in our own families, communities, and reservations. Then I know we can change the world. I love my people, those that were here before me, the present and future. But I will not become like them that carried that disease to this land of which some still have. Let's help one another to return our people to what we once were.
Ryanbellerose's picture
first off the guy was in jail for a violent crime against a woman so right off the bat, im inclined to say no big loss. Being of mixed blood you notice the different treatment you get depending on the tribe, I noticed up north the cree and the Beaver indians, dont seem to care much but the Dene really notice. I see derogatory terms like breed, half breed, broibrulee (burnt skin) used all the time, as a Metis person I am lucky because we do not see ourselves as half anything, we are full metis, as a mixed blood status indian, I imagine its much different. I see intertribal bigotry all the time, I grew up with it, the metis, the cree and the beaver indians all made fun of dene tha, or "slaveys" because our parents did. when I was small and did something exceptionally dumb or greedy, I would be told " don't act like such a slavey" " you ate all the cheezwhiz? you are such a slavey." any bad characteristic was inferred to be that of a "slavey". it took a long time to rid myself of that prejudice.
Robert DesJarlait's picture
The first thing that comes to my mind is colorism - prejudice or discrimination in which human beings are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color within a certain human group. Colorism is practised within the group in which lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin. Although colorism is most often associated with African-Americans, we can see it practised by Natives. We could use "breedism" as a term. But I think what Gilio-Whitaker touches on here is strongly related to colorism. In this case, a full blood (and I am by no means generalizing), who regards anything less than 100% blood quantum as meaning one who is not Native. Hence, one is less traditional and less cultural. More specifically, physiognomy determines who is more Native and who is less Native. However, being a "half-breed" or, for that matter, three-quarter "breed," one-quarter "breed," has no bearing on Native experience and whether one is traditionally minded or less cultural. It's tribal eugenics based on antiquated blood quantum rules imposed by the federal government.
Robert DesJarlait