Debunking the 'Half-Breed' Label

Micah Armstrong

Half-breed, mixed-blood, metis… These words are more than familiar to us who are not full-blooded American Indians. And by those who are not full-blooded, I do not speak of those who claim a “great-great-great grandmother who was a Cherokee Princess”, nor do I speak of those who say flamboyantly, “I have a little Indian in me!”, nor do I even speak of those who yell, “I am the wolverine!” at every pow-wow naming ceremony run by wannabes. I speak of those who claim Native ancestry who have irrefutable lineal proof who are not enrolled, and in a few cases, enrolled; those who were raised in the traditional ways of their people by their parents and grandparents. I am one of those who COB would place as being “half” due to so much mixing on every side of my family, including a direct connection to the Siksika band of the Niitsitapi (Blackfeet Confederacy), or as we call ourselves, “the real people”. I may be pale-skinned, but I honor my traditions through the telling of my people’s stories, by speaking my people’s language and even by creating the traditional art which my people used to and in some cases still create. My grandmother and mother raised me in our people’s traditions, however due to my great-grandfather’s parents having moved from the reservation in the very late 1800’s in order to create a better life for our family, he was the last “full-blood” in our family. Luckily, we managed to intermarry with those who also had Cheyenne and Cherokee (not the great-great-great princess tribe). Therefore we were able to keep enough blood in us for DNA to prove us as “half-breeds”. Although, none of our remaining family who are alive are enrolled in our tribe. Why, you may ask? “Don’t you have enough blood to enroll in your tribe?” Yes! Of course. “Then why? You are dishonoring your people.” I feel opposite. The reason why we are not enrolled, or refuse to for the time being is because we are proponents of the “lineal descendant” way of proving ancestry. The moment the lineal descendant way of defining ancestry hits our reservation, me and my family will be enrolled. We have all of the proof we need to be enrolled now, so why not wait a little longer? We are a surviving race of people (regardless if we are “metis” or “full”), and if we have kept our cultures and traditions alive this long without being on the reservation, why go against our way of belief just in order to feel “a part of”?

“Why are you against C.O.B.?” Well, let me take the time to explain. I will quote a man who tells it most accurately, Russell Means. In his book, “Where White Men Fear To Tread”, he writes, “In the 1880s, Congress passed the Indian Major Crimes Act to give itself jurisdiction on the reservations. From it came a body of case law applying only to Indians. The charges against us alleged violations of those laws, so the government’s first task was to prove that we actually were Indians. That required the government to trot out the blood-quantum test, and often conflicting list of criteria that boils down to judging a pedigree.” Hopefully you are beginning to see where I am coming from, and why myself and my family holds such staunch beliefs against certificate-of-blood “proof”. I both believe and understand that it is indeed important to be enrolled in your tribe, however, I see that the very root of the method of becoming a “recognized Native” is cruel, demeaning and another way to easily lock we Indians up in a jail-cell, and another way to easily segregate us from the rest of society, and even from our own people. Do you think that our ancestors would approve of this method of judgement? Think again.

In Vine Deloria Jr.’s last video interview, which you can still find on the internet, he explained that in the 1880s, just before the Indian Major Crimes Act was passed, many American Indian tribes all across the United States ended up recording every living member in their tribe as “full-blooded”. This means that even those that were half, quarter, eighth and even those who had smaller blood-quantum amounts as recorded by Congress’s and the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Certificate of Blood were marked, recorded and accepted as being “full-blooded American Indian”. This was clearly because our ancestors saw something that is strangely so hard for many of us to see today. While COB defines you as being an American Indian (and who doesn’t want an official membership card to the prestigious life of an American Indian? Mark my sarcasm…), it does not define you as being a definite member of a particular tribe. No Certificate of Blood or DNA report can mark you as being, “Oglala Lakota”, or “Siksika” or even “Cherokee”. COB makes us “Indians”. Nothing more, and nothing less. Certificate of Blood leaves us no longer as individual sovereign nations with individual languages, beliefs and traditions; Certificate of Blood marks us as just another “minority group” waiting to be dominated by the patriarchal abusive Western culture. Still trust Congress, the BIA and COB? Russell continues, “I was shocked to learn that the BIA had listed me as 15/32 Indian. That, I learned, was because it had ignored my great-grandmother, a full-blooded Crow. Thus I discovered another BIA wrinkle. On certain reservations, ancestors from other Indian nations don’t count. If a Cheyenne and a Sioux have children, the BIA counts them as half-bloods. It dismisses half of someone’s heritage with the stroke of a pen.” Need I speak anymore on this subject?

I will tell you, that the majority of the non-enrolled members of my entire family have not felt a part of; they have felt “apart from”. Many of them have come away from their traditions and have assimilated into the white-man’s (yeah, I said it!) religious practices because they’d rather be alive than be another “dead savage”. It pains me to recall the amount of racial discrimination myself and my family have all endured. My entire family has worked minimum-wage jobs our entire lives, mostly working in places earning us such glorious titles such as, “janitor”, or “housekeeper” or “sales representative”. My grandmother used to be the only person in the entire redneck town which we used to live in who used to host weekly get-togethers in her modest home with the local “dark-skinned” folks. This earned her some great local nicknames. I do not mean such honorable names such as, “Soaring Eagle Woman” or “Woman Who Is Strong”, but I am talking about such names as, “Redskin”, “The Town Whore” and numerous other heartless and cruel names which I will not mention. The entire town and city knew we were Natives, and they did not like it. Apparently, we brought back too many bad memories of how their people slaughtered our families, a genocide continuing to this day. You can talk about how a black man or an Indian killed a white man, but the moment you bring up the white-man’s mistakes, you are immediately pushed into a corner and left to die. Even though my mother and I may be fair-skinned, everyone else in our family is VERY dark. Albeit, the moment you hang around Indians in this country, you are either hatefully called, “Indian-lover!” or you are automatically bunched into the “Indian” caravan by the white-man, no matter if you have lineal proof or not.

To the white man, an Indian is an Indian. A white man pretending to be an Indian is just considered confused; but the white man knows an Indian when he sees one. My mother was consistently pulled into the principal’s office simply to be told that she would never make it, and that she should just become a secretary, because she would never be able to go to college. Yes, even though she got fine enough grades that she graduated and went on to college, the light-skinned Indian was still chosen out of the other children to be degraded and verbally abused by those who she should have been able to trust. The same thing happened to me when I was in school. I was always a straight-A student, but I just refused to make eye-contact with my teachers. Thus, I was often punished and was told to put my head down on the table, or was forced to run a couple mile laps around the school in the freezing rain. Yes, even though I am fair-skinned, to the white man, I am just another damn Indian, and they were still trying to “kill the Indian, and save the man”. This all happened when I was very young. Later on in middle-school, I was often sent to detention because of the same reasons (even though I was all A’s and B’s). I hung around the dark-skinned kids, and the all-white teachers didn’t like this very much. They used to pull me aside and tell me that I shouldn’t hang around with those sort of kids, and that they were a bad influence on me. I never listened. These people understood me, because they had struggled like I had, and they saw that the light-skinned Indian wasn’t even half white, even though he looked it. Eventually, I ended up being able to “un-school” myself, when my mom and I had to move away from our home state. I went on to finish up all of my high school curriculum so quickly that I began to take college classes even before I had graduated. By this time, I saw that even though I was fair-skinned, I would never be a white man.

This is only a small portion of my story, and the story of many of my brothers and sisters who are considered “less than Indian” by the federal government, and sometimes by their own people. I know how it feels to be disconnected from my culture because of the color of my skin, but I encourage you to never give up. You are an Indian! Be proud about it, and fight for your ancestors like they fought for you. Our ancestors fought and died so that we could be alive, the least we can do is honor them the way they would have wanted, and fight for the coming generations of American Indians so that they do not feel displaced as many of we have.

I will end by quoting one of the twenty-points made by the American Indian Movement while they were on their “Trail of Broken Treaties” caravan heading towards the BIA offices in Washington D.C.:

#11: Restoration of Rights to Indians Terminated by Enrollment and Revocation of Prohibition Against Dual Benefits: An end to minimum standards of tribal bloodfor citizenship in any Indian nation, which serves to keep people with mixed Indian ancestors from claiming either heritage.

Micah is a Blackfoot Indian of the Siksika Nation. His mother and grandparents raised him traditionally, so it has always been his above-most goal to honor his ancestors in any way possible. He enjoys writing, doing beadwork, preserving his people’s language and of course, loves to cook fry bread.

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scd's picture
Thank you for your article. I myself am African American (which I traced back 6 generations), White European (which I traced back 4 generations) and Cherokee (which I traced back only to my Grandmother on my fathers side)! Now, I am 60 winters old and for the majority of my life tried to live as a white. But, I was constantly reminded by the whites that I am not white! I tried to live as a Black man but was never comfortable around Black people. Then, I found out about my Cherokee heritage and something deep in my heart “clicked!” I finally found my peace as a human being. Now, what brings me to tears is the fact that my Grandmother never talked about being Cherokee. Then I found out why. The persecution was so severe against Tribal people that she passed herself off as a Black woman to avoid being persecuted. It took me awhile to think this through but then one day I came to understand and accept what she had to do to survive. I now embrace my Cherokee heritage and am damn proud of it! But, what angers me the most is that I will never know my Tribal connection! I will never know the traditions of my Cherokee people! I will never know any of my living relatives! And who do I have to thank for that…the white man! I could care less about blood-quantum’s because to me I AM Cherokee from the top of my head to the soles of my feet! I do not now or ever need the white man’s permission to be who I am! Anyone who embraces their Tribal heritage should be PROUD of who you are! Do not EVER let anyone especially the white man define you as a human being!
Sammy7's picture
Spirit as a world view is a life way. Science as a world view is a death way. Although I am taught not to judge, it does seem to me that those who reject their brothers and sisters may have been assimilated into the science world view. Others either directly or indirectly may be paid by the dominant science culture to divide us. It remains an unanswered question but efforts at division do not seem to me consistent with living in right relationship. To me the path of elimination of First Peoples seems crowded with Indians.
niitsitapindn's picture
Thanks for your comment, SCD. If you'd like, I can email you some resources so you can begin to learn the Cherokee language, if you want to preserve that part of Cherokee culture.
niitsitapindn's picture
Sammy7, you speak the truth. Colonization has really ruined a lot of our people's pure perspectives. Science may be able to explain what things are, but it will never be able to explain why things are.
scd's picture
niitsitapindn, thank you for the offer. It would be an honor to learn the Cherokee language. If i may, you can contact me [email protected]. Thank you again for your kindness! scd
Sammy7's picture
I am concerned that too many Tribally enrolled people are evidencing behaviors consistent with genocide by denying unenrolled Native People their right to exist in their People's cultural lifeways. It is understandable that people who violate the Indian Arts and Craft Act, should be held accountable. What is not understandable to me is how enrolled people feel enabled, given our history, to deny non-enrolled people their Indianness in wholesale fashion. Not knowing an individual persons blood, language, place, community, and cultural beliefs, and yet denying that persons Indianness based upon non-enrollment is hubris and genocidal. To me it speaks more to the deniers assimilation than it does to another persons Indianness. Just a thought.
moonlion's picture
My great-grandmother was by no means a "Cherokee princess" (I sometimes laugh, and sometimes am very aggravated, by hearing that one...especially by folks who, when engaged in conversation about their supposed Cherokee ancestry, don't know the first darn thing about the Cherokee people, history or culture, past of present.) The laughter comes from my visualizing my actual Cherokee great-grandmother, a hard-working farm woman, hoeing her fields wearing her tiara! By the way, I'm proud of that part of my heritage and very glad that my grandfather passed knowledge from it on down to me, but I've never claimed to be Indian as a result of it. I'm a "white" person (wish we could all get away from describing one another by the color of our skins) of Scottish-English-French-Cherokee ancestry. To me, an Indian is an enrolled member of a tribe and/or grew up on, or has close ties to, their rez.
swancj's picture
For some of us on the east coast, our identity is a mixed up thing. My father was told to never tell anyone he was Indian. As a teen, I started asking questions. I just felt different, and certainly we looked different. I looked through the old photos of his family, and it seemed obvious to me, some of these folks were Indians, some were Black. I kept asking questions, and I started going to the nearest Indian center, where I was met with a limited welcome by others my age, but the adults had some answers, and they told me, they understood, and they knew who I was. Eventually I married one of those kids, many years later. He was enrolled, he remembers his mother telling him he had to choose between being white or being Lumbee. We have done some research, and we noticed that in Maryland, in the Census Rolls, many people responded to the removal act with just changing their racial identity. For some of my father's family they chose. or were, black. Some suddenly became mulatto. Some suddenly became white. When the previous list had them as Indian. Hmmm. Stories say there were bribes paid, and documents shredded - and no one was to ever mention that they were Indians. All this picking and choosing. Here is the thing. I was raised to pretend. I was not comfortable with pretending. Ever since I keep hearing about choosing. I did not choose to whom I was born, and I am not comfortable with choosing. So, I honor all of my ancestors, with stories of their memories, stories of their cultures, with the food they fed me being fed to my children. With room for my children to figure out who they are, and not having to choose. I have two sisters, who never seemed to need to figure this out. It is okay if we are different, regardless of how much our blood quantum would be the same. How can we respond to the de-construction of our heritage by turning around and de-constructing people? Am I supposed to keep pretending, but now because I live 'too white'? Do I pay for my father's and grandparents' decisions? Is this the best way for us to be?