Are we Indians or what?

Eleven studies done on the Lumbee Tribe by personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs express no doubt that the ancestors of the modern day Lumbee Tribe were Indian. For example, in 1914, Special Indian Agent O.M. McPherson, sent to investigate the history and condition of the tribe, concluded that the tribe was descended from the Cheraw Tribe. Further, in 1934 the Department expressed to Congress, based upon a report by the eminent John R. Swanton of the Bureau of Ethnology, that the Lumbees descend from the Cheraw and related Siouan speaking tribes of coastal North Carolina. This conclusion has since been corroborated by leading historians in the field, including Dr. William Sturtevant, editor in chief of the Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of North American Indians and Dr. James Merrell, professor of colonial history at Vassar College. Dr. Jack Campisi, the tribe’s ethnohistorian who testified before the Committee, also confirmed the Cheraw origins of the Lumbee.

You should read, for instance, the various reposts such as various Department of Interior representatives such as Charles F. Pierce (1912), O.M. McPherson (1914), Fred Baker (1935), and D’Arcy McNickle (1936); various Smithsonian Institute ethnologists such John Reed Swanton (1930s), Dr. William Sturtevant (1960s), and Dr. Samuel Stanley (1960s); in conjunction with Anthropologists such as Gerald Sider and Karen Blu; Geneologist Michelle Lawing and Dr. Malinda Lowery all acknowledge the Lumbee as a Native American people.

In the first federal census of 1790, the ancestors of the Lumbee were enumerated as Free Persons of Color. The U.S. Census did not have an “American Indian” category for non-tribal Indians until 1870. Up until the 1960 census, census enumerators often categorized individuals themselves, thereby determining the race of a particular individual by sight. Virginia outlawed interracial marriage in 1691. This was the first time in American history that a law was invented that restricted access to marriage partners solely on the basis of “race”, not class or condition of servitude. Later these laws also spread to colonies in the Thirteen Colonies , including North Carolina. In 1705 the colony defined a “mulatto” as “the child of an Indian and the child, grand child, or great grand child, of a negro,” and in 1785 the commonwealth clarified that definition to apply to “every person who shall have one-fourth part or more of negro blood.” In other words, if you were one fourth black and three fourths Indian, you were considered a “mulatto”

The Racial Integrity Laws, which included the Racial Integrity Act (RIA) of 1924, were a series of legislative efforts designed to protect “whiteness” against what many Virginians perceived to be the effects of immigration and race-mixing. These laws explicitly defined how people should be classified—for example, as white, black, or Indian—and then, through Virginia’s newly created Bureau of Vital Statistics under the direction of Dr. Walter Plecker, aggressively policed the distinctions. Most of Virginia’s Indians had been classified by the RIA as racially black, a designation that continues to be an obstacle for federal tribal recognition among many tribes in and around the eastern part of the US. In 1912, the General Assembly created the Bureau of Vital Statistics to register all births, deaths, and marriages in the state, and all birth certificates had to state the race of the parents.

Under the direction of Dr. Walter Plecker, the Bureau of Vital Statistics became an active agent in policing the color line. By the early 1920s, many white Virginians, including Plecker, believed the 1910 law had failed to defend their prerogatives. elite white Virginians embraced the scientific racism espoused by the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. Founded in Richmond in September 1922 by internationally renowned pianist John Powell, self-styled ethnologist Earnest Sevier Cox, and Plecker, the ASCOA committed itself to preserving white “racial purity.” Powell provided the movement’s star power and publicity; Cox’s book White America (1923) provided the pseudoscientific, eugenic justifications; and Plecker backed the other two with the state’s police power. The ASCOA demanded legislation prohibiting interracial marriage and defining anyone with any non-white heritage—even one drop—as black.

The ASCOA’s rhetoric decrying race-mixing angered powerful Virginia families that claimed descent from Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Thus, the ASCOA’s racial integrity bill was amended to allow the marriage of whites with anyone having less than one-sixteenth Native American blood—a fraction of “Indian” heritage that preserved these families’ whiteness. This became known as the “Pocahontas clause.” Legislators passed the amended RIA to wide acclaim and Plecker began zealously enforcing the act.

Plecker believed that Virginia’s Indians had thoroughly interbred with African Americans, rendering all “modern” Indians—especially those in Amherst and Rockbridge counties—black. Plecker instructed local registrars to affix a warning label to the birth certificates of people claiming Indian heritage; the label stated that the person was “colored” and provided genealogical information. Plecker also ordered registrars to refuse marriage licenses to anyone with any trace of non-white blood attempting to marry a white person. In a 1943 letter to local registrars, clerks, and legislators, Plecker erroneously asserted, “[T]here does not exist today a descendant of Virginia ancestors claiming to be an Indian who is unmixed with negro blood.”

To defend white privilege, the General Assembly passed another racial integrity law in 1930. Under this statute, people with one-quarter Indian blood and less than one-sixteenth black blood were classified as Indians—but only if they lived on a reservation, segregated from whites. Anyone else with even “one drop” of non-white blood was henceforth black—unless exempted by the RIA’s “Pocahontas clause.” This meant that the Indians of Amherst and Rockbridge counties became black by law. He and his staff relied on birth certificates, marriage licenses, tax records, and gossip to decide who was white and who was not. Plecker “corrected” birth certificates if he thought a person was trying to “pass” as white. He targeted Native Americans in the belief that they were really blacks trying to pass as something else. The pride Plecker took in his work is evident in a letter he wrote in 1943, during World War II:

“Our own indexed birth and marriage records, showing race, reach back to 1853. Such a study has probably never been made before. . . Hitler’s genealogical study of the Jews is not more complete.” Plecker intentionally attempted to eliminate any evidence of any “Indians” in the State of Virginia, in order to purify the “white race”. Plecker modified birth records in the State of Virginia and in some cases Plecker actually ordered any documented record on any individual that indicated “Indian” destroyed, as well. Plecker threatened midwives that indicated “Indian” as the race on the birth certificate.

Virginia’s RIA remained in force until the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (1967). Virginia’s Monacan Indians have continued to battle their 1924 legislative reclassification as non-Indian, seeking tribal recognition from the federal government.

So, despite racists, despite paper genocide, despite the government and despite all the neighsayers, absolutely YES, we are Indian people.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply