A Damaging Situation


Louisiana Weaver (1837-1914) of Winton, North Carolina

AFTER I WENT THROUGH another group of close DNA matches, I found they were also Hall and Weaver descendants from Winton in Hertford County, North Carolina.

This for me was the final evidence that my Collins ancestors were related to the same Indian Collins family from Princess Anne County, Virginia.

Interestingly, we also match the family of John Collins of Bertie County, North Carolina. This suggests that John Collins, whose sons were associated with the Bunch and Bass families, was probably from this family as well.

The major hurdle in almost all of this research has been the ill-fitting racial categories of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. People who were of a variety of backgrounds were lumped into categories like “mulatto” or “black,” or even “white” by census takers. This is how people whose ancestors were described as indigenous, and who professed an indigenous identity, wound up being identified as black, or, as genealogist Paul Heinegg renders them, “free African Americans.”

Some of them no doubt acquired African lineages over the generations. Yet this begs the question, how does one define one’s own identity? Is it the census taker who gets to say who is “mulatto” or “black”? Or the genealogist? And if having some, or any, African ancestry makes one “black,” then wouldn’t, by that same principle, having some, or any, Indian ancestry, also make one Native American? Or, for that matter, if someone was shown to be of majority European ancestry, would that make that person “white”?

Somewhat depressingly, the federal government still uses its ancient methods of racial categorization to deny people the ability to claim their own ancestry. On occasion, other indigenous people assist in this process. So that in Bureau of Indian Affairs documents denying acknowledgement to various groups — the MOWA Choctaw, for instance, or the Meherrin – they refer back to censuses that show these people to be “black,” or “mulatto,” in order to dispute or discredit any claims to having an indigenous identity.

Even people who are obviously Native Americans, like Louisiana Weaver, pictured, were described as “black” and “mulatto” in 19th century records. That her Weaver cousins across the Great Dismal Swamp in Norfolk were actually included in an Indian census or issued certificates does not matter. According to some, they were actually “black” too, as somewhere in colonial documents, they are described as something other than Indian.

While the “black Indian” phenomenon has been explored, one might also consider the situation for people who were of European and indigenous descent. They too found this aspect of their ancestry airbrushed away by racist laws that protected the purity of their European pedigrees, even if they weren’t actually so pure. These people too would be told — by other whites — that they actually were not Indian at all. All the real Indians were dead or out west or up north. Complicit in the erasure any remaining indigenous identity in eastern North Carolina and Virginia, were the groups that made up the rest of the local populations:

  • African Americans, who sought to claim anyone with African ancestry as their own
  • European Americans, who disputed that any of their own could have any ancestry other than European
  • Other indigenous peoples, who sought to protect their own special relationships with federal authorities

All of this led to quite a damaging situation for people with indigenous ancestry from this region. Under the older, racist system, they were forced to deny their own ancestry. Under the newer, post-Civil Rights system, their claims of descent are treated with the utmost skepticism. The myth of a vanishing people is so powerful that any attempts to disturb that myth’s foundations, to bring about a new realization or understanding, are crushed, often by average people, for whom this topic is still somehow uncomfortable.

Even photographs are treated with suspicion, for even if a person looks like a Native American, and is described as such in some documents, there might be others where they are called “mulatto,” “black,” or “white.” That’s the only doubt anyone needs to bring that identity into question. What’s interesting is that these people were there before anyone ever used the words “mulatto,” “white,” or “black.” They had their own names for themselves, and they did not need federal recognition to tell them if they were genuine or not, or to gauge the veracity of their claims. Partaking in the whole construction is somehow absurd. Who cares, actually, what the BIA says? Or about “blood quantum”?

What does any of that have to do with speaking truthfully about one’s own past? All of these external pressures continue to influence people, especially those interested in their own genealogies. Family histories that are theirs, that belong to them, and to no one else. These pressures, though, are irrelevant. What is relevant is the truth and telling it well.

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13 Responses to A Damaging Situation

  1. I saw this type of misidentification swing the other direction when I worked as a genealogist in the VA/NC Piedmont. Potential clients used to call and ask to hire me to discover their elusive Cherokee ancestor. By their surname, I already knew what I would find: mixed-race ancestry and relatives who used the myth of a Cherokee princess ancestor to explain it away. A little Googling is all it takes to shatter that old southern legend; numerous scholars have already debunked it. But it didn’t stop people from hoping that, by paying me enough, they could convince me to find a Native American to spackle over those parts of their family tree that didn’t sit well with them.

    • I can’t comment on that. My experience, looking at records in the coastal communities, is that there was some degree of intermarriage among people of lower socioeconomic standing. In other ways, there were no princesses involved.

      • Exactly. These were people far east of the Cherokee band, there was no point in me pursuing it. I get odd requests like that, or I even had one family who found a white ancestor to replace their ancestor of color, hoping I’d put my stamp on their research, certify a new reality for them. I think that’s what a lot of older southerners are trying to do in seeking out Indian ancestors–explain away POCs in the family tree. But the colored kin all over town who share their name, their documents are in the courthouse and speak volumes already. Working in those courthouses daily, genealogists already know how it is that local families share the same surnames–and it isn’t because slaves just co-opted masters’ surnames. Those names were typically only applied when a child was born. Otherwise, the slaves simply stuck with one, single name. The younger generations will be piecing it together for them soon, thanks to the rising popularity of genetic genealogy testing and such. They can avoid the courthouses all the want–the grandkids are spitting the truth into tubes and putting it on the ‘Net for them these days, lol

  2. Luke Alexander says:

    “…there were three culprits in erasing any remaining indigenous identity in eastern North Carolina and Virginia: [1] African Americans, who sought to claim anyone with African ancestry as their own…”
    Could you please elaborate on specific instances where African-American individuals and/or organizations actively engaged in efforts to deny Native-Americans the right to exist or be officially recognized as indigenous groups by state or federal authorities in Virginia and North Carolina?

    • The Pamunkey case is particularly interesting, because you had people like Paul Heinegg arguing that they were mostly of African descent, a view no doubt shared by Walter Plecker, and then the Congressional Black Caucuses arguing that they had discriminated against Africans. Which one was it? Or was it both?

    • Luke Alexander says:

      The Pamunkey Tribe has been recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia continuously since 1646. The tribe still resides on reservation land set aside by treaty at that time. Among those with this lineage, the Pamunkey have many direct descendants today with embedded ties to the African-American community, as do all other existing Native tribes on the Atlantic Seaboard. The Congressional Black Congress, prompted in part by constituents with African-American/Pamunkey heritage, sought to clarify a troubling aspect of Pamunkey Tribal policy that shunned tribal members with ties to the African-American community.

      Tribal policy enacted in 1886 stated “No member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe shall intermarry with any Nation except White or Indian under penalty of forfeiting their rights in Town.” Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown did not dispute that this troubling policy was in effect as late as 2012, a policy long implemented by this tribe that has served to divide it from legitimate members of their own bloodline simply for the percieved crime of openly acknowledging an African ancestor.

      Similar biased policies, written and unwritten, have been utilized by other federal and state-recognized tribes in Virginia and the Carolinas, policies that ironically mirrored Jim Crow policies used against Southeastern Native tribes by pre-Civil Rights era government officials of the past, including the infamous Walter Plecker. And yet, you suggest the African-American community had a hand in erasing a Native identity for the Pamunkey Tribe, continuously recognized by their home state since the 17th century, and other tribes because questions have arisen about whether these very tribes discriminate against their own people.

      The Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Obama administration approved federal recognition of the Pamunkey Tribe in 2016. Six more state-recognized tribes in Virginia, the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond were granted federal recognition earlier this year with passage in the U.S. Congress of the “Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act” which had the full support of veteran U.S. Congressman Robert Scott, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who represents the 3rd District of Virginia. So, exactly where were African-Americans “culprits” in using institutional authority to erase any indigenous identity in eastern North Carolina and Virginia?

      • It’s not just about institutional authority. I take it that you don’t like that word, and it’s not the best choice, however, given my experience, and after talking to people involved in these issues, I have heard many examples of people who completely adopt an African identity and either forget and/or ignore their Native one. Why wouldn’t they? The African American community accepts them as just that, while the Europeans and other Indians say they are African, not Indian. *Whichever way they turn*, that aspect of their identity may be called into question. The way identity is constructed by everyone else, there is no other choice.

  3. I will leave it to other people to share their experiences on this matter. I have seen rather influential Cherokee refer to the modern Nottoway as “negroes,” for instance, a view mirrored by Donald Trump, and his famous 1993 quote, “They don’t look Indian to me:” The manner and skepticism with which Elizabeth Warren’s claims of descent have been treated is common among Europeans/whites. The anthropologist John Strong has written about these issues among Long Island Indians. “The whites did not distinguish them from African Americans … the assertion of Indian identity caused tensions between the Indians and their African American neighbors. As a result of the ridicule from whites, and the resentment from African Americans, many Indians refrained from overt public expressions of their Indian identity.” (The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island, p. 89) It’s these kinds of attitudes to which I was referring in my piece.

  4. I agree with most of your writing. I don’t really get the African American scenario. Unless you mean the African American community that claims Native ancestry thereby reinforcing the idea in dominant European society that there ain’t no Indians left. They’re all black people. If you use the grouping of core, fringe and dominant society then I see a more clear vision of where we are today in NDN community. East Coast peoples having lived under the dominant European society have struggled to survive. Even if that survival is us banding together now in modern times. I say it is how one identifies.

    None of us that I know of have a direct 100% non-admixture pure line back to precolonial days. We have to admit that. Does it matter? To those that view us as non-Indian it does. I deal with that every day. I’m a member of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway). You don’t look Indian to me. It’s how I identify. It’s who I am. I was raised with knowledge of Native ancestry from Virginia. It was only in the last few years that we’ve been able to piece it together back to the Cheroenhaka. But then we have to be honest and realize in the 1600-1800’s we native peoples constantly banded together. Different tribes either by force or by trying to survive. So when we claim a tribal affiliation we could just as easily share ancestry with other native tribes. Does that matter?

    One thing you didn’t mention that I think you could have brushed on. The destruction of Court House records by the Union Army during and after the Civil War. This has been devastating to many Southern peoples paper trails.

    • I’ve thought about this quite a bit now. I think I can respond this way. Do you remember when Tiger Woods won the Master’s? He was widely considered the first “black golfer” to do so. Then he had the famous “Cablinasian” interview on Oprah, where he said he wasn’t just black. He was ridiculed widely after that for saying it bothered him to be called African American. There’s a good run down of that situation in this article (https://theundefeated.com/features/tiger-woods-dui-arrest-police-only-saw-black/). The same could be said of Elizabeth Warren, dealing with people like Donald Trump, who calls her “Pocahontas.” Think of how scrutinized she was for merely claiming to be of Indian descent. A well-known Cherokee genealogist recently on social media referred to the Nottoways as black and disputed their claims of Indian identity. These are some of the things that inspired me to write that. There is such scrutiny of claims of Indian ancestry. It’s a great point about record loss. I almost take that as a given, but I do wish the Nansemond court records had survived. Thanks for reading.

  5. Brenda Finnicum says:

    Luke Alexander is correct. There was or is no formal African American attempt to deny Indigenous people their right to exist, unless you talk about the Buffalo Soldiers and that was not a political group. The 20th century had Plecker and the 21st century has Heinegg. This is why tribes have distanced themselves from any African lineage, which is a shame. Heinegg has declared all the NC state tribes as made up, just as Plecker, using a genealogist, declared there were no Indians in Virginia. Heinegg is being used as some sort of credible source by those determining federal recognition, which is scary. Ironically all the Virginia tribes that Heinegg has determined were not Native or who were primarily African have been recognized.

    • I would like to know the real story about the opposition to the Pamunkey. At some point, someone might share with me what was going on behind the scenes, because this came out after the law was repealed. What we see in politics is often just the surface of what is going on behind the scenes. But, here I agree with you, there was no formal attempt. However, I posted below an example — Tiger Woods — of some people taking issue of his preference for self-identifying as multiracial rather than black, or not embracing with more enthusiasm that aspect of his ancestry. I can find more articles like this one (https://www.essence.com/news/tiger-woods-arrested-dui-reminder-black). Heinegg is a very interesting character. Unlike Plecker, who actually was a white supremacist, Heinegg is married to an African American woman, and has lived in Africa. He in fact left the US because he was dissatisfied with the atmosphere concerning race, and spent much of his career in Tanzania and Liberia (https://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/08/garden/surprises-in-the-family-tree.html). I think these experiences influence his perspective. He is very African-focused.

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