A Philosopher's Blog

Mohawk in America

Posted in Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 13, 2008

Now that Obama is President, people are talking a great deal about race-at least in terms of blacks and whites. There is, on occasion, some side mention of Hispanics and Asians-perhaps as a modest acknowledgment that there are people who are not black or white in America. However, I almost never see references to Native Americans. For example, I carefully followed the political discussions of the white voters, the black voters and the Hispanic voters. However, I cannot recall any mention of the Native American voters. After the election, I began reading about race in America and, once again, the emphasis was on blacks and whites. Asians and Hispanics are, once again, sometimes mentioned on the side. However, Native Americans are consistently left out. In this way, and in many others, Native Americans seem to be invisible in their own country. Of course, they do get a bit of the spotlight in November-people remember the Indians when they serve the Thanksgiving Turkey. After that, Indians go back to being seen mainly as mascots for sports teams.

Naturally, I wonder why Native Americans are so consistently ignored.

One reason might be the desire to avoid reminding people about what happened in America. Massive theft and attempted genocide tend to be things that most people would rather forget. Perhaps it is a subconscious thing, perhaps not. Or perhaps this is not the reason at all.

Another reason might be that Native Americans make up only about 1% of the population (down from 100% before the Europeans arrived). Hence, they might be seen as largely irrelevant when it comes to politics and concerns about race. In contrast, blacks make up about 12% of the population, hence they are of greater concern to the media and politicians.

A third reason is that Native Americans seem to lack the spokespeople needed to gain the attention of the media and the politicians. There is, as far as I know, no Native American equivalent to Jesse Jackson or Oprah. Without such people to attract attention, the media has little interest.

This situation does bother me. In part, it is an ethical concern. It seems wrong that Native Americans are now all but invisible in their own lands. In part, it is a personal concern. My great grandfather was Mohawk,  although I look white (and not just white-“Nazi recruiting poster white” as my friend Lena once said). This leads to another possible reason why Native Americans are effectively invisible.

America has had a long obsession with race and this has mostly focused on an obsession with blacks and whites. This is most manifest in the “one drop rule.” The idea is that someone is black if they have “one drop” of “black blood.”

This view is still held today. After all, people do not say that Obama is white-they say he is black. The same is said of many black people who are actually mostly not black. Interestingly, the “one drop” rule does not apply to other ethnic groups.

This has various implications for how race is viewed. In my case, I’m seen as white. First, because my non-white ancestry is Mohawk (hence the “one drop” rule does not apply). If my great-grandfather had been black instead of Mohawk, I’d be black. Interesting how that works. Second, because I look white and race is a very visual thing.

When I first started teaching at Florida A&M University (an historically black college) I had an experience that nicely showed the typical American view about race. We were discussing race in class and I told the students that my great-grandfather was Mohawk and asked if that made me a Native American. One student laughed dismissively and said “you’re white.” The other students agreed that I was, in fact, white. Then I asked the obvious question: what about “black” people who have mixed ancestry? The unanimous view was that such people are black. Then I asked the next obvious question: what about someone whose last “100% black” ancestor was his great-grandfather? They all agreed this person would be black. So, I asked the last obvious question: so, why am I white and not Native American? No one had an answer to that one. But, the clear answer is that I’m white because of how people see whiteness and the black person would be black because of how people see blackness.

So, one reason that Native Americans are largely invisible is that many of us are not seen as Native Americans. In my case, people just see a white guy and the Mohawk is invisible.