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.

5 Responses

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  1. Kernunos said, on November 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    A question for the good Doctor. If a man had a 100% black ancestry great-grandfather your students would, by your anecdote, think the man to be “black”. What your students did not know the ancestry of the man? Whould they feel he was black or white at that point. Of course we all know the answer to these questions. This to me proves that racism is not about color; it is about culture.

    As far as your points go I disagree with your first. I think America, especially on the Left, is very good at self loathing and feeling guilty about everything the United States stands for, has done, is doing and whta they think will be done in the future. The bad part is when the Left gets political power or has influenced politics they think that everyone should have to pay for their guilt and self loathing. The Democrats idea of Carbon Credits is a perfect example. This would be very similar to Dispensations from the Church to forgive one’s sins.

    I think that your second point hits the nail square on the head. Native Americans are not in the spotlight at election time because of the number of votes they can give. Nobody seems to care. This is, without a doubt, the most important reason Native Americans are forgotten when it comes time to vote.

    As for your third reason I think that a very political, outspoken spokesperson or a good number of them will never happen. This is of course part of their culture. They are not outspoken, loud and boisterous enough. Native Americans seem to be filled more with introverts and not the percentage of extroverts such as Jesse Jackson.

  2. Mark Mulkerin said, on November 14, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Two more reasons to add to the list – With 500 nations, the notion of a unified Native American identity only exists in John Wayne films or in the broadest possible terms. The more interesting reason is geography. Having lived in North Dakota and Washington state, it always struck me that black vs. white was an east of the Mississippi obsession (not that it isn’t an issue in the West, but it isn’t the only issue).

    Perhaps, it is more immediate in the rural west, but it is more of issue. My two cents. Regards.

  3. monkeywithpants said, on November 14, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Are you sad little Mohawk? Have a turkey leg. It’ll make you feel better. 🙂

  4. magus71 said, on November 14, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    M.E.L.F. –Mohawks speaking English and Living Free. I’m starting a new group and we’re going to change America. We’re going old-school. Tee-pees, peace pipes, scalpings, bows and arrows. No more of the White Man’s dumb crap like TVs and booze.

  5. Melanie said, on November 14, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    I appreciate your articulate expression of this puzzle. As someone descended from both a Cherokee great-grandmother and an Apache great-grandmother, both paternal, I have often wondered at the easy way people dismiss that part of my heritage, should I ever bother to bring it up. The European part of my heritage is certainly much more predominant in my appearance– except for my Apache nose, which anyone who notices seems to assume must have been broken at some point.

    As I’ve always understood it, if one is at least 1/16 Native American, then she qualifies as a member of the Native American minority under the federal definition of such. That is, of course, if one has the paperwork to prove it. My father has once or twice lamented the government benefits to which he would have theoretically been privy if he could document his heritage. (That many Native Americans do not actually receive the benefits to which they have a clearly delineated right is quite another and very sad story. See the Native American Rights Fund for more on that count.)

    At the same time, there is not even a pretense of offering the descendants of slaves acreage or mules, much less less tax exemptions. Perhaps that is simply because they were not originally property-owners, as it were, but horrifically considered, rather, “owned property.” This is just another curious element of this strange dynamic, but it does cause me speculate whether we would be as quick to appeal (consciously or not) to the “one drop” rule if being African-American could mean being the recipient, however speciously, of some “special privilege.”

    It certainly gives one reason to pause and reflect.

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