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Coloring and identity, Part 2.75: When colonial racism meets reality

April 20, 2011
A deeply tanned stereotypically feminine-looking person shown from the back, with I TAN TO LOOK MORE NATIVE stenciled to show lighter skin

Erica Lord, "I Tan To Look More Native"

The series so far:  Coloring and identity, Part 1: Intro, Coloring and identity, Part 2: Some bizarre ideas about “race”, Coloring and identity, Part 2.5: How inheritance really works.

Besides the question of light-skinned privilege making more sense given the information in this post, it occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve been saying could look contradictory. On one hand, I talk about being multiracial, on the other I keep making references to Native coloration. This is not actually in conflict: as I’ve learned more, it looks like I’ve actually got one classic type of Iroquoian coloring, like most of my (largely Tsalagi/”Mingo“-Wendat) biodad’s family.

Prescriptive colonial racism has developed such a hold that even my mom assumed that most of my biodad’s family is–and by extension, I am–light-skinned with grey or blue-grey eyes thanks to being mostly Irish. A lot of her (mostly Tutelo/Tsalagi) family in recent generations tends to be darker, but her grandfather was Black on paper.* She actually commented after I’d moved here that she’d assumed I looked Irish, based on surnames**, until she spent time around more actual Irish people. Then she saw a life portrait of Thayendanegea (“Joseph Brant”), and almost laughed her ass off because he looked like Cousin Bob.

Joseph Brant painting by George Romney 1776: Brant was visiting England with Guy Johnson at age 33 or 34 when Romney painted him in his London studio. Brant is shown wearing a white ruffled shirt, an Indian blanket, a silver gorget, a plumed headdress and carrying a tomahawk. The painting is today in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Source of image and description: Wikimedia Commons.

I am going to quote heavily from Barbara Mann’s work here, since it is what introduced me to the idea that maybe the idea of everyone in North America looking alike is a falsity spawned by colonial racist ideology.  (Pretty basic idea, no? But apparently it takes a Grey Eyes-lineage Seneca/Wendat academic to point this out–with copious primary sources. All works quoted here that are not specified to be from a different author are hers.) And it’s a relatively recent received truth, at that.

Finding out you’ve been lied to all your life for political reasons isn’t pleasant. Yeah, that’s my experience pretty much any time I look into colonial history, especially where “race” is explicitly involved. (And which, in this context, doesn’t end ca. 1780, but continues.)

In the last post, I went into a little about how Blumenbach and Linnaeus posited ‘Europe as “white,” Asia as “yellow,” Africa as “black,” and America as “red” without the slightest regard to the facts’–and without having seen any of the other groups of people. See also the parody All White People have Blue Eyes!.

Blumenbach apparently thought indigenous people of the Americas had promise as human beings, but a more common theme was that they were halfway in inferiority and general horribleness between Europeans and (the similarly monolithically presented) Africans. Therefore, their skin tones must also be halfway between. And yes, the openly spouted hatefulness may have changed some, but this is still a popular belief.

From Man with a Cross: Hawkeye Was a “Half-Breed”, which also includes a brief summary of how the official racial definitions (and social attitudes) changed from first colonization to the binary One Drop Rule from about 1850 onward, which I am not quoting for space:

Whenever I press my claim of Natty as a mixed blood, someone is sure to reply, “But his skin was white,” as though this constituted proof-positive of his racial identity. It constitutes little more than the historical ignorance and racist brainwashing current in American culture. In fact, throughout the eastern woodlands generally people had light skin.7 The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of the Northeast were particularly noted for their Euro-pale skin.8 There were literally thousands of such so-called “Blue-Eyed Indians” along the mid-Atlantic coast alone,9 and they were there at first contact. The light skin of Natives of the Northeast was common knowledge, and often-mentioned, before racism laid its death-grip around the European throat.10 It wasn’t until 1795 that the notion of Europeans as the only light-skinned people on earth became a touchstone racist fantasy, pushed by Johann Friederick Blumenbach’s influential “science” of race.11

Cooper was one of the folks who knew about “white Indians” and mentioned them often. Indeed, he alluded to them several times in the course of the Leather- Stocking Tales, quoting contemporary explanations for their presence. All explanations were tinged with contemporary racism, favoring the notion that Europeans had, somehow, gotten into the mix. The three main explanations of his day featured the French, the Welsh and last, wayward “Yankees” as the intermingling culprits. Cooper knew the theories and mentioned them all.12

As racism grew in intensity in the new United States, Euro-Americans began to wax a bit hysterical over the number of left-over (and newly created!) mixed bloods in their midst, especially any lurking about undetected. Intensifying the frenzy was something Euro-Americans knew, though they seldom acknowledged: that amalgamation between themselves and the light-skinned woodlanders resulted quickly and easily in passable offspring, frequently with the first “cross.” Unwilling to admit that they simply could not tell when someone was “passing for white,” nervous racists devised eye-tests of identity by which a clever European observer could ferret out anyone’s “true” racial identity at a glance. Based on the checklist originally supplied by Blumenbach — who had never seen most of the people he presumed to describe — the litmus test turned European tastes in beauty into benchmarks of racial identification.13

Cooper made Natty flunk the litmus test rather resoundingly, the source of his “ugliness.” Natty was tall and slender, lanky and angular, with gray eyes, a low forehead, a wide mouth, straight hair and sunnable skin. [Sounds like Abe Lincoln, who did have a Melungeon mother! – U.] These were ominous attributes in Cooper’s time. They testified to Native ancestry. It is worth mentioning that Natty as described would not be deemed ugly today, but ruggedly handsome. The 1992 movie version of The Last of the Mohicans misconstrued many elements of the novel, but casting Daniel Day Lewis as Natty was not one of its errors. Lewis’s appearance in the film came very close to Cooper’s descriptions of Hawkeye.

(ETA: Ha! Daniel Day-Lewis Abe Lincoln Biopic, which I did not know about. Also, the “low forehead” thing had more to do with ideas about physical correlates of intelligence than with the great shining foreheads a lot of the folks in question actually tend(ed) to have. Yeah, I resemble that comment, too. ;))

From Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (pp. 256-7):

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, before scientific racism closed its death-grip around the western throat in the late eighteenth century, it was rather common knowledge that northeastern Natives, and most particularly the Iroquois, were “white,” just like the Europeans.

This fact was so well-buried by nineteenth-century racists that it now comes as quite a shock to most western scholars. Even some modern Iroquois are unaware that the Iroquois were, historically, “white,” assuming instead that the light pigmentation of most of the Iroquois today can only be explained by interracial mixing with Europeans in the past. As one Seneca “quipped” to Thomas McElwain in the late 1970s, “Someday we will be the Seneca Nation of Caucasians.”31 Not only is such a fear untraditional and disturbingly racist; it is also misplaced. In fact, it is the darker pigmentation that now exists among some Iroquois that is the recent development, largely due to intermixing with other Natives and, importantly, with escaped African slaves…

Before the age of colonial racism set in, European explorers freely recorded the light skins of the Iroquois. Early on, this was touted as evidence of their convertibility to Christianity and eligibility of marriage partners for European settlers. In 1632, Gabriel Sagard recorded that the Iroquois were “tawny” in color, but hastened to add that it was not because  “they are so at birth, for they are of the same nature [color] as ourselves.” Their tawniness was acquired, he affirmed, from spending the better part of their warm days nearly naked in the sun, against whose rays they guarded themselves by “very frequently” spreading sun oil across exposed skin… [more primary source descriptions of pale people]

In 1761, Pierre de Charlevoix flatly insisted that “The colour of the Indians does not, as many believe, constitute a third species of men between the blacks and whites.” Instead, their “tawny” color was “not natural to them,” but the result of the “frictions” (unguents) they used. [the sun oils frequently contained red ochre as a sunscreen – U.]…

In other words, the Iroquois never had dark skin; they had good suntans. It is time the Hollywood stereotype of the dark-skinned savage (a direct legacy of racism), be jettisoned in favor of the historical truth about the appearance of the Iroquois. Long before the beachcombers of Malibu took to sunning themselves, Iroquoian women were world-class tan artists.

From “Slow Runners“:

My point here is not French “tolerance,” but the preexistence of white-skinned Natives that excited French settlement policies in the first place. League peoples were light-skinned before the French arrived and remained so after the French invasion, without so much as a howdy-do exchanged…

Especially in old Iroquoia (Ohio, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York), many escaped slaves were happily adopted into the clans, intermarrying and enjoying all the rights of Indian citizenship. Throughout the settler chronicles, escaped slaves are indignantly spotted fighting on the Native side, and often particularly targeted by death squads for their chutzpah. 22 Meantime, in the South, settlers enslaved both Natives and Africans, forcing their “breeding” in the captivity of slave huts.23  These histories resulted in the darker skin tones now seen among certain Eastern Indians, including some like the Lumbees who look downright “black” to modern racist eyes. Native lineages that did not happen to adopt Africans [in great numbers – U.] retained their natural “whiteness”.

(BTW, I can’t find my print copy of that book ATM, but in that essay she also mentions the prevalence of grey and grey-blue eyes and brown or auburn hair–a theme that keeps popping up.)

All this tallies with what we know happened throughout Latin America–and there were a lot of escapees getting integrated. British North America may want to pretend otherwise these days, but yeah. That is just about what you’d expect to happen under the colonial conditions. More southerly Nations also took in people of African descent, no questions asked, to the point that North Carolina made it illegal to take slaves onto the Blue Ridge and west–i.e., “Indian Country” of the day–in the 18th century because the sympathetic kept doing that to free them. (Even with the later history of greedy assimilated–or “civilized” as it was put then–“Civilized Tribes” families owning slaves; that was/is appalling in traditional culture.) They also adopted and intermarried with large numbers of other Free People of Color especially in Virginia, which had more African-descended FPCs than some other colonies/later states. William Loren Katz has written some about all of this; here’s a snippet from one piece, Only in America:

There in the misty dawn of the Americas two peoples of color began to meet in slave huts, on tobacco and cotton plantations, and as workers in dank mines. For two centuries Indians and Africans remained enslaved together, and Native Americans were not exempted from the system until after the Revolution. Scholar C. Vann Woodward has concluded “If the black-red interbreeding was anywhere as extensive as suggested by the testimony of ex-slaves, then the monoracial concept of slavery in America requires revision.”…

In a clock-work of military and legal reflexes, European authorities sought to eradicate Black Indian contacts and pit Red against Black.

I won’t go into great length on how the common American mythology affects views of how many African-Americans got lighter skin than their African forbears, but there is a lot of encouraged ignorance and Great American Race Binary-based simplification there that totally erases Native people who were getting exploited and abused in many of the same ways.

Historical images of Ani-Tsalagi people

The fact that not everybody in North America (and probably South and Central Americas, while you’re at it)  started out with the same skin tone really should not come as such a surprise. In fact, an assertion like that should immediately scream racism.  It is now well-known that a lot of East Asians independently developed skin as light as a lot of Europeans’ (Genetic Evidence for the Convergent Evolution of Light Skin in Europeans and East Asians); there is no reason beyond racist assumptions to think that this wouldn’t have also happened in North America. (Remember: even in the arbitrary Clovis-obsessed climate, they are having to admit that people have been continuously living right where I am from for 20,000+ years–twice as long as in the British Isles, with lots of evidence for older dates when people bother to look for it and don’t reject the dating as implausible.)

Also, even if you assume that it’s somehow more closely connected than convergent evolution–though I seriously doubt it–without all the racist ideology thrown in, nobody would be that surprised that people on facing sides of adjoining continents might end up with some physical traits in common. However and whenever it may have happened. That is an extra-super questionable assertion in light of some of the “prehistoric Europeans getting killed off by those horrible savages” explanations for the Mississippi drainage mounds and the “blue-eyed Indians” they kept running across, but some travel back and forth should seem plausible if the Asians With Boats hypothesis is. Enough to magically whiten a whole region full of people, while leaving the folks on the other side of the water untouched? Not so much. That makes no sense.

The von Luschan scale-based map of worldwide indigenous skintones again

Here’s that map again, based on the von Luschan scale. Even early 20th century scientific racists had to admit that there was a skin tone gradient in North America. (And I suspect that by that point, they were mainly measuring the people who couldn’t as easily pass as white in the East.)

Going through older materials, you don’t have to look that hard to find descriptions of lighter people in the Mississippi and particulary Ohio drainages. The weird ancient Welsh kingdoms/Atlantean Space Vikings colonial racist conclusions some of these folks came up with–especially in the 19th century–are used to dismiss everything else they have to say now about usually tall, pale Indians in that area.

I ran across William Henry Holmes’ Prehistoric Textile Art of Eastern United States, Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1891-1892 through Project Gutenberg, and decided to wade through the expected racist drivel for interesting bits. (There is plenty of good information if you ignore most of the conclusions, which still holds true for a lot of Native-related scholarship!) I found one description interesting (emphasis added):

It happens that few baskets have been recovered from mounds and graves, but they are occasionally reported as having been discovered in caverns and shelters where conditions were especially favorable to their preservation. Such specimens may as reasonably be attributed to the mound-building as to the other Indians. The following statement is from John Haywood:

On the south side of Cumberland river, about 22 miles above Cairo, * * * is a cave * * *. In this room, near about the center, were found sitting in baskets made of cane, three human bodies; the flesh entire, but a little shrivelled, and not much so. The bodies were those of a man, a female and a small child. The complexion of all was very fair, and white, without any intermixture of the copper colour. Their eyes were blue; their hair auburn, and fine. The teeth were very white, their stature was delicate, about the size of the whites of the present day. The man was wrapped in 14 dressed deer skins. The 14 deer skins were wrapped in what those present called blankets. They were made of bark, like those found in the cave in White county. The form of the baskets which inclosed them, was pyramidal, being larger at the bottom, and declining to the top. The heads of the skeletons, from the neck, were above the summits of the blankets.[10]

Even at that time, this was apparently not considered an extraordinary find, other than that the bodies were shorter than expected; this was when it was still popular to distinguish the Welsh Atlantean Space Vikings from Savage Indians. (To this author’s dubious credit, he spent most of this work pointing out the consistencies between Mound Builder artifacts and what area Natives were still using.) I was also struck that, in line with ideology popular then, they disturbed a fairly fresh burial and decided it was centuries old. (Still couldn’t be millennia, in the time scale they were using then.) In damp limestone caverns in karst, you don’t get a lot of mummies, much less ones in good enough shape to distinguish skin and eye colors!

AFAICT, that was in Tennessee, in Tsalagi or Yuchi territory. (Which overlapped a lot, just like Tutelo and other Siouan and Tsalagi elsewhere.) Mann’s academic emphasis is on Northern Iroquoian people–of which she is one–but they were not the only light-skinned Natives. The Tsalagi are also Iroquoian people (with thousands of years’ language split), as are the Meherrin, Nottoway, Susquehannock, and likely others in Virginia and the Carolinas that I’ve missed. Some other groups that Mann mentioned in The Tainted Gift:

Personally, I have often wondered how much of the passive hostility toward the Mandans owed to the fact that their very existence forcibly exposed the racist lie, still shamefully current, of Europeans as the world’s only “white-skinned” people. Like the Iroquois and the Cherokees, the Mandans were famously light-skinned Indians, whose members sported brown or even blue eyes and light-colored hair, sometimes described as “gray.”68 When a country’s expansionist propaganda paints Indians as half-baked hunters, farmers like the Mandans reality-check the fantasy. Worse, when a country’s genocidal rationale is based on a racist assertion of “white” skin privilege, Indians who can “pass for white” are a decided obstacle.

It may be worth mentioning that the Western Siouan people are thought to have started out in the Ohio drainage too (where my family still lives; the New and Kanawha Rivers were always considered part of the Ohio–geologically, they are), way back when. The Mandan are not the only Western Siouan people I’ve seen mentioned as “surprisingly” light-skinned, either.


1540-1 De Soto “visits” the Cherokee and is supposedly one of the first whites seen by the tribe, although written descriptions of the tribe by the Spanish note the wide range of colors in the tribe, from “negro” (black) to light skinned and “fair,” according to Moyano and Pardo.

In other words, about the kind of population diversity you’d expect if you’re not looking through a homogenizing racist lens to begin with. I have seen quotes from accounts of DeSoto’s and Pardo’s expeditions before (don’t remember Moyano), describing quite a lot of diversity in people’s appearances at first contact–including a hell of a lot of light-skinned, light-eyed people among what would be Eastern Siouan, Yuchean, and Tsalagi towns–but am having trouble finding something in English ATM.

Here are some references Barbara Mann provided, in The Tainted Gift; there are plenty of them, but a lot of people wouldn’t want to believe such a large challenge to their preconceptions even with a volume full. 😦 That is, no doubt, also part of the reason I am relying so heavily on quotes from Real Historians. Bolding is added.

68. For Mandans, see Letter of 28 January 1852 from D. D. Mitchell, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects, 3: 254; and Catlin, Letters and Notes, 106. For the Iroquois as light-skinned people, see Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck, “Description of New Netherland,” 1653, in Mohawk Country: Early Narrative about a Native People, ed. Dean R. Snow, Charles T. Gehring, and William A. Starna (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 106, 107; Gabriel Sagard, The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons, ed. George M. Wrong (1632; repr., Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1939), 136; Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 (New York: Pageant Book Company, 1959), 5: 23; Samuel de Champlain, The Works of Samuel de Champlain, ed. H.P. Biggar (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1936), 4: 53; Lafitau, 1: 89; Pierre de Charlevoix, Journal of a Voyage to North America (1761; repr., Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, Inc., 1966), 2: W. Specifically for Cherokees, who are an Iroquoian people, see Benjamin Smith Barton, New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (1798; repr., Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint Co., 1976), xlv. Appallingly, the pernicious myth of Europeans as the world’s only light-skinned people persists, and is especially active among quantum-counters, hang-around-the-forts, and identity police, both European and Native…It is well past time for this skin myth, the most degrading of racist contentions, to die.

Yes, it well and truly is.

Next up: privilege, colorism, and invisibility.


* This was in Virginia, where you didn’t need to have much known African ancestry to be “Colored” on paper. (Unusually, we actually know when that came about, because his ISTR grandparents were prosecuted for miscegenation.) But, I’ve seen pictures of him, and he was dark-skinned with Native features.

** I did a lot of (frequently frustrating) genealogical research, and the names that can be traced date back to a few individuals who showed up in North America before 1830. Ca. 1830 was the lone straggler; most of them were much earlier. My mother’s own surname, which I ended up adopting, traces back to an indentured servant in a lot sold from the Highlands ca. 1630; an uncommon one which is also found among both Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and I think Eastern Band (most of the people in Eastern VA now with this surname identify as Black). Very much like my maternal grandmother’s “German great-grandfather” who kept getting moved forward in time, up into the late 19th century–when it turned out he was on one of the Palatine ships in 1736 (Johann Georg Wicklein). Sort of the reverse of the “Cherokee Princess Grandma”, yeah. In fact, overall–in spite of all the stories and coverups out of sad necessity–there seem to have been as many Africans as Europeans blended into the family.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Joseph Killen permalink
    December 24, 2011 5:05 am

    Thank you from a blue eyed light skinned reddish haired native American

  2. kamama permalink
    June 19, 2012 11:58 am

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart from a dark haired, brown eyed, fair-skinned Cherokee-Sioux. I am the lightest in my family (called Ivory) and forever told by my family that I wasn’t native enough and cast out.

  3. Tkeyu permalink
    August 13, 2013 8:05 pm

    thanks for taking the time to do this. when I tell people im malecite they call me a liar because im not as dark as most natives… but that doesn’t make sense to me. if your native tell people well im not african. im a native American. sorry for being so white, ill go tan some more just to please you *middle finer*

  4. May 16, 2016 2:36 am

    Wow, thanks for the names. I typed Mandan in and got this

    I guess the Algonquin had the most haplogroup X :

    Peace out X)

  5. Thayendanegea permalink
    October 14, 2018 8:55 pm

    Very interesting post. I’ve tried to explain to people for years that natives aren’t all dark. Of course being dark is not bad in my mind at all, but i am mohawk and Cayuga and my name is Thayendanegea and Chief Thayendanegea is my 6x great grandfather he looks like my mother’s brother and I looked like that when I was younger. People assumed that I’m pale because my father is white and that Thayendanegea was painted white to look better for Europeans because they assume all natives look like Navajo. I have to inform them that’s it’s kinda difficult to be dark like a Navajo if your people spent thousands of years in dense forestlands that are covered in snow half the year. People forget that our skin behaves to the sun just like any other human being and gets pigment from sun. I have to remind them that natives aren’t monolithic kinda how Scandinavian people look nothing like Italians or how even those dark haired tan Italians will get pale if they don’t sun themselves. My skin color is not my culture and more people need to learn and recognize native peoples culture and skin color didn’t change just because other peoples knowledge and perceptions of them did.

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