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Mixed Blood Indians, by Theda Perdue.

May 3, 2015

Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South, by Theda Perdue. University of Georgia Press (2005), Paperback, 160 pages.  (Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures.)

Indigenous peoples

4 stars

A group of lectures by an eminent historian that reframes our understanding of how race was constructed in the southeastern United States as people of European and African origin moved into Native American villages in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Theda Perdue is a highly respected historian of Native American peoples, especially those who were living and farming in the southeast where European contact spread before and after the Revolution. She has published significant research about the “Five Civilized Tribes;” Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole people who were removed from their homelands in the 1830s. Under pressure from European American settlers who wanted their land, they were forced along the infamous “Trail of Tears” and granted lands further west “as long as the grass grew and rivers run.” Today those lands are the state of Oklahoma which is no longer owned by Native Americans.

With abundant evidence from primary sources, Perdue argues convincingly that “mixed blood” and “full blood” are outdated terms that define behavior as dependent on ethnic ancestry. Such terms are rooted in white supremacy, and yet they are still used to define tribal membership. Even respected historians today use the terms to explain how Native Americans chose to react to the arrival of Europeans. As Perdue shows that reaction was much more sophisticated and individual than a simplistic correlation to their father’s ancestry.

Perdue begins by examining Indian families as they understood themselves. These were matrilineal societies in which fathers were barely relevant. Land was held communally and the woman who worked the fields controlled the food supply. During the 1700s, men from outside the tribal regions came in increasing numbers and sometimes stayed in the villages. Sexuality aside, many of the Europeans were traders who found important economic advantages in living with Native American wives. They could not own land and were dependent on the women for food. These marriages were also advantageous to the women who benefited sharing their husbands’ material goods with their own extended families. Because of the advantages, many of the marriages between traders and other outsiders were with the daughters of at tribes’ economic elite. Men from outside were expected to accept the traditional assumptions and had little authority or even influence over their own children. In particular, sons were educated and groomed for power by their maternal uncles.

African men, usually escaping slavery, were initially assisted and allowed to move on or to remain in the villages. As European slave owners began to pay for escaped slaves, they tended to be a source of income. When commercial agriculture spread in the villages, elite men, not wanting to do women’s work themselves, used the slaves as field laborers. Their place in the tribe would become problematic in later years in Oklahoma.

As the second and third generation of those with European fathers came of age in the 1800s, they moved easily into traditional leadership roles much like others from economically elite families. Both groups began to learn English and receive education and knowledge from the world beyond their tribes. But as divisions emerged within tribes over the extension of power of the American government over their lives and land, the lines between groups did not reflect differences in their fathers’ ethnicity. Elites who had profited from the extension of white settlement and power all tended to more intervention. The vast majority of tribes firmly resisted removal from their homelands, not simply those who were “full bloods.”

Turning to intellectual history, Perdue explains that belief in some degree of universal rights was widespread in 1700s, but ideas of a hierarchy of races became entrenched in the next century. A belief in white supremacy and progress gave justification to the take-over of indigenous lands. The myth spread that the half breeds naturally allied with the destruction of full breed lives and power. According to Perdue, it is time for eminent historians to stop perpetrating that myth and look more closely at the social and economic factors that caused Native Americans to accept their own displacement.

I found Perdue’s descriptions very plausible. I was impressed by the way in which she was able to describe Native American families from their own perspective rather than that of whites who left written sources about them. I liked her outspokenness about the way we continue unconsciously to use the language of white supremacy. I learned a great deal from this small set of lectures.

I grew up in Oklahoma, in the former Choctaw Nation. In the 1890s, my grandparents were among the early white settlers on the lands given to the Choctaws at least until coal reserves and railroads proved valuable. As an historian, I have explored and written about the history of the region, particularly the enslaved and free African Americans . I have also researched and written about the “Black Seminoles” who assisted the U.S. Army in destroying the Native Americans living in the plains and deserts of this country after the Civil war. Perdue provided me new insight into these stories.

As I read this account of racial interaction in the 1700s, I was struck by how little I knew about anything but the violence between indigenous people and their colonizers. What I read seemed very different from the narratives I have been reading, for example, about Australia which was settled about a century later when ideas about white supremacy were more firmly in place.   Did white men marry, settle in indigenous villages, and accept their assumptions, as Perdue claims happened in the American southeast? Novelist Kim Scott seems to indicate they did in southwestern Australia. What can anyone tell me? Or what books do I need to read?

Mixed Blood Indians is an excellent book, one that prods us to think about our own assumptions in new ways. I recommend it firmly to all readers, not just American historians, but all who care about race and colonization.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Christine Choo permalink
    May 3, 2015 8:02 pm

    Thank you for this review. It has given me a tiny tantalising window into the North American situation. For some Australian background you may be interested in reading my book:
    Mission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900 – 1950. Crawley, Western Australia. University of Western Australia Press. 2001.

    • May 10, 2015 11:06 am

      Thanks for mentioning your book. I will try to find it, but not all Australian books are available in the US.

  2. maamej permalink
    May 22, 2015 2:35 am

    Thanks for an interesting snapshot of the book & a small piece of American history that I didn’t know about.

    In answer to your question, I immediately thought of the sealers in the Bass Strait (between Australian mainland and Tasmania), but I don’t actually know enough about the history to say if they’re comparable. There seem to be differences of opinion about how consensual the relationships were, although this site by Tasmanian Aboriginal elders says the exploitative nature of the relationships is over-stated.

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