That succinct, small-town Georgia wisdom essentially outlines the rule of hypodescent, also known as the one-drop rule. The one-drop rule emerged during slavery and hardened in Reconstruction, automatically classifying as black anyone with any trace of African ancestry. It is the reason why, in the 1800s, the extremely light-skinned offspring of white fathers and black mothers were deemed slaves. It's also the reason why, in 2011, the actress Halle Berry, who is biracial but identifies as black, became a lightning rod of controversy for maintaining that her own daughter, with white Canadian actor Gabriel Aubry, is also black.
The fact that Americans with vastly different complexions know they are black by the number of cab drivers who don't stop for them as much as by any internal measure is a dilemma on many levels. But for Kim Tallbear, an enrolled member of South Dakota's Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe and a UC Berkeley professor who studies race, genomics and Native American identity, the tyranny of the one-drop rule poses a specific problem in the ongoing controversy surrounding US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and her shifting, dubious claims of Native American identity.
Because it is so deeply ingrained in us, Tallbear has argued, the one-drop rule blots out any other way of imagining racial identity. As a result, the vast majority of Americans have never been able to grasp Native American identity. As the political soap opera continues to unfold, Tallbear said, both Warren’s romanticized claims and the cries of fraud it has unleashed serve as more proof that we still don't grasp it.
“When people talk about Native American identity, they talk in the language of ‘I have an ancestor who was this,’ or ‘I have an ancestor who was part that,’ because that’s the way we think of racial identity in this country,” said Tallbear, who is in New England for Sunday’s annual conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Tallbear serves on the governing council of NAISA, which will convene at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Resort.
“If you want to understand Native American identity,” Tallbear said, “you need to get outside of that binary, one-drop framework. Native Americans do not fit in that binary. We have been racialized very differently in relationship to whites.”
How do we know Native Americans are racialized differently, Tallbear said? Because a white person -- say, Elizabeth Warren, for example -- can absorb a Native American ancestor and still maintain an identity as white. If Warren had a black ancestor, that fact would threaten her white identity.
The dominant framework for Native American identity, Tallbear said, operates on the level of citizenship: Cherokees know they are Cherokee because of a complex history of legal treaties, and because they can document a connection to tribes whose members were identified and listed in official rolls. Were those rolls, which date back to the 1800s and were largely dictated by federal agents, flawed? Certainly. "You have to imagine, you're literally lining up all the Native Americans in a tribe and inevitably it's 'Your dad's white, your mom's Indian, let's make a decision,' " Tallbear said. "Federal agents were also using non-tribal ideas about belonging. But those base rolls are what we have inherited, and that's what we use."
And because it's what tribes use, that documented connection -- the proof, or lack thereof, that has helped to fuel the Warren saga -- is not merely something that would have been nice for your grandparents to have handed down to you. That documentation is the building block of any valid claim of Native American belonging.
Put another way: Believing you are Native American based on a story about a long-lost Cherokee ancestor is akin to believing you should have a French passport because of a story about a long-lost ancestor from Normandy.
"When you are Native American and your last name is Tallbear, all kinds of people come up to you all the times with crazy claims," said Tallbear. " 'My great-great grandmother was an Indian princess.' 'I'm descended from Pocohantas.' What Elizabeth Warren said about the high cheekbones, I've had so many people from across the political spectrum say things that strange or stranger. And my point is, maybe you do have some remote ancestor. So what? You don't just get to decide you're Cherokee if the community does not recognize you as such."
But make no mistake: While Tallbear may be as dismissive of Warren as her critics, she is certainly not aligning herself with them -- and especially not with Warren's opponent, Sen. Scott Brown, whose relentless, self-righteous indignation on this issue is a thin mask hiding pure political joy.
The incessant, one-drop-rule focus on Warren's blond hair and blue eyes betrays how little her fiercest critics and the entire mainstream media understand about what Native American identity is, where it came from and what it looks like.
By little, I mean not at all: If Native American identity operates likes that of any other nation-state, then you can be Cherokee and look just like Warren. The same way that legendary soccer player Pelé and legendary supermodel Gisele Bündchen can both be Brazilian.
"Elizabeth Warren doesn't not look Cherokee by Cherokee Nation standards at all," Tallbear said. "Going back eight, nine, 10 generations, there are Cherokee that look Asian, Cherokee that look black and Cherokee that look white."
As the pundits continue to deconstruct the political gaffes, the bad timing, the amateur campaign-101 strategy, Tallbear said she for one is willing to give Warren a pass. She acknowledges that many Native Americans don't feel that way: a scathing report in Indian Country this week blasted Warren for refusing to speak with the Native American press, among other things.
But for her part, when Tallbear first heard the revelations about Warren's claims, her first thought wasn’t that the Senate contender was a fraud. Her first thought was that Warren was something much more benign: an Oklahoman.
"I'm not exaggerating at all when I say the majority of white people in Oklahoma -- a real majority -- will say, I'm Cherokee.' It's an interesting state in that way," Tallbear said. "To me, this whole story says a lot more about being an Oklahoman than anything else."
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