Mohawk in America

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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. This piece seems to be based on the premise that Native Americans are ignored across the board, which is false, and the assumption that Native Americans would want to be part of the system that nearly destroyed them, which many of them don’t (and more power to them, I say).
    Furthermore, if you believe Native Americans are consistently ignored, then you’re probably not looking in the right places, or asking the right questions.

    The Native American experience and history is vast and varied. I think your own family’s assimilation into the system speaks volumes to why you believe Native Americans are ignored.
    How much do you know about your own heritage? Is it just interesting cocktail party conversation or do you embrace the Mohawk culture and integrate it into your life?

  2. Kinda funny, but it may be the case that there are 100% Native American people out there, who are not considered Native American by the Government’s standards… Since to claim NA ancestry, you have to affiliate yourself with a particular tribe. You can’t be Mohawk and Navajo, you’re one or the other according to the Govt. So if you affiliate with Mohawk, when you’re 50% of each, then you’re only 50% Native American according to the Govt. Do this for a few generations, and you’re left with a 100% NA who is not NA according to Gov’t standards.

    It sure seems like the Gov’t is going to be winning out in the end in this deal.

  3. Intrigued (London)

    The colour ‘argument’ has predominated since the onset of African slave trading to Europe and the US. It is thought to have been a form of propaganda which justified the use of Africans by deeming them ‘sub-human’.

    Because it only occured a couple of generations back , the myth is kept alive today, sometimes as random statistical reports in the media that black males do not learn as well as other racial groups.

    Slave descendents in turn, have much healing to do – hence all the fuss.

    The silence of your students relates to the fact that their perspective is based on the practical experience of being judged on sight, not on DNA.

    As your heritage is not visible in your skin, perhaps you should ask your question to a group who pass for white but have this ‘one drop’?

  4. With regard to the national discussion of race, the small percentage of Native American probably explains their invisibility in the discussion.

    I live in the U.S. Southwest, previously in the four corners region of Colorado, and now in Arizona, where Utes, Navajo, Apache, Pueblo Indian, and Pima reservations are nearby. Native American issues are discussed more prominently in these regions. And most of these people don’t look or pass as white, and are more in touch with native culture than you probably are as a Mohawk. At least I suspect.

  5. interesting points made. The issues you face in America are faced here on a daily basis at a covert level. When White man arrived here in Australia, Terra Nulius was stated, basically meaning no man’s land. Totally ignoring the physical presence of the Indigenous community that dwelled here long before White man came to know this land which is presently known as Australia. Spiritually and physically the Indigenous community have been disregarded as human persons.

    This is Whiteness,the issue of Whiteness exists strongly and without going too much in to past and current situations within the USA, I can see resemblence not only to the way the Indian Americans have been and are being treated but also how any person who is not considered White is treated. This covert racism supported by years of once a more overt racist history and practices is what is maintaining our racist ideals, attitudes and practices. It is further maintained by our legislations and Institutionalized oppressive practices.

    Without full acknowledgment of all people and not using one;s skin colour for discriminatory purposes, equity will never have prominance adn our racist views will continue to flourish.

    A top – down approach to dealing with this issue will continue to allow the ideology of White supremacy to flourish and maintain its dominant view.


  6. I wouldn’t make TOO much of an issue of appearances. Jews look like everyone else, yet have a strong identity and a distinctive voice in politics. Some blacks are very white and could “pass” but choose black identity. In fact, there are Native Americans who choose to make that identity a big part of their lives and work, and not because their looks force it upon them. I’m thinking of native American writers like Louise Erdrich. More could do that. Explaining why more don’t would surely involve a very long story.

  7. My mother was Shoshone, Native American. I think the reason Native Americans are ignored is the fact the US Gov. The Power Companys, and all large Companys could never pay the Native American for the stolen Land and the theft of the products that exsisted an which have been used by whites with no reguard to the Orig. owners. The cost would break the dollar in the US.

  8. Thompson,

    Quite true-if the US had to make reparations for the stolen land and mistreatment, that would amount to a considerable sum of money. Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that many people are “mixed.” For example, I’m Mohawk, French and English. So, some of my ancestors no doubt helped steal the land from some other ancestors of mine. Perhaps part of me owes another part some reparations.

  9. my mother is mohawk [st regis,ny] my dad is white.i know that i am part native. how is the persentage based? i do have tribal papers. thanks for the help. johnny

  10. I’m not sure how the legal aspects work, but I just halved the % for each parent/grandparent and combined them. For example, suppose a person’s father is 50% mohawk and his mother is 0%. Then she’d be 25%. Of course, this is very crude calculation. Getting the “true” % would require a genetic definition and genetic testing.

  11. I am 100 percent Ho-Chunk and most of my children are 50 percent Ho-Chunk and their children will be Quarter Ho-Chunk and their children will not qualify to be Ho-Chunk. So my Clan which is Elk will become extinct.
    I know that law enforcement,social services,many other institutions really love us Native Americans but the public wants to forget us as does the United States of America.
    Many Native Americans today only know today many of them want to forget their past even though you will see many who will argue different. Except me and a few others! Peace!

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