Slave status, racial status, and slurs

Passed on, without comment for the moment, from Ariel Levy’s “Reservations” (New Yorker of December 13), on the Shinnecock tribe’s push for a casino in the Hamptons of Long Island:

Long Island’s Native Americans have been marrying African-Americans since the seventeenth century, when the Dutch started bringing slaves into New York. John Strong, the premier historian of Native Americans on Long Island, told me, “Slave status was defined by law in terms of the woman–a child becomes property of the mother’s owner. If you’re a slave and you want to make sure your children are free, you marry an Indian woman.”

But if slave status was defined by maternity, racial status was defined by color. “If the father was black and the mother was Indian, or vice versa, and the child comes forward with a claim to Native American identity, the white arbiters say, ‘Oh no, you can’t jump up a notch in the hierarchy–you’re black,’ ” Strong said. “When I came here, in ’65, you’d go into any of the local bars and they would talk about the Shinnecocks as ‘monigs’: more nigger than Indian.” It’s a slur that you still sometimes hear in the Hamptons.

And in conclusion:

Despite the economic transformation that  casino would likely bring, she did not think federal recognition was going to change anything. “You’ve got to know that the white man wants this reservation,” [Harriett] Crippen Gumbs said, her white hair shooting out from under a baseball cap. “You know what their excuse would be now?” she asked, and leaned in close over her jewelry counter. ‘You’ve intermarried too much. You’re no longer Indian.’ Well, who the hell are we?”

This, despite their maintaining many customs, including their annual pow-pow and their pattern of tribal governance.

If this were only a matter of folk categorization and labeling, then we could all muddle through with varied, disputed, and changing customs (though monig is just flat ugly). But in this case, as with African-Americans and the labels for them, there are legal consequences of some significance.

 

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