The classical stereotype of the Native American is a tired and worn cliché: a dark-skinned, “noble savage” on horseback, hunting buffalo with bow and arrow. It’s an unfortunate result that comes from the informing of our realities by fiction. But, as a modern, mixed-race Native American citizen of Appalachia with nowhere else to see my own identity, I find this somewhat understandable. Popular culture and entertainment provide the most immediate references modern society has of Native Americans, a race of peoples that has all but vanished. So, it’s no wonder that people, including myself, have a hard time reconciling the perceived whiteness of a person’s skin with their underlying nativeness.
I look at myself in the mirror some days, searching for the likeness of my ancestors in the flatness of my nose, the lines in my face, the dark circles under my eyes. Even without the recessive gene of other ancestors who passed on to me my thinning copper red hair, I would likely still look at myself and think, “Am I ‘dark enough?’ Can I really call myself Monacan?” Sometimes, all I see is the whiteness, and it makes me wonder who I am. Other times, I can see the Monacan, and it makes me wonder who I was – and what does any of it mean now?
I know I have the blood of white Europeans coursing through me as much as I do the blood of Monacans. I know my ancestors were regarded as second class citizens, had limited access to schooling and medical services. I know they faced the same exact kind of toxicity that certain people of color still do. We forget sometimes that it was only 51 years ago that “non-White” people were legally allowed to marry white folks in Virginia. In fact, my great uncle and aunt initially could not get married because she was viewed as White and he as Black despite his Monacan blood.
In January of this year, the Monacan Nation finally won a decades-old fight for federal recognition. Headquartered in Amherst County, the Monacan Nation today is the largest of the Virginia tribes, with 2,000 members. And although the Monacan people have primarily lived on the same ancestral homeland for over 10,000 years, it is only now that they have the benefit of federal recognition.
What made the recognition of the Virginia tribes unique was the legislative track that it required. Normally, tribes go through a process of recognition administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, a lack of official state and federal records made that nearly impossible for my people, for a few reasons. Many of the churches and courthouses that held those vital records were either burned or destroyed in the various civil war battles that characterize the area. Monacans were also an intentionally sequestered people who were wary of early colonists’ presence, which meant the government had a difficult time maintaining accurate records.
But the biggest reason that Monacans and other Virginia Indians have trouble tracing their lineage is the result of a man named Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker.
Plecker was an outspoken white supremacist and eugenicist who headed Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. At the time, he and other fringe government officials sought to protect the white race from mixing with other races. Although Virginia already had anti-miscegenation laws, Plecker helped pass several pieces of legislation meant to propel those policies, including the Sterilization Act and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, into the mainstream of politics and legislation.
It was the Racial Integrity Act that hurt Virginian Indians the most. The landmark piece of legislation not only made interracial marriage illegal, but it also instituted a “one drop” rule that effectively classified everyone into two categories. “One drop” of Native American or African blood, made one simply “colored.” Within only a few years of the legislation, the recorded population of Virginia Indians plummeted. Plecker had all but erased the footprint of the Virginia Indian.
Some Monacans held on to their traditions and refused to be defined by manufactured racial designations. This included many of the Monacans living in Amherst who were still classified by the state as “colored” but maintained their cultural ways. Today these people and their descendants make up the heart of the Monacan Nation.
Other Monacans quietly blended into society, mindful of their roots, but relegated to watching their traditions be whitewashed by time and circumstance. Such was the case of my grandfather.
My grandfather was raised by his Monacan parents near the same area in which his ancestors had lived for millennia. He tilled and sowed the thick clay soil of the Virginia countryside like his parents before him. He worked in orchards for extra money and farmed bees for their honey. He worked as a textile fabricator and served as an Army medic in World War II.
When he went to war in Europe, he was classified as a white man, despite his Monacan blood. He received a bronze star for bravery and a purple heart. But when he came home, he found that his true racial and cultural heritage was still scorned. And even though he could surprise you with a story about his time in service, he never talked about where he came from.
I am afraid that he didn’t talk about it because of fear. Fear that he would still be judged the way his parents and grandparents were for being native, for being brown, for being other than white. Perhaps he saw too much in the war that reminded him of what that kind of prejudice can do. I fear that I will never know the rich history of my ancestors, because it was all forced-forgotten.
Like everyone, maybe he wanted a better life for his kids. Maybe he wanted his bloodline free of the prejudice that plagued his family for so long. Maybe he wanted them to have access to a greater education, successful careers, better hospitals and medical services. Maybe he wanted a better life for them and if meant quietly assuming a disguise, so be it. I can’t say I blame him.
I often think that his dedication to our country was a way of being an equal part of something that historically didn’t want him as a member.
Reflecting on current events, my family’s history gives me pause.
It makes me believe that the notion “we have come so far since then” is illusory and a dangerous assumption. We see subtle disguised versions of racism in the news everyday and naked examples on social media. Hate crimes have increased and right-wing extremist movements have taken to the streets with new fervor. It happened, here, in my own town on August 12 of last year when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians and protesters, claiming the life of an innocent young lady. So, the idea that we have come so far is comforting, but the reality is, we are still in the fight.
My grandfather and his family were the target of white supremacist ideology and legislation. Yet, he was willing to defend the country responsible for it by fighting a similar ideology overseas. When I contemplate what it means to look white and be mixed raced here and now, I focus on the responsibility I have to myself, my ancestors, and my history to remain vigilant against those who might present similar threats to others.
I look at my mixed blood as not only a sum of my parts, but a reckoning of them as well.
Flash (@FlashClark) was born and raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and holds a B.S. from Virginia Tech and an MFA in writing and poetics from Naropa University. He has worked with Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, interviewed Dr. Maya Angelou and had his work appear in 16 Blocks Magazine, The Rooster Magazine, The Collegiate Times and the Scotland-based Anything Anymore Anywhere. Flash lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, working as an author, web content writer and book editor.