Who Decides What Ethnicity You Are?

Mattaponi Tribe member Raven Custalow addresses a gathering in which Tribe members were protesting exclusion from certain tribal matters. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Jasmine Anderson wants to enroll as a member of Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe. Her mother is a Pamunkey and Mattaponi, and her father a Chippewa, she says. But she’s been turned down three times, she claims, because her ancestors helped Black people in the 1860s. “It’s flat-out racism,” she claims, according to reports in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Anderson says her family has been excluded from the tribe since an ancestor built a school and church for Blacks following the Civil War. The RTD article traces the discrimination back to the Racial Integrity Act, Jim Crow-era legislation enacted in 1924 that prohibited Whites from intermarrying with Blacks or Native Americans, both of which were classified as “colored.” As if there weren’t enough trouble in the tribal paradise, Mattaponi chief Mark Custalow is being accused by his second cousin, Gloria Custalow, of barring women from voting and tribal leadership.

Both Pamunkey and Mattaponi restrict participation of women in voting, running for tribal leadership, or attending tribal meetings. Free and fair elections would end sex discrimination in tribal enrollment, contend tribal dissidents. (The tribal chiefs are not quoted in the article, so we don’t know their side of the controversy.)

What’s the big deal? Why has this become an issue now? Good Lord, there are only 200 or so members of the Pamunkey tribe and 300 enrolled members of the Mattaponi. Both tribes maintain small reservations on the Middle Peninsula north of the James River, but only a fraction of tribal members live on the reservations. Why is it not sufficient to “self-identify” as a Pamunkey or a Mattaponi and follow tribal traditions? Why the need to enroll?

Could it be that under U.S. law, federal recognition entitles a tribe to various legal benefits not available to other Americans? As soon as the Pamunkeys won their tribal recognition a few years ago, various hustlers and entrepreneurs descended upon the tribe with business schemes to take advantage of its new status. The Pamunkeys have advanced plans to build a broadband internet business on the Middle Peninsula, and, more recently, a casino in Norfolk. (An internet check indicates that the internet venture at this time is limited to supplying broadband to the reservation, but the casino project is a go.)

Published details of the casino project are minimal. The $500 million project will be financed and managed by outside parties and funneled through the Pamunkey, It is not known what the Pamunkeys are getting from the deal. For a scientific-wild-assed-guess, let’s assume that the casino generates $200 million a year in revenue and the Pamunkey tribe gets a 1% cut. That would be $2 million dollars a year. There are only 200 people enrolled in the tribe. The cut would amount to about $10,000 for every man, woman, and child.

That would be a pretty good incentive to want “in” on the tribe, and a pretty good incentive to keep tribal membership exclusive.

Whatever the actual numbers, tribal membership does (or could, if the ventures are successful) confer significant financial benefits. The more money that is at stake, the more likely it is that the struggle for power and control within the tribe will intensify.

So, the question becomes fundamental: How does one ascertain whether someone is a legitimate Pamunkey or Mattaponi? Clearly, it will not do to have people “self identify” as a tribal member. We’ll need objective criteria. Given the prevalence of Native-American intermarriage with both Blacks and Whites over the centuries, it’s not likely there are many “pure blood” Pamunkey or Mattaponi. One place to start the search for definitions might be the Racial Integrity Act, which defined “Indianness” as having at least one quarter Indian blood. As undesirable as it might be to legitimize a definition from the Jim Crow era, there’s no way around the question: How much Native American ancestry must one have in order to be considered Native American? How much Pamunkey ancestry must one have to be considered Pamunkey?

Is there an objective measure? Or does the allegedly self-perpetuating tribal leadership base the decision on wholly arbitrary and self-serving criteria?

Should there be official tribal registries? Should enrollment be backed up by genealogical research? Should DNA tests be deployed? Who should be the arbiter of any disputes?

These are serious questions. How we resolve the issue of Pamunkey tribal enrollment has implications for other disputes. Among Blacks, there is an increasing clamor among “African-Americans” with slave ancestry to distinguish themselves from African-Africans from, say, Nigeria, whose ancestors never experienced American plantation slavery (but may have experienced African forms of slavery), and even from Caribbean-Africans, whose ancestors were enslaved but not by Americans. Making the question even more complex is the reality that nearly all “African-Americans” have some White ancestors — White ancestry could run as high as 20%. Should African-Americans have an enrollment registry as well? If so, what mix of African and European DNA would be required to distinguish “African Americans” from both native-born Africans and Caribbean-born Africans?

Here’s a simpler solution: No ethnic/racial enrollments. No registries. No official, government-sanctioned definitions of tribes, races or ethnicities. Better yet, drop all government racial/ethnic classifications. With inter-marriage now common, so many Americans today have such mixed ancestry that the classifications are increasingly arbitrary and meaningless. As the saying goes, if you want to get rid of racism, stop fixating on race.

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26 responses to “Who Decides What Ethnicity You Are?”

  1. Hold the Presses……. non-whites are racial supremacists? Who would have thought such. How does this fit into Kendi’s clap-trap?

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Well, if you had read CRT, you’d know that race, and by extension, ethnicity, is a social definition and not a biological one.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Expect 2022 legislation to require a racial group identification on the Virginia driving license. Police are asking for it because of all the requirements they track stops/tickets/arrests by race. If it is tied to the license data, you just track it and sort it that way, and they don’ have to figure out how to check a box on the report.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Ya know, instead of colors for race, we could use numbers. Right now, I feel 2. Back is killing me.

        If they need to track race, we’re gonna have to tell them what to track, or… or provide a DNA sample when applying.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    The area of law concerning American Indians is an exceedingly complex, yet fascinating, one. As for the question of who decides who is a member of a tribe, the answer is easy on its face: each tribe sets out its own criteria. https://www.doi.gov/tribes/enrollment

    I agree with you that, in an ideal world, there would be no racial/ethnicity classifications. I have often considered this question of doing away with official identifying classifications. Unfortunately, we still have people who fixate on race and treat people categorically. These are the people who assume that a young black man running through their neighborhood is up to no good and give chase in their pickup trucks. There is the perception among many Blacks that they are discriminated against in society and by law enforcement. To determine whether that perception is true, we need ways to identify and measure those interactions. To do so, we need to be able to identify the individuals and their characteristics we are measuring. A simple example would be the one alluded to by Steve: do Blacks make up a disproportionate share of traffic stops?

    There is another practical reason, rooted in law, that we need to continue to identify people by race. Federal law protects the voting rights of minorities. Unless we know the extent of minority population in an area, we cannot whether they have been able to vote or whether they had a reasonable opportunity to elect the representatives they preferred.

    This need to continue classifying people by race is one of the legacies of this country’s past discrimination against people of color. In order to determine whether our efforts to rectify the effects of that discrimination are succeeding, we need to know the status of the minorities among us. (Another term could be systemic racism.)

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Throw a casino into the tribal mix with dividends paid to members of the tribe, then who is a member becomes a whole ‘nother matter. Apparently, California has some wonderful lawsuits where tribal councils are denying membership to relatives of some of the council’s members. We were out there in 2014 and the insanity was all over the local news.

    2. Matt Adams Avatar

      If they can’t trace their heritage to an individual who is on the Dawes Rolls, no tribe will not accept them no matter how much their DNA says they are Native American.

      1. wholetthecatin Avatar

        Dawes Rolls only apply to a few tribes. Definitely not all and definitely not the VA tribes.

        1. Matt Adams Avatar

          It applies to the 5 “civilized” tribes in “Indian Territory” as established by the Dawes Commission.

          The 5 nations don’t recognize those not on the Dawes rolls.

          1. wholetthecatin Avatar

            Good point.

  4. Richard Smith Avatar
    Richard Smith

    Ask Elizabeth Warren,,,, she’s an expert
    or maybe that Dorazell gal.

  5. wholetthecatin Avatar

    Mr. Bacon – You should probably have done some research vs. relying on one news article that was poorly written. The Pamunkey tribe have 3 women on tribal council, women vote and women attend meetings. The Pamunkey will own their casino and not simply be a funnel. Yes, someone is funding the effort who will eventually get paid from revenue earned. Yes, someone will manage the casino who will get paid, same as any other employee. You talk a lot about tribal membership as a racial issue but that is not how tribes view it. Tribes are not racial groups. They are political groups. As sovereign political groups, each tribe has the inherent right to determine its own membership.

    1. dave schutz Avatar
      dave schutz

      ” As sovereign political groups, each tribe has the inherent right to determine its own membership.” I think that’s generally right, and it’s a good back up for the ridicule which Senator Warren endured for her claim of Native ancestry – however Ms Anderson is claiming exclusion from tribal affiliation because of criteria which are morally repellent, and the tribe is claiming privileges within the United States community, which allows financial and other benefits for tribal members. The US it seems to me could condition its extension of benefits to tribal members to tribes which have not made repellent decisions on criteria for membership.

      1. wholetthecatin Avatar

        That’s the issue. Amderson “claims”.

    2. Do you have any sources on the structure of the casino deal? I’d like to know more.

      1. wholetthecatin Avatar

        Can’t find but remember an article where their spokesman said their deal was in accordance with the Indan Gaming Act which requires that the tribe owns the casino.

  6. dave schutz Avatar
    dave schutz

    Here’s more which is not behind a pay wall: http://richmondfreepress.com/news/2020/feb/28/blood-feud/

    1. wholetthecatin Avatar

      That article was definitely not journalism as it presented one person’s opinion about their ancestry as fact without the reporter or any neutral person’s evaluation of that person’s supposed evidence.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    If one really understands what ethnic cleansing is on a world wide basis, one might also understand that racism American style or Native Indian style are but variants not excuses for it.

  8. ZERO fact checking done here in regards to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, including women’s rights within the Tribe, enrollment procedures and the total number of enrolled Citizens. Is this author aware that these are two seperate Tribes? This is not journalism; this is baseless propaganda promoting a false narrative for the Pamunkey people.

  9. ZERO fact checking occurred in writing this piece with regards to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, including the topics of women’s rights, enrollment procedures and the total number of enrolled Citizens. Is the author aware that these are two separate Tribes? This is not journalism; this is baseless propaganda of a false narrative against the Pamunkey people.

    1. Hey, I just repeated Anderson’s allegations and noted explicitly that the tribal chiefs were not quoted and their side of the story is missing. Also, yes, I know Pamunkeys and Mattaponi are two different tribes, as noted when I listed the populations of each.

      I’d like to see you expand on the Pamunkey point of view.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      “Educate yourself” is not done here.

  10. Amy Jane Eaves Goddard Avatar
    Amy Jane Eaves Goddard

    Your Soul is passed through your Mother. Your tribe is passed through your Father. Also you can only be a member of one tribe…..this sounds like a “fox news spin ” to me.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I dunno. It’s a little too sophisticated for Fox.

  11. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    When belonging is longing…

    “No one knows for sure how many Indigenous women and girls have gone missing in recent years, though “thousands” is a safe estimate. That’s because, to the frustration of advocates, there’s no reliable single source for the information. Inaccurate and incomplete information on missing Indigenous people still plagues government data, making it more difficult to spread information across the country that could potentially solve those cases.”


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