White Enough to Be American? Race Mixing, Indigenous People, and the Boundaries of State and Nation

By Lauren L. Basson | Go to book overview

Introduction

At the turn of the twentieth century, many European Americans perceived a distinct threat to their nation and state. Fears of racial mixture preoccupied policymakers, scholars, lawyers, scientists, and journalists. People proposed new policies, published articles, created laws, and conducted experiments with the aim of protecting their visions of a racially pure nation and state by preventing racial mixture. But their efforts were largely unsuccessful. People and territories perceived as racially mixed continued to challenge the standard, monoracial categories that organized much of U.S. political and social life.

When Barney Traversee came to his local land registrar to settle a disputed land claim in 1892, U.S. officials had some tough questions for him.1 Was Traversee an Indian or was he white? Was he a U.S. citizen or a member of a foreign tribal nation? These issues did not seem to hold particular significance for Traversee himself, but they were obviously important to the government officials who questioned him. There were no unequivocal answers to these questions. Barney Traversee did not fit into the racial and national categories used to define eligibility for property ownership and other rights associated with U.S. citizenship. As a result, he challenged official policies and conventional ideas about what it meant to belong to the U.S. nation and state.

Traversee’s ancestors on his father’s side were French. His mother’s ancestors included American Indians. Traversee was enrolled in an Indian tribe, but he lived most of his life in a white farming community. He had voted in local U.S. elections, but did that make him an American citizen? Did it make him white?

Contradictory responses to Traversee’s difficulties in describing who he was revealed a disjunction between the conventional racial categories that guided official policies and the more complex range of racial and national affiliations experienced by those to whom they were applied. Traversee’s dilemma and the uncertain status of thousands of other indigenous people of mixed descent exposed a morass of confusing interpretations among U.S. officials and other members of mainstream society about what it meant to be white, what it meant to be Indian, and what it meant to be American at the turn of the twentieth century.

Policymakers and other officials became so concerned about how to categorize and control racially mixed individuals and territories that they

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