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

By Lauren L. Basson | Go to book overview

1 “Mixed Blood”
Americans

The Jane Waldron
and Barney Traversee
Allotment Disputes

In 1890 Jane Waldron, a woman of American Indian and European descent, asserted that as an Indian head of family, she was eligible for a full allotment of land that had previously formed part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Her claim initiated a local, legal dispute that quickly escalated into a national debate about land allotment policies conducted at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Black Tomahawk, a “full blood” Indian, contested Waldron’s claim. His lawyer argued that Waldron was not an Indian but a white woman, on the basis of the common law of paternal descent.

In the initial decision in the case, the secretary of the interior accepted the common-law argument and ruled that Waldron was not an Indian and, therefore, was ineligible for an allotment. This decision met with immediate opposition from some U.S. government officials because it implied that thousands of indigenous people of American Indian and European descent, commonly referred to as “mixed bloods,” who had signed Indian treaties with the U.S. government were not Indians and, therefore, may not have been eligible signatories. The secretary’s decision thus had the potential to threaten the validity of many treaties concluded with Indian tribes, and it never achieved the status of legal precedent (see U.S. Senate 1894).

In 1905, fifteen years after the dispute began, a district court judge in South Dakota reversed the initial decision and asserted that Waldron, the descendant of one of the oldest “mixed blood” Sioux families, was an Indian and, therefore, was eligible for the contested allotment (H. Anderson 1991, 73). According to this judge, the decision about whether someone was Indian should be based on “the laws or usages of the tribe” rather than on common law (Waldron v. United States et al. 1905, 413).

The lengthy dispute concerning Waldron’s allotment claim and other contested “mixed blood” allotment cases at the turn of the twentieth century shed light on some of the ways in which people of mixed descent challenged the boundaries of both the state and nation. As responses to the first decision in the Waldron case demonstrated, U.S. government authorities had an important stake in defining “mixed bloods” as Indians in order to protect the expanded territorial boundaries of the U.S. state that resulted from treaties with Indian tribes. In this sense, the very definition of the state depended on a system of racial classification that clearly distinguished Indians from whites and applied different policies to members of

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