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

By Lauren L. Basson | Go to book overview

2 Métis
Americans

Louis Riel
and the
Northwest
Territories

As the continental frontier era drew to a close at the end of the nineteenth century, U.S. policymakers and local officials began to consider opportunities for other forms of territorial expansion. Discussions and debates about annexing contiguous and noncontiguous territories reflected conflicting concerns. They revealed a growing disaccord between the desire to acquire additional land and expand the territorial boundaries of the state, on the one hand, and the desire to protect white supremacy by restricting the boundaries of the nation, on the other. Both the possession of additional territory and the protection of a dominant white majority conferred clear benefits, including political and economic power, upon the European American political elite, but it became increasingly difficult to achieve both goals simultaneously.

Naturalization laws placed severe racial restrictions on who could immigrate to the United States, reflecting efforts to preserve a racially homogeneous, white-dominated nation and state. At the same time, the territorial expansion of the state raised new questions about the national status of indigenous inhabitants who did not fit into the white category. Why did U.S. officials ultimately choose to annex some territories and not others? How did U.S. policymakers, journalists, and other European American citizens seek to reconcile the conflicting goals of territorial expansion and the preservation of racial purity and white supremacy? What do these efforts reveal about changing definitions of nation and state?

One way to address these questions is by focusing on how concerns about racial mixture contributed to and revealed conflicting attitudes toward annexation. In the previous chapter, we examined how attitudes toward racial mixture played into the U.S. government’s policies concerning allocation of indigenous lands encompassed within the continental boundaries of the United States. Now we turn our attention to the relationship between debates over racial mixture and controversies concerning annexation of lands outside existing state borders. This chapter and the following one focus particular attention on the roles played by indigenous leaders of mixed descent in debates concerning annexation of two very different territories—the Northwest Territories and Hawaii. U.S. officials chose not to annex the Northwest Territories that eventually became part of Canada, despite their contiguity to the mainland U.S. state. By contrast,

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