- “Mixed Blood” Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South
Theda Perdue’s “Mixed Blood” Indians appears at a crucial point in the study of colonialism, race, and American Indian history. This trio of essays, developed from a series of lectures, speaks provocatively to emerging studies of “the intimacies of empire,” as well as to the current concern about the ideological power of “blood” in American Indian communities1. Perdue argues against the privileging of race in assessments of American Indian societies of the American Southeast, critiquing studies that slip into generalizations about the cultural difference of “mixed bloods” — people of American Indian and European ancestry — from their “fullblood” kinsman. Synthesizing existing secondary work and re-interpreting selected primary materials, Perdue illuminates the intricacies of social interaction in southern Indian society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The resulting study recontextualizes “mixed blood” men and women as members of American Indian societies and subjects of Euro-American civilization efforts.
“Mixed Blood” Indians is divided into three thematic chapters, tracing “the incorporation of non-Indians into Native societies, the participation of their descendents in tribal life, and the construction of the racial category of ‘mixed blood.’” (x) The first chapter examines accounts of meetings between “Natives and Newcomers,” in order to demonstrate the ways in which kinship and traditions such as reciprocity and redistribution structured southern social relationships (1). Perdue’s analysis emphasizes the power of southern Indian nations to maintain and enforce traditional values in their interactions with Europeans and later Americans, and stresses their integration into American Indian society through ritual adoption or intermarriage. Perdue inverts the common paradigm by showing how Europeans adapted to American Indian society, rather than focusing on how American Indians fared in Euro-American situations.
The second chapter focuses on the place of “mixed blood” men and women in southern Indian societies, emphasizing the lack of distinctions drawn between these people and other members of their tribes, all of whom, according to Perdue, shared “a bedrock of Native culture.” (32) Perdue describes the strength of matrilineal kinship systems in the American Indian Nations of the Southeast, and its role in the acceptance of “mixed blood” children as fully Indian. To demonstrate this point, Perdue highlights the continuing importance of the maternal uncle-nephew bond as a means to political power, the control of the American Indian mothers over the rearing of “mixed blood” children, and the inability to draw simple lines between the values and actions of “mixed blood” and “fullblood” members of Native Nations. This middle chapter contains the core of Perdue’s argument, providing evidence for her argument that the categorization of people by “blood” carried little meaning for men and women of these southern Indian nations. According to Perdue, they ordered their world with matrilineal kinship, not race.
The final chapter addresses the racial construction of “mixed blood” men and women by tracing the resilience of this racial paradigm from early observers to recent historians. Perdue argues that although several scholars intended to dispute racial categories and speak of intra-tribal cultural differences, they often fell back upon a dichotomy between “fullblood” and “mixed blood,” naturalizing the relationship between blood and culture. She strongly cautions against this re-inscription of racially deterministic arguments that categorize southern societies by blood. In this last chapter, Perdue situates her lectures as a counterpoint to a historiographical tradition that has often assumed that persons with European ancestors would be quicker to accept “American civilization” than their fellow tribesmen. The effects of extensive intermarriage with Euro-Americans on southern tribes have long been discussed, and are sometimes used to question the authenticity of members of these groups. Perdue’s insistence on the unreliability of “blood” as a marker of culture warns the reader against any simple answer to this historiographical question.
Perdue’s book expertly argues the acceptance of “mixed bloods” in an Indian world, but she does not deal extensively with the question of the place of the descendents of African men and women in Southeastern Indian societies. Admittedly, this is...