Trace DeMeyer answers questions about Race and New England Indians, Interviewer Historian Professor Ray Favre
Do you think the culture of American Indians in a more traditional setting allows for more tolerance of other groups and races of people?
I believe that in an early time period, at contact in the 15th century, there was much for tribes to understand and comprehend about the strangers. The Pequot and others were very interested in trade but also wary of this aggressive new human, either the Dutch or British. It’s been documented that the Vikings were the first people to come in contact with tribes in the East but they traded goods and left.
Indians would watch and study a man’s actions. After expeditions started and colonists started settlements, the day came to convert the heathens to the colonist view of God and instruct new religious practices. Indians had learned firsthand the unlawful way the colonies created laws to take more and more. That is where the Indian intolerance for whites began. It could only mean one thing – war - save the tribe and kill this white invader. Then there were periods of peace, after agreements were made to set aside reservations here in the East too.
I strongly believe that Indian people here on the East Coast were much smarter than we realize, in that many wore the cloak of Christianity to save their lives. It was not difficult to pray to the Great Spirit - they were easy converts. The fact Christianity was used to justify their becoming subjects and slaves to the British, it definitely changed the Indian’s traditional values, because they did not have a materialistic nature; it also changed and nearly wiped out the practice of their culture, medicine, agriculture, etc. It was quite contrary to them. Native people exhibited the values of goodness better than those trying to convert them. Indian people started to understand hypocrisy.
You can imagine their bitterness, their reaction to defeat. William Apess, a Pequot minister, was a self-published author, and definitely writes about this. His grief was so insurmountable, he died of alcoholism.
An eleven-year-old Pequot girl, Hannah Occuish, was the first child to be executed by hanging for murder in Connecticut. She worked as an indentured servant, a fancy word for slave. (I tried but was unable to find out much about Hannah in the colonial record.) Yes, the colonists could hang a child.
Pequots and other Eastern tribes suffered a tremendous loss when their men were hunted down and killed in the 17th century. After the Pequot War of 1637 and in 1638, it left many women to fend for themselves. I don’t believe they felt prejudice toward African people. Indians saw how they were treated.
Indian and African families were torn apart by the sale of their children, or either parent. Intermarriage happened as a result. Yet remember this, Indian people were always very sure of who they were, even if they intermarried, and they fought census takers to record their children as Indian. Africans assumed a tribal identity, not the other way around.
It’s evident later on, in Rhode Island for example, laws were created to keep Indians and Africans from hanging out together in taverns after work, in the 18th century. It was natural for those who were oppressed to stick together. In turn, New England states got worried and created a law and curfew to curb their contact. (In the 1704 and 1705 Rhode Island General Assembly)
Do you think we (Indians) are more discriminatory and, possible more racist, than our parent and grandparents?
I think that there is a mindset that the white man can’t be trusted. Promises were broken, and you can’t take a white man at his word. I think today’s Indian is even more discriminating and distrustful. We watch or read the news from all over the country. Many of us know the truth and the real history. I do think that we turn on ourselves, too, when we feel powerless.
I would agree that racism exists on reservations, because there has to be someone to blame for the oppression that is so pervasive. Some parents are the products of boarding schools and they are still infected with the sickness and sadness of loss. Historic grief is like a poison, like the European’s alcohol.
Has there ever been a time that African-Americans have ever played a role in the history of your tribe? Or a role in the context of your personal family experiences?
I’ll answer the second question first.
My earliest experience meeting an African American was as a young girl visiting relatives in Illinois, near Chicago. I had no pre-set fear or prejudice. I made friends quite easily. I admit I knew very little about African or African-American culture. My classmates and neighbors were Ojibwe Indians, Anishinabe. I felt the racism that was directed at them, not at me personally.
College life was worldlier, more diverse. My friend Elsie was from Nigeria and we lived in the same college dorm. I also met students from Asia, Canada and Europe. I didn’t really begin to personally react to racism until I started to learn about it - prejudice, slavery and history - and the thought and arrogance that one race is better than the other.
I began to sense what we call white privilege, especially in northern Wisconsin. Indians were thought to be inferior but tolerated in the same church and school. Some were even reluctant to admit they had Indian blood.
I was adopted and raised in Superior, Wisconsin. There were a few African Americans working in Duluth, MN at the Air Force base. There was one African American student, Tony, at my high school. We were close, very good friends, but we never dated.
My adopted father Sev was racist and intolerant, but not my other relatives. I didn’t respect Sev so it wasn’t hard for me to discount what he said or believed. I have no idea where Sev got his hatred for Blacks.
I had a Catholic education and it was one of tolerance, and a commitment to Jesus, though if tolerance were put to a test, I’m not sure the Catholic nuns weren’t racist. They did treat Indians differently. It was evident to me at a young age.
In my own limited experience of the Cherokee people, yes, they had contact with African people and the Cherokee treated them to the same slavery as the white society. From the slave narratives, I believe that the African slave was treated better by an Indian owner but it was still slavery. The treatment of slaves was different in different parts of the country. In some places, there were Indian slaves. In other states, Indians kept slaves. It was definitely a learned behavior.
Since I began my study of First Contact, I also have learned that white slave owners in the South recommended that you buy an African male and Indian female. There are advertisements in old newspapers. There were also slave breeding farms. There are references to that practice.
Obviously, there was frequent intermarriage which leads to the Cherokee and Choctaw Freedman rolls. It’s compelling to read the slave narratives. I’m sure that marriage was not the Good Housekeeping version that we see now. Marriage led to children and more help on the farm. Marriage was truly about survival.
In your tribal system have members of other races been allowed to participate as adopted members of the tribe or through other means of tribal acceptance?
I don’t know this from experience. You’ll need to ask Wilma Mankiller or Chad Smith about the Cherokee. You have to be a direct descendent of someone on the Dawes rolls to get a CDIB and enrollment card. That still doesn’t mean that you’re accepted with open arms, if you weren’t raised on the Cherokee reservation. And there is such a large amount of people claiming to be Cherokee; it’s almost embarrassing now for some people, especially if they lack documentation.
When we are all grabbing for the same scrap of bread, I’m sure that the Indian would insist he get his share and fight for it. If you have to choose who to save, you’d choose your own people first. In times of war and conquest, I’m sure the Seminole were grateful to the Africans and other tribes who came and fought with them, lived with them side by side. Those Seminole now in 2005 turn their backs on their dark-skinned brothers, who are blood related, because of money, all the new casino money. The Seminole, I understand it’s two groups, are now discriminating against their own, forgetting their own history.
We’re all fighting for the same scraps, and fighting each other now.
Have you ever had any personal experience with African Americans? If so, what were these experiences like?
I was in my early teens, at a community swimming pool in Aurora, Illinois, one summer. I don’t know where my brother (Joe) was but we walked there together. (Joe is 15 months younger than me, and not multi-racial, and he was a sweet sensitive white kid) In the pool, a group of white boys tried to assault me, pulling at my legs, taunting me, trying to pull off my swimsuit bottom. I was scared, up against the side of the pool and started looking around for help. Just in time, a young African American lifeguard pulled me out of the pool. I was really shaken. I thanked him and ran. I grabbed my brother and we left. I never told anyone but Joe about it. I never went back there either. I was so grateful to the guy who helped me. It didn’t matter to me what skin color he had. (This wasn’t the first time I was almost sexually molested.)
I also attended a high school dance in Aurora, with one of my cousins, Eddie. I was asked to dance by the same African American guy that night, several times. He told me I could really dance. That made me so proud. I liked him immediately. His name was Everett. It’s ironic that it was also my adopted father’s name. I did not talk about the dance or Everett with either of my parents. My cousins and I always seemed to know what was safe to discuss around my parents. That was how we dealt with it.
When I joined the Native American Journalists Association in 1996, I met lots of Native journalists, many who were multi-racial. When I took the job at the Pequot Times, it was then I actually came in close contact with Eastern tribal members who were mixed as Red and Black and White. The way the Pequot are described physically, in old colonial records, they do not necessarily fit the description of a Navajo or Inuit or Lakota. There skin was described as red because it was tawny, as in brown and black.
I felt very close to the Pequot women I met, instantly. I felt sadness there. They have so much history to overcome, to grieve. It’s an ancestral feeling, like a sense of shame or defeat.
In your work with the Pequots, what were the relationships between tribal members of Indian/African ancestry and Indian/White background? (Since your experience with the Pequots gives you an insiders view, please feel free to discuss this in detail. With your permission I would like to share some of this in my class Contemporary Issues of North American Indian Tribes) (Fine with me)
I began working as the Pequot Times editor in Connecticut in August, 1999. The Native American Journalists Association had its annual conference in Seattle that summer when I met Tonia Corbett and Karen Hatcher, who are cousins and members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. I already had interviewed for the job but the Public Relations department hadn’t hired me yet. I met Karen and Tonia at the Native American Music Jam and we talked. Both were full of questions, very easy to talk to, friendly and open. We exchanged business cards and I told them if I was hired, we’d definitely get together. I told them I was Native American, Cherokee. (I have blue eyes and brown hair, but I strongly resemble my grandmother Lona Dell Harlow, where my Cherokee blood comes from.) They didn’t give me any weird look, because there are Pequot who look like me.
Karen was asked to sit on a NAJA panel. I wasn’t in the room but it was reported in the Seminole Tribune. Apparently Sherman Alexis taunted her and asked how many Pequot it takes to make a full-blood. Karen was blindsided. She wasn’t angry. She told me she just felt humiliated. She hadn’t expected this treatment. She was invited to be on the panel. She has two Master’s degrees. It was not the kind of teasing you’d expect when you’re discussing sovereignty and Indian affairs. It was disrespectful to her and to her people.
I heard later many people in the room were disgusted in the way Sherman, the noted Indian author, acted towards her. NAJA is about being inclusive, not exclusive. To my knowledge, noone from NAJA ever apologized. Sherman is not a NAJA member. Karen was the first Pequot to sit on a panel, and hopefully not the last.
The Pequot people will admit they have had amazing success with Foxwoods and they are the envy of Indian Country but they are still a struggling sovereign nation. The People of the Shallow Water survived colonization and one especially resilient Pequot mother, Elizabeth Plouffe George, and her sister Martha stayed on the reservation with their children. The tribe was federally recognized in 1983.
It was after NAJA that I realized that Sherman and other western tribes don’t really know the history of the Pequot or other Eastern tribes. They were taught American history, probably beginning in 1865, with lots left out. The conqueror gets to tell it his way, his victory. The rest are just spoils. And we were also fed the lie that all the Indians in the East died of disease. What a cleaned-up version! For years growing up in the Midwest, I believed it.
But if Viking or French contact didn’t kill the Indians, then why would the British germs? It’s just ludicrous. Yes, there were epidemics and some people died.
More importantly, and the historians downplay this, the colonists made the Pequot people slaves. Of the 500 who survived the burning of the Pequot fort in May 1637, about 200 were placed with other tribes, as prisoners of war. Others were sold into slavery. Several were shipped to Bermuda, the West Indies, Barbados and Africa. There is one record from a shipwreck, available at the Pequot museum, that lists 17 Pequot as cargo, only identified as man, woman and child. (Bermuda descendents have made contact and both the Pequot and the Bermuda Indians meet each summer for a reconnection festival since 2002.)
To recap history, before 1614 and the first recorded contact with the Dutch, it is guess-timated there were 13,000 Pequot. Perhaps as many as 4,000 were killed by epidemic, war or disease, around 1633. After a fiery massacre at the Mystic Fort on May 26, 1637, the Pequot were the first to be terminated in American history. Prior to and during the Pequot War, it’s estimated there were 3,000. It is said only seven survived the fire and reports vary that 300 – 800 were killed in the fire or shot trying to escape.
The colonists in charge felt it was important to break up the Pequot sachem’s families, and their hold and rule. There were 26 villages that made up Pequot territory. The Eastern tribes spoke an Algonquin dialect.
Within ten years of their captivity with other tribes, the Pequot survivors regrouped and summoned the courts for a reservation and were given some land. The census of 1900 and 1910 determine who is a tribal member today.
Ethno-historian and anthropologist Kevin McBride of the Pequot Museum has said the Pequot are story rich and artifact poor. But in the five years I was working there, they had already uncovered a fort behind the Pequot Museum, primitive sod homes behind Foxwoods and a Pequot burial ground in Mystic. Their gaming money built their museum and funds this vital research. It’s not unlike anthropologists to be particular with which tribe they dig up and study and write about. Apparently the Pequot knew they were going to have to do it themselves.
People like Sherman Alexis didn’t get an education on Pequot history and are now judging them by the color of their skin. What is the basis for this thought – blood quantum? How and why do we feel we must measure a person’s Indian-ness? Where did this thought come from? How much blood does it take to be an Indian? This thought was inspired by the same federal government who signed treaties and was expected to keep their end of the agreement and pay Indians. Again, if you knew Pequot history, you’d know there was intermarriage or the tribe would have become extinct.
By 1855, the state auctioned off even more land, leaving 180 acres for reservation. The overseers on the reservation, who controlled the money from the sale of Pequot land, kept records on the past three centuries, documenting every dime the Pequot asked for, whether it was for medicine, cloth or food.
Karen Hatcher grew up in Willimantic, Connecticut, about 30 miles from Mashantucket. Her family had farmed for a living because it wasn’t possible on the rocky reservation that shrunk every century. Karen’s relatives include her uncle, War Chief Stan Harris, Jr.; her aunt is the tribe’s Medicine Woman, Laughing Woman; and her uncle Pedro Johnson is director of Public Affairs and was Tribal Council Secretary and Treasurer for many years. Karen moved to Manhattan as a young woman and worked in New York City in public administration. She had an office in the Twin Towers, before it was destroyed on 9-11, 2001.
Karen identified as an African American with Indian ancestry growing up. If you live in a community where the accepted culture or predominant culture is African American, that is how you identify, she said. Karen’s grandmother, her father’s mother, lived her life in Harlem.
The Pequot people suffered such a humiliating loss with the war and slavery; it was unsafe for them to even be Pequot or admit it. Men and boys were hunted like animals with a $100 bounty on their head. Their name was banned, because they were so feared and dreaded by the colonists. Those feelings move from generation to generation.
As painful as it was, many tribal members were visiting the reservation in the 1700s and 1800s and 1900s and praying that someday, they would all be reunited, which eventually happened.
Karen decided to learn journalism while I was there and interned as editor for one year. She tried three times to run for tribal council but hasn’t been elected yet and she is now working as the President of PRxN, the tribe’s pharmaceutical company.
To prepare for my job, I did an internet search, trying to locate books on the Pequot, before I arrived in Mashantucket. All I could find was The Pequot War, by Alfred Cave (1996); The Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore (1986) by William S. Simmons; and The Pequots in Southern New England (1990), edited by Laurence M. Hauptman and James D. Wherry. My web search in 1999 was a disappointment. These books painted a wide and colorful picture for me, but I was suspicious since the writers were not Pequot.
Three weeks after I was hired, I asked to meet the Elders Council. Vernon Eleazer and Laughing Woman met me privately. I was their first Native editor and the first to request a meeting. I presented gifts and asked their permission to do the newspaper. I knew that without it, I would never be able to do a good job. I also asked that they help me protect the freedom of the press. (The tribe actually passed a resolution for this.) I did not want to expose their private lives to the world but I did want to write about their culture, history and their survival. Both elders were very supportive and trusted my experience. We met on many occasions.
In 1974 the tribe adopted a constitution and Elizabeth’s grandson, Richard A. “Skip” Hayward, was elected president in 1975 replacing Amos George.
In the year 1999, Skip Hayward was not reelected Tribal Chairman. Skip had served for 24 years. It’s my feeling that Kenneth Reels was elected to lessen the control of the Hayward family. Also descended from the George family line, Kenny, who is also of Narragansett ancestry, is definitely known to have African ancestry as well as Indian. Of some 650 Pequot tribal members, more than half were under age 18.
One employee, not Native, told me it was because Skip was a White Indian and had too much power. He would have been named “sachem” if he had stayed in office as chairman one more year. As the tribe grew in number, they fought a balance of power, which is a sovereign and traditional practice for them.
The Pequot do not disrespect or respect each other based on how one looks.
I found that there are very few Pequot tribal members managing the huge enterprise they have built. The Tribal Council was primarily men but recently that began to change and the tribe has elected women to three year terms.
The Pequot also have a hiring preference and many tribal individuals from across North American and Canada work there, in tribal government offices or for the casino. I believe that there is a growing understanding of Black Indians since the Pequot have become so noticed, as a racially mixed tribe. It doesn’t change the fact that they are Pequot.
How do you personally view African Americans? Do you think you have formulated your views and perspectives about blacks based on movies, news programs, books, or personal experiences?
As I mentioned before, my first contact with an African American was as a young girl. I personally feel the African and African American are as vital to humanity as any other human, since we were all placed here on this earth together. The role that slavery played cannot be diminished, and there are still people wearing white hoods burning crosses in the dark of night, creating a climate of fear and violence.
I married my husband, who is African American and Native American (Cherokee or Catawba from South Carolina) on September 24, 2004. I do not care what anyone thinks of our interracial marriage. I would not subject him or myself to intolerant or ignorant people, if I could help it. I am a pretty good judge of character and our friends are truly our friends. They don’t see color. What amount of UV exposure we have and our ancestors had determines our skin color. There really is no such thing as race. Yes, there are distinct cultures, but we are all humans.
I think television in North America has played a larger role than we realize. Not seeing other Native people in movies and on TV has a lasting effect on Indian children of the past few generations. They do not see themselves in a traditional way or in a modern way. Their images are not mirrored back to them in American culture. Our traditional elders are still trying to reach us, to help us, but it seems like a losing battle, I’m sure.
My husband and I are related, in a tribal sense of the word related. We share something greater than love. We feel rich because we have found this feeling, a shared purpose being here together. I would never regret my decision to marry him because he has darker skin.
I have met people of all skin colors that I do not care to spend time with. As far as formulating my views, I have found some of the most beautiful people in Harlem, on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin and on the Lakota reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes.
I am glad that there are so many books on slavery now available. I am upset that there are not enough books written by Native Americans, on their history and experience, especially about tribes here in the East.