I always knew I had Native American blood running through my veins, just as I always knew I was half English. Yet the fact that my grandmother’s father was half Native American and his mother a full blooded one was and is rarely talked about. A few months ago, I was talking about the matter to a black lady from work and I learned something interesting. Even in the beginning of the twentieth century, Indians faced prejudice and discrimination. So, when Native Americans signed up for the military, they always tried to check mark the box as “white” so they won’t get placed with the black regiment and thus be treated badly as so many were in the colored regiments at the time.
So today, several months later, I found my way back up to the Local History and Genealogy room at the main library branch. The room was silent, as it had a right to be and anyway, there were only three of us up there not counting the librarian. When I talked to my friend, I whispered, too afraid to disturb anyone in the library and when I talked to the librarian, I cringed as her voice boomed out that yes, the 30 free copies per visit was still in place.
As I settled into the hard backed chair, the soft tapping of the keys centering me as I looked through names of family members I only heard about, I came across something interesting. My great grandfather Maurice’s WWI card was on file on ancestory.com and he’d marked himself as white even though he had black hair and brown eyes, unusual pairing for a white man at any time in history.
I paused, listened to the silence around me. My neighbor was muttering and sighing to herself, “Wow. Strange” and other hard to interpret words. I half expected to hear thunder and applause around me when I discovered this, but there was nothing. I had confirmed what I’d been told: That even though he was clearly not white, he’d marked himself as one and gotten away with it. He was probably light enough to convince them as such.
When I got home, I told my mom of my findings. She said the same thing as my friend had said, that my grandmother had told my aunt that it was rarely talked about because being Indian meant living on margins, almost as bad if not as bad as black people at the time. She told me that when she first met him, he was sitting on the end of the couch sitting very still. My mom nearly jumped because she was expecting him to be Indian was thought, “My God, he’s sitting there just like an Indian. He could be dressed up like one!”
It’s funny how it was shameful to be mixed or even to be a person of color in those days. These days, a person is proud to be descended from Native Americans and others are proud to be people of color. I hope I can find more in the days to come.