Our family is phenotypically diverse. Rachel is lighter-skinned, and Chance is dark. We both identify as Indigenous. Rachel is an enrolled citizen and Tribal Council member of the Chinook Indian Nation, a tribal community located at the mouth of the Columbia River that has been fighting a decades-long battle for federal acknowledgment. Chance, an enrolled citizen of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, is Black and Indigenous from other regions of North America. Our children fall between us on the color spectrum. People often make assumptions about our family.
In 2004, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva used the term “pigmentocracy” to describe the race-based system of social stratification in the United States. He presents what he calls a “triracial order” that places “Whites” at the top of the social structure; “honorary Whites,” including light-skinned Latinos, certain Asian populations, and some “multiracials” in the middle; and “the collective Black” at the bottom. These categories are based mostly upon phenotypes, primarily skin color.
Our family has to live within this pigmentocracy daily. In urban settings, Chance is typically viewed as being part of “the collective Black.” He follows a certain set of rules to maintain his own physical safety, especially in the presence of authorities such as local police. Rachel, despite having tattoos that represent her Indigenous identity, passes as “White.”
The politics of skin color do not go away when our family enters an Indigenous community; instead, Bonilla-Silva’s triracial order gets turned upside down. Chance, who has brown skin and long hair, is typically perceived as Indigenous in any Indigenous community. Rachel’s Indigenous identity is often challenged, even though she is not only an enrolled member of the Chinook Indian Nation, but also serves on the tribal council as secretary and treasurer. She is responsible for conducting the Chinook Nation’s governmental business and is a keeper of traditional knowledge.
While in some settings the pigmentocracy provides Rachel with certain privileges, it also means she is oppressed by the very communities she most identifies with, socially, culturally, and professionally. This lateral, or internalized, oppression damages already deeply traumatized communities and individuals. Decolonization, the process of deconstructing systems of oppression caused by colonizing forces, cannot be realized without acknowledging internalized racism and lateral oppression.
We cannot tolerate racist behavior. There cannot be a decolonized future if we do not bring attention to this behavior and shut it down. There cannot be a decolonized future while anti-Blackness exists in Indian Country. Racism is a product of colonization. Mixed families are our future.
Black and Indigenous children face enough hardship from the dominant community. They do not need to experience lateral violence in their home communities.
Kanim’s experiences are strikingly analogous to the experiences of Indigenous and Black men in Oregon, both historically and in contemporary settings. When an Indigenous or Black person acts in a way that settler-colonial peoples consider to be “uncivilized” or “unsafe,” that person is often reprimanded or met with violence. In this instance, Kanim’s long hair goes against settler-colonial notions of masculinity. Among the Indigenous peoples of North America, long hair is often worn by both men and women. While most boys at Kanim’s school have short hair, when he returns to his tribe or other tribal communities, many of the men who are leaders have long hair.
The hostility Kanim faced was not an isolated incident; it was representative of a consistent problem throughout the state of Oregon. In a 2017 article in the Nation, journalist Rebecca Clarren writes that in Jefferson County School District 509J, which includes the Warm Springs Reservation, more than a third of the Native students in sixth through twelfth grades were suspended at least once during the 2015–16 school year—more than twice the rate of their White peers. Kanim is lucky that he did not retaliate physically when he was assaulted. Statistically speaking, he is more likely to be reprimanded for such actions.
Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented in Oregon’s prison systems and underrepresented in our postsecondary education institutions. Educational policy and practice mixed with a lack of representation or with misrepresentations of what it means to be Native or Black in this state has contributed greatly to this disparity. It wasn’t until 2017, when House Bill 2845 (Ethnic Studies) and Senate Bill 13 (Tribal History/Shared History) were enacted, that all public institutions were required to teach an accurate version of Oregon’s history. Prior to this legislation, many schools did not teach these subjects at all.
Representations of Indian Country in education and media are slowly shifting. We had very limited access to authentic representations of Indigenous people in mainstream media while growing up, but Kanim and our younger son, Isik, may have an abundance: Molly of Denali was an instant hit in our household when it was released in 2019, and TV Guide’s 2021 list of the “100 Best Shows on TV Right Now” includes Yellowstone, which features strong Native characters in a contemporary setting, and Rutherford Falls, a sitcom co-created by Navajo screenwriter Sierra Teller Ornelas, who also serves as an executive producer on the show.
Reservation Dogs, number forty on TV Guide’s list, was created by Taika Waititi (Maori) and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole) and features an all-Indigenous group of writers and actors. In its first season, the series highlighted many of the complexities of Indigenous identities, including Reservation versus urban life, death, substance abuse, “nontraditional family structures,” poverty, humor, and contemporary versus historical notions of warriorhood. The cast of Indigenous performers shows a wide spectrum of skin tones, deconstructing colonial notions of who is and who is not Native American.
While these movies and TV series are steps in the right direction, there is still a great need for more authentic representations of Indigenous peoples, representations that reflect the phenotypically diverse communities that make up Indian Country.
There have also been changes in recent years to the representation of Indigenous peoples in Oregon’s educational curriculum. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 13, which directs the Oregon Department of Education to create a curriculum for the K–12 system that more accurately represents Native peoples. This bill also provides professional development for educators and directs funds to each of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon so they can create their own individual place-based curriculum.
This too is a step in the right direction. Schools will now provide more abundant and more accurate representations and voices of the Indigenous peoples of Oregon. But the change is not without controversy: There are contested histories in Oregon, as some tribal communities disagree over certain specific historical events. And only federally recognized tribes are included, so Rachel, Kanim, and Isik’s tribe, the Chinook Indian Nation, is left out of this new curriculum. (The Chinook Indian Nation is not federally recognized because the system for acknowledgment is broken. All arguments made against the Chinook Indian Nation drip with White supremist culture and settler-colonial notions of Indigeneity.)
This issue isn’t isolated to Indigenous curricula. There is a need for improving all curricula having to do with the history and construction of race in this country and the disparities that result from them.
We as a society need to have these difficult conversations. We must be able to discuss the social construction of race and how that social construction is deeply rooted in our society. We must acknowledge our history and dismantle institutional and social structures that perpetuate hate and oppression.
Oregon was founded on unfair treaty negotiations, and many Indigenous populations were forcefully removed from their territories. Most of those treaties have been broken in some capacity. Cities like Portland, The Dalles, and Eugene had exclusion and sundown laws. Black and Indigenous people were arrested for accessing these spaces. It was not until the 1960s that Black and Indigenous people could legally reside in the city of Eugene.
Oregonians are still living with the consequences of these historic injustices. Recent social movements, including Idle No More, #NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, #MMIWG2S, and #Landback have reopened the discussion around issues of race and Indigeneity in contemporary society. Voices from historically disenfranchised communities are becoming louder and more assertive in media and educational settings, allowing for more diverse, accurate, and authentic representations of our various and mixed-race identities. What lies ahead for Oregon are more phenotypically diverse families that can articulate and represent their various ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds while also shifting to meet the challenges of an uncertain future.
5 comments have been posted.
I would love to hear more articles like yours on pigmentocracy. I really believe all this frightened shuffle to reinforce the old social order is about color; and arguments about race, as a construct, simply confuse abuses of power that are based on visual assumptions. You are correct, the United States is changing to families blended from many pigmentations and beautiful and various facial features. My family is one of them.
Josephine Cooper | November 2022 | Portland, OR
Wow Rachel what an article. You said in an exceptional way what I have never been able to put into words. I’m so proud of you. You are on a roll, Keep going.
Roble Anderson | December 2021 |
Donna Martinez | December 2021 | Vancouver, Washington
This is beneficial for all readers! Since most of us born in the US have multi-racial backgrounds as a bi=product of colonization and enslavement. A very important read.
Liz Fouther-Branch | December 2021 |
Beautifully written - THANK YOU. In this time where science is under siege, getting Americans to learn enough to understand basic principles of inherited phenotype is a big and very necessary task!
Amy Felmley | December 2021 | 97321