Are we "people of color"?

Edited on Friday, 12-2-12, to insert information about physical appearance and why it does not matter, and to change the title of this page from 'We are not "people of color" to "Are we 'people of color?'

Through AICL, I share a lot of information that I think will help readers learn about and understand the 500+ federally recognized Native Nations in the United States. I think it important that people know that what we look like, physically, is not important. Our membership or citizenship in our respective nations is what matters.

Most people know about the federal government and the state governments, but very few know about tribal governments. Very few people know that American Indians in the United States have a status that marks us as distinct from minority or underrepresented populations (such as African Americans). That status is that we are sovereign tribal nations.

A common phrase used to describe minority or underrepresented populations is "people of color." American Indians are not, to quote Elizabeth Cook Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe and founding editor of Wicazo Sa (a leading journal in American Indian Studies), "people of color." Cook-Lynn writes:
Native populations in America are not "ethnic" populations; they are not "minority" populations, neither immigrant nor tourist, nor "people of color." They are the indigenous peoples of this continent. They are landlords, with very special political and cultural status in the realm of American identity and citizenship. Since 1924, they have possessed dual citizenship, tribal and U.S., and are the only population that has not been required to deny their previous national citizenship in order to possess U.S. citizenship. They are known and documented as citizens by their tribal nations. (1)
She goes on to say that placing us within a multicultural or ethnic studies category has a negative effect because those categories obliterate our political difference. The political dimension she refers to is our status as sovereign nations, a distinction based on treaty and trust agreements made between early European nations who came to what we now call the United States, and, later agreements made between the United States and Native Nations.

Those agreements are diplomatic negotiations that take place between heads of state. What they looked like then, and what they look like now, doesn't matter. A lot of people think that Native peoples must have dark hair, dark skin, and high cheekbones. If they don't, then, they aren't "real" Indians. A case in point is Donald Trump, who said, in Congressional hearings in 1993, that citizens of the Mashantucket Pequots didn't look like Indians to him. He was referencing people who, in physical appearance, look to him like African Americans.

The idea that American Indians would engage in diplomatic negotiations may seem ridiculous to those who were taught to think that American Indians were primitive nomadic peoples who roamed the earth (just like animals) and didn't "properly" use the land they lived on! In fact, Laura Ingalls Wilder says precisely that in Little House on the Prairie, when the character named Mrs. Scott says on page 211:
All they [Indians] do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. 
Truth is, Native peoples--including the Native Nations in Indian Territory that Mrs. Scott derides--had been farming for centuries. And after being removed to Indian Territory through the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees built "the finest system of public education in all America, for men and women." (2)

These diplomatic negotiations took place amongst the Pueblo Indians, too. The nineteen Pueblo Indian tribes of what is now known as New Mexico had agreements with Spain in the 1500s, Mexico in the 1820s and then the United States in the 1840s. Leaders of each one (Spain, Mexico, U.S.) marked their recognition of our sovereignty with a silver headed cane that symbolized that recognition. The last cane was from President Lincoln. Today, the three canes at each Pueblo are held by the individual who is serving as the current governor. (3) You can see a 1936 photograph of the governor of Zia here. He is holding the three canes.

Generally speaking, schools in the United States do not include instruction about tribal nations and our sovereignty.

Native children, however, who grow up on their reservations, know a lot about such matters. They know, for example, that we elect our leaders and have our own police forces and court systems.

Understanding sovereignty can help people understand why the phrase "people of color" doesn't work when describing American Indians, and I believe that reading AICL will help understand sovereignty and a great many dimensions of who we were, and who we are in today's United States. Understanding sovereignty will help authors and illustrators--and editors and reviewers--realize why books about American Indians need to go beyond the use of broad terms like American Indian or Native Americans, and use the names of specific tribal nations.

Update (December 5, 2015): 
From time to time I receive a comment that asks if I consider myself a person of color. I have darker skin and hair. Some would look at me and say that I am a person of color. By that definition (appearance), I am. But the larger point of this post and Cook-Lynn's argument is that we are--first and foremost--citizens or members of a political entity that has status nationally and internationally. I do not reject the "of color" phrase. I reject the efforts to do a force-fit of who we are. We are nations and our citizens or tribal members may be people of color, but the most important distinction is our nationhood.

Works cited:

(1) Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. "Scandal," in Wicazo Sa Review, Spring 2007, page 86.
(2) See "New Cherokee Territory" (segment eight) in We Shall Remain: Trail of Tears.
(3) Sando, Joe S.  (1992) Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.


Interested Sociologist said...

Hi! I have been looking around your blog and found some wonderful posts. Can you explain to me in what way you are defining "People of Color?" It seems as if you are using to describe people from racially dominated ethnic groups who have been disempowered. If this is not what you mean, could you please explain what you do?

Debbie Reese said...

I'm guessing you know there's lot of discussion about who "minority" populations are in the US, or, who "multicultural" might include.

Too often, in my experience, people will say "multicultural" and use it to include anyone who is "other" to mainstream Americans. That means it includes African Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians, BUT, to them, it also includes Spanish people from Spain who are not "Spanish American" etc. People from Spain who are living here do add a dimension of diversity to American society, but my emphasis is on US-based populations who have experienced oppression, particularly at the hands of the power structures, in the past or present. I mean specifically the four groups I mentioned earlier: African Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, and American Indians.

Anonymous said...

You make a good point. The only way I learned about tribal sovereignty (and by that I mean the general concept, certainly not specifics, which I still am learning about) was by randomly reading books and watching movies that may have dealt with that in part. Schools should teach that as a part of American history, and maybe some do - I never had a decent history teacher in K-12 ed (I reject any classes that require rote memorization and don't give you context until years later, which is why I was also terrible at science), so I really don't know much, which is sad.

But as far as the actual term "people of color," which I totally get in the quote you put, wouldn't it still be accurate in the social sense, since white Americans still put you in the same otherized box as Latin@s, Asians, and black people and as a result, native people are still subject to the same lack of privilege and understanding as other PoC? So kind of like what we were emailing about, the term is a necessary evil that we should be working to eradicate?

Dana Seilhan said...

Except I don't see anything wrong with being nomadic, and I see a lot wrong with farming, starting with the deforestation (or destruction of prairie, as on the Great Plains) required, continuing with issues and conflicts around "land ownership" and "private property", and ending up with the land erosion involved.

Mary Brave Bird, I think it was, used to say the Lakota didn't want to farm because they felt it was tearing into the body of Mother Earth. (I've read her, but it's been years--I may be misattributing.) And some other groups, Native American or not, felt it was silly to put that much work into obtaining food when you could just go hunt it or pick it off the trees.

It doesn't make a culture a bad culture if they don't choose to put that much complexity and extra work into staying alive. Actually, a capitalist would call that "working smarter, not harder."

I'm not romanticizing nomadic foraging--it comes with its own set of challenges, not the least of which being that you have to move around a lot. But don't we frequently complain that we're too sedentary anyway?

One final note: It is my impression that some scholars distinguish between horticulture (gardening, usually with multiple plant species, i.e., "three sisters") and monocrop agriculture. While lots of Natives did indeed garden, I doubt any of them maintained vast fields of nothing but corn as we do today. And the ones who came closest to that sort of behavior, and also city-building, tended to be nuisances to their neighbors. Exhibit A: the Aztecs.

reptilegrrl said...

Dana, you have a lot of misconceptions about farming, about Native people and cultures, and about hunting and gathering.

Have you ever heard of Cahokia? It was a city in North America.

Have you never heard of a hunter-gatherer community being a nuisance to their neighbors?

I respectfully suggest that your assertions about agriculture, about agriculturalists, and about hunter-gatherers are based on misconceptions rather than facts.

Unknown said...

There's something about this particular post that's rubbing me the wrong way. I understand you're point of emphasizing tribal sovereignty, but being non-white, which is what a person of color refers to in the US, and being sovereign aren't exactly tangential. Perhaps within the absolute confines of res-life, that argument can be made, but America was colonized, indigenous populations systemically massacred and disempowered, and then ALLOWED to have sovereignty after the established white majority decided that maybe forcing native populations to assimilate and be subjected to a power that had taken over their land and brutalized their people wasn't so classy. This is, of course, a terrible over-summarization of American indigenous and colonial history, but the fact that federal tribal recognition is even a concept should be a reminder that this is a country where white people have been the dominant people of this land for a few hundred years, and still matter who was here first, and no matter how much sovereignty tribes have been granted. Multi-cultural may refer to people of anything other than mainstream American culture (which I'm sorry to say is no longer Native Indian culture,) but despite historical diplomatic relationships, despite any outstanding accomplishments, in the socio-political context of today's definition of "people of color" sovereignty's got little to do with it, and Native Indians fall into it.
Additionally, as a side-note, people in tribes aren't the only people who don't have to deny their previous national citizenship. My father is from Cape Verde. He possesses dual citizenship granted to him by the United States. As much as I understand how you find the term "people of color" harmful to American Indians, I find the argument you base this belief on offensive to literally everyone else in this country who's not white. The term "people of color" is terrible all around because it connotes that whites are centripetal and everyone else just kind of there. The idea your argument conveys (to me at least) is that this notion is okay for everyone else, but American Indians are somehow elevated due to internal tribal political structure (barring the fact that there are American Indians living outside the res?). I don't know. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I was wondering if you'd be willing to respond to some of these points? Maybe I'm just reading your article the wrong way. ALSO. I really liked your piece about fetishization and mis-information promoted by non-Indian authors in children's literature. It's something I came across a lot in school, when my mother wasn't there to pick out better options at bookstores and libraries.

Mrs. Wilhelm said...

I stumbled upon your blog when I chose to google the book I picked for my moms book club. It's Sherman Alexies Absoultely True Diary of a Parttime Indian. I love what you have to say and agree totally about us not being a people of color. I am (an enrolled) Cherokee and grew up in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. I learned a great deal about my heritage from my family and my community. I know that a lot of tribes in Oklahoma are working to keep the culture alive and have programs set up with the schools and or offer summer programs for their kiddos. I am very fortunate to have grown up in such a great community. I'm not sure exactly when I realized our tribe was sovereign, but I think it's more common knowledge in Oklahoma because of the structure of the individual tribes' having political boundaries. I now live in south Texas and started a family. People here have a hard time understanding that I'm Cherokee because of my herritage and my bloodline.

Mrs. Wilhelm said...

I meant to say my herritage and not just my bloodline.

saraquill said...

I find this post problematic in terms of who it ignores. You're overlooking the generations of intermarriages between American Indian and African Americans. Some of us, due to the lifestyles of our progenitors or quirks of familial record keeping, are ineligible for dual citizenship. For those of us who are dual enrolled, if feels divisive to say that you can embrace one aspect of your heritage (sovereign tribal nation) or another(African American commonly considered PoC,) but you can't be both.

Using citizen status as a sharp dividing line between who can be American Indian and who cannot can lead to a world of hurt feelings.

Marion said...

Do u not realize that alot of the land was not farmable. Things did not grow well on the land some natives was given. So they should of put forth tons of effort of farming when it would produce nothing?

Kimberly C said...

The Native Americans were here before all other populations of people who consider United States home. For this reason, everyone including the colonists (white people) should be considered minorities, immigrants, tourists and the most derogatory term, “people of color.” As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are reminded of how the Native Americans taught the colonists how to farm, hunt and eat things that were not dangerous. They welcomed and helped the colonists so they would not die. Why do we referred to indigenous people as anything but native? Technically, the colonists were the 1st immigrants of North America. With this being said, “people of color” is a term that should only be used to describe the complexion of one’s skin, not the ethnic or culture of a people.

Anonymous said...

It would be really helpful, Debbie, for you to address the glaring issue of tribal disenrollment. Has it been addressed in any YA or children's book? It must feel terrible to people who are disenrolled. Are disenrolled former tribal citizens now transformed into people of color? How does disenrollment differ from the current administration's decision to enforce more strongly the laws about required documentation to be in the United States? Stories of each seem equally cruel.

Debbie Reese said...

Anon on March 26,

Years ago, Scott Lyons wrote an article (that I wish I'd made a copy of) about disenrollments that were taking place in the Cherokee Nation. I apologize to Scott if I'm not accurately reflecting what he said.

I think he characterized efforts to disenroll the Freedmen as ethnic cleansing.

That stuck with me. I think he's right. And, I think disenrollment is worse than cruel. I'm guessing you are following various Native news sites that look at disenrollment. Were you at the forum in Arizona? Here's Indian Country Media Network's article on it:

As far as I know, there are no children's or young adult books about disenrollment. If you see one, please let me know!

I'll give some thought to adding something about disenrollment to this particular post.

Unknown said...

Calling us "members" doesn't help our cause. We are not members of a club or costco. We are citizens of a nation.

Debbie Reese said...


Some nations use "citizens" and some use "members." Citizen is definitely a more accurate word to use. Same is true with "tribe" versus "nation." There are hundreds of years of English words (and words in languages of other European nations who came here, too) and what they ultimately do to our nations, to address.


Lauren Overton said...

Growing up in the typical American schools, I was taught very little about Native American culture. I learned the majority of it while I was researching my own genealogical background and I continue to learn more when my best friend tells me about her culture (she is 1/3 Native American). It is astounding just how little we are told about the people who were here long before the Europeans attempted to settle this country. Why we are not taught more is probably due to the fact that America tends to disallow their history books from heavily relying on our mistakes as a nation. I could go on for days regarding how ridiculously shady and conceited our government is, but the bottom line is that we know VERY LITTLE about where this country actually came from, we just know how the Europeans got here. I feel as if our education system isn't letting us down in regards to our knowledge of other nations previous to ours, it is letting us down in that it will not admit its historical flaws! How in the world are we supposed to move forward as a nation if we don't admit our mistakes of ruthlessness and murder and try to learn from them. One of my favorite sayings is "you can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been." I feel as if that quote is relevant more now than ever.

Blackfeet Nation said...

I am a member of the Niitsitapi tribe and have some critique for this article. "People of color” is a global term that refers to the complexion of one’s skin, the system of colorism and international colonization of people with brown skin. It is not limited to a country, minority status, the immigration status, nor is it limited to the ethnicity or culture of a people. In fact, most "people of color" are actually not in America, come from some form of an indigenous culture and are the dominant population of this globe. However, the term can be used a bit broad and should be critiqued to recognize those differences. That being said it should not be forgotten that it is one of the only tools to unite brown (indigenous) populations all over and recognize the shared experience and oppression of past and modern day colonization. To many times brown people are arguing about who was first and more oppressed rather than working together

NativeSister said...

Thank you “Blackfeet Nation”! I totally agree with you! It’s also not the 1st time I’ve disagreed with Elizabeth Cook Lynn’s writings (I’m working on my PhD and saw many of her works in my undergrad & Masters). I won’t bother adding to what you said because your response is excellent!

Anonymous said...

People have the right to self-define as they see fit. I would challenge you, however, to evaluate how you push a definition of people of color here that is overwhelmingly reductive and negative.

I am a person of color, and that means a hell of a lot more to me than a history of subjugation or forced denial of dual citizenship (on top of which, I am both an American person of color and a dual citizen). Belonging to the black community is a great source of joy and strength in my life, and I am proud of what black Americans have made of our own difficult history.

You don't have to consider yourself part of the broad collection of peoples and histories that fall under the term PoC, but the structure of your argument implies that the thought of being a PoC is somehow repellant, and that not belonging somehow gives Native communities elite status over those who belong in the PoC community. Just as others should educate themselves about your culture and respect your status as dual citizens, I would encourage you to be more cognizant of the fact that you too can do harm when you perpetuate negative ideas about groups to which you do not belong.

Wally Schultz, Las Vegas, NM said...

Hello, Dr. Reese-

I am a retired school librarian who attended one of your workshops at the NM School Library conference in ABQ years ago. I have often reflected back on your words and used your website as a way to guide my own explorations and attitudes toward indigenous representation in literature and society. Even since I have retired, and am no longer responsible for decision-making for public collections or dealing with teaching strategies for raising consciousness with young people, I still think about all of these issues a lot. Thank you for all your work in these areas.

I want to say that we are all "people of color," and that the phrase carries very little significance or value for me. I understand your elevation of sovereignty and respect your assertions, although I also see the validity of some of the other posters' opinions here. It's a terrible mixed-up mess of a problem politically, and because of European settler/colonialism and its legacy of supremacy and racism, we are all pushed into categories we either find uncomfortable and inappropriate or expedient only politically although, perhaps for some, as validation for and identification with lifeways marginalized or denigrated by the dominant culture.

But very little of that really has anything (nor should it) to do with color. Race and pigmentation are just very inaccurate scapegoating devices used to justify, rationalize, or excuse bigotry and exploitation. The notion of using complexion to signify or define anything about a person is ludicrous for almost uncountable reasons, but to name a few:

1) Ascertaining color itself is very subjective and influenced greatly by context, both visually and hereditarily, and is affected over time, by various lighting conditions, and by social perceptions. People "pass" for belonging to another group through employment of various forms of dress, hairstyles, cosmetics, body language, speech patterns, etc., whether or not they do it consciously or even have it as a goal. I understand that these tickets have great utility (or cause terrific deprivation) in our social dealings, but how intrinsically meaningful can the given attributes be if they can so easily be misperceived, counterfeited, or affected?

2) For what it's worth, and I'm not sure whether the current state of anthropology is anything of interest in this forum since Western science has invalidated itself so many times, but we may all have come from Africa (as a species). If true, does that make us all "Black" or does that make us all human with a respectable range of diversity? Do people who think they're "White" have to rant and rave against the teaching of evolution because they don't want to be seen as kin to apes, or do we recognize all our relations and honor that connection?

3) If color identification is taken to be a laudable pursuit ("Black is beautiful," and other such affirmations establishing self-worth and community pride, etc.), what does that tell us about "others"? Are we trapped into divisiveness by making valuations based on color, even if /when they are redemptive? [Please don't misinterpret: I support BLM and understand self-defense.] How do separatism and segregation figure in if chosen by a group rather than inflicted from without? What are the best strategies for survival of a "race," a "nation," a "country," a "religion," a "species"? Are they the same or are they at odds with one another? Or are all these terms just inventions imposed by acquisitive and contentious minds?


(I have to cut my comments due to length limitations, but will finish in a second post.)

Harry Brake said...

In recently reading FireKeeper's Daughter, is is very enlightening in seeing the issue of enrollment, biracism, and identity. Many of the comments made above are topics that come up in this fictional work, but based on the author's experiences, well worth getting into.