What Comes Naturally: A Racially Inclusive Look at Miscegenation Law
Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 31, Number 3, 2010
Jacki Thompson Rand, Professor of History; American Indian and Native Studies
University of Iowa
In What Comes Naturally Peggy Pascoe interrogates the U.S. racial regime through a study of civil marriage and miscegenation law. Her admirable work traces the development of legislation and court decisions about mixed marriage between White settlers and African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, Asians, and American Indians. Bans against mixed marriages, or miscegenation, between White men and women of color, Pascoe argues, served to protect White supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy. By maintaining boundaries between the races, and material consequences that favored men in land disputes and White relatives in estate disputes, for example, White men’s economic and social positions were reinforced while women’s positions were undermined. Pascoe includes American Indians in her study because their lands, unique relationship with the federal government, and kinship systems presented complications not found in other cases. Pascoe also briefly mentions tribal miscegenation laws among the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and Creeks.
Pascoe’s book and a recent special issue of the journal Frontiers, on interracial marriage and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North American Indians, White settlers, and African Americans, complement each other in some ways. French fur traders in the Northeast and Great Lakes region and Spanish and Mexicans in the Southwest mixed with Native women long before the creation of the United States. The French were early astute observers of Native people and soon realized the crucial role kinship played in providing access to prime beaver-trapping grounds along rivers. French men married into Native groups to enhance their trade. By the nineteenth century White American men also sought Native women who held land as a way of gaining access to resources. The federal government looked upon such unions as a means to facilitate Indian acculturation and assimilation into White society, even well into the twentieth century. In many instances Native families saw the marriage of their daughters to White men as a means to enhance their access to trade goods and to a more secure life.
Pascoe treats miscegenation law that covered American Indians primarily in the case of Oregon. In fact, miscegenation law evolved from initially targeting White and African American unions to include White unions with other races, including American Indians. The creation and enforcement of laws that pertained to marriages with Native Americans, Pascoe notes, seemed to coincide with external or individual circumstances where the acquisition or loss of land was at stake. Like the unions of French men and Native women, many marriages followed the custom of the country, where the partners were bound to each other outside of civil law. In the mid-nineteenth century the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court heard a case to determine whether such marriages were legal under territorial law. Oregon settler land claims at that time were unstable, so it is not surprising that the court and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the custom of the country. While this chapter of American Indian history diverged from the history of barring mixed marriages, Pascoe demonstrates that the tolerance of mixed marriage between White men and Indian women also secured White male patriarchy. It was a variation on the theme of White supremacy.
Like settler regimes elsewhere White American society viewed race through a biological lens that assessed parentage, phenotype, and blood quantum. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries both the American and the Australian governments encouraged intermarriage to Whiten and eventually erase indigenous populations. The coexistence of miscegenation laws that pertained to Native peoples and assimilation proponents of interracial marriage arose from conflicting impulses. On one hand, intermarriage was objectionable on the grounds Pascoe depicts in her book: the progeny of mixed marriages challenged racial regimes, White supremacy, and White male privilege. But the federal government and settler society’s twin desires to avert an unaffordable war with Indians and to expropriate lands in Native possession weakened the resolve to bar mixed marriages. In the Frontiers special issue Cathleen Cahill explores the federal Indian Service as a site of applied assimilation policy where marriages between Whites and American Indians were made possible by putting numbers of White women in proximity to eligible Native men.
In the same period intermarriage could also serve as a vehicle for the expropriation of Native…