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Declared Defective: Native Americans, Eugenics, and the Myth of Nam Hollow

Declared Defective: Native Americans, Eugenics, and the Myth of Nam Hollow

by Robert Jarvenpa

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Declared Defective is the anthropological history of an outcaste community and a critical reevaluation of The Nam Family, written in 1912 by Arthur Estabrook and Charles Davenport, leaders of the early twentieth-century eugenics movement. Based on their investigations of an obscure rural enclave in upstate New York, the biologists were repulsed by the poverty and behavior of the people in Nam Hollow. They claimed that their alleged indolence, feeble-mindedness, licentiousness, alcoholism, and criminality were biologically inherited.

Declared Defective reveals that Nam Hollow was actually a community of marginalized, mixed-race Native Americans, the Van Guilders, adapting to scarce resources during an era of tumultuous political and economic change. Their Mohican ancestors had lost lands and been displaced from the frontiers of colonial expansion in western Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century. Estabrook and Davenport’s portrait of innate degeneracy was a grotesque mischaracterization based on class prejudice and ignorance of the history and hybridic subculture of the people of Guilder Hollow. By bringing historical experience, agency, and cultural process to the forefront of analysis, Declared Defective illuminates the real lives and struggles of the Mohican Van Guilders. It also exposes the pseudoscientific zealotry and fearmongering of Progressive Era eugenics while exploring the contradictions of race and class in America.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496206589
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Series: Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 246
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Robert Jarvenpa is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Albany and a research associate at the New York State Museum. He is the coauthor of Circumpolar Lives and Livelihood: A Comparative Ethnoarchaeology of Gender and Subsistence (Nebraska, 2006) and author of Northern Passage: Ethnography and Apprenticeship among the Subarctic Dene.

Read an Excerpt


Native Americans and Eugenics

They are an obscure people in American life and many of them would prefer to remain unnoticed because they are keepers of secrets.

— B. Eugene Griessman, "The American Isolates"

A Trail of Names: From Jukes to Nam

Before looking more closely at the Nam case, it will be useful to review what is known about so-called tri-racial and bi-racial isolates, or mixed-race peoples, in the eastern United States and how they became implicated in early eugenics investigations. It will be useful to share some personal history to explain what initially attracted me to these issues nearly forty years ago.

In 1973, I joined the State University of New York at Albany as a young anthropology professor, having recently completed a year's ethnographic fieldwork among Chipewyan Indian communities in northern Canada. These were Athapaskan- or Dene-speaking people who still made a living hunting, trapping, and fishing over a vast subarctic landscape of boreal forest, muskeg, rivers, and labyrinthine lakes. Although they had been dealing with fur traders and other European agents for nearly two hundred years, there were still very few whites in Chipewyan country. The subarctic had remained a resource extraction frontier for colonial powers, not a place to settle. While most of the communities I worked in were largely Chipewyan, these people had occasional interactions with their Western Woods Cree neighbors to the south.

Another part of the ethnic-cultural mix in this region were the Métis, or Métis Cree, people of mixed ancestry who often derived from unions between Cree women and French Canadian fur-trade workers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Métis became a rather cohesive rudimentary working class in the fur-trade industry and, thereby, served as a link between Indian hunting bands and the European managerial class. In Canada generally, the Métis developed a distinctive hybrid culture and separate identity, a nonconformist blend of Indian "reticence" and Gallic joie de vivre. Under the impact of white agricultural settlement in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the Métis of the Canadian plains coalesced into a nationalistic movement that culminated under the leadership of Louis Riel.

The case of the Canadian Métis is significant because it contrasts sharply with the situation of mixed-race Native peoples in the eastern United States. As I would discover, most mixed-race peoples in the eastern states did not develop distinctive vibrant hybrid cultures and identities. Rather, the Native American or African American component of these admixed peoples often remained hidden or submerged while they suffered the stigma of being miscegenated and, therefore, not "pure" representatives of any group. The contrast between the Canadian and American experience of mixed-race people remained in the back of my mind as I began developing and teaching courses on the history of Indian-European relations in North America.

After moving to Albany, it seemed only fitting to learn something about the Algonquian-speaking Mohican, the indigenous people of the mid–Hudson River valley where I now lived. The word Mohican (also rendered as Mahican,Mahikan, and Mahikander) is derived from the ethnonym Muhheakunnuk, translating approximately as "river that flows both ways" in reference to the tidal properties of the Hudson River. Hence, Mohican also meant "people of the tidal waters." At one time their homeland extended from the southern portion of Lake Champlain in the north to Catskill Creek and the northern edge of the Catskill Mountains to the south. Their lands straddled both sides of the Hudson, extending into the Berkshire highlands and the Housatonic River valley to the east and as far as the Helderberg Mountains and the middle section of Schoharie Creek to the west. Following Henry Hudson's voyage into the region in 1609, the Mohican endured more than two hundred years of turbulent interactions with Dutch, English, and American colonial regimes, violent fur-trade-fueled conflicts with their Mohawk Iroquois neighbors immediately to the west, and relocation to the mission community of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the 1730s. Shortly thereafter followed the trauma of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, a complex series of removals and westward migrations and, ultimately, relocation on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin territory in the mid-nineteenth century.

While I found this history both spellbinding and depressing, a passage in anthropologist Ted Brasser's 1974 monograph, Riding on the Frontier's Crest, caught my attention. His monograph was one of the few, if not only, syntheses of Mohican history and culture available at that time. Brasser noted that after the westward exodus of the Stockbridges (or Stockbridge Mohican) in the early 1780s, few Mohicans remained behind in their original Hudson valley homeland. He noted, however, that some remnant Mohican families generated several "Mestizo groups" (i.e., mixed-race or admixed groups), namely, the Van Guilders, Bushwackers, and Jukes. We will return to the Van Guilders and Bushwackers shortly, but back in the 1970s I was fixated by the name Jukes.

By sheer coincidence, and as part of a side interest in criminology, I had been reading Richard L. Dugdale's classic 1877 study, "The Jukes": A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity. There was that distinctive name again: Jukes. Dugdale's work is often regarded as the earliest of the eugenics family studies in America and, as such, served as a model and inspiration for other investigations that would flourish between the 1880s and 1920s. Dugdale, a sculptor and avocational sociologist, was also a member of the Prison Association of New York. Building on preliminary findings of the physician Elisha Harris, who had examined inmate records from the county jails, Dugdale noticed blood ties among prisoners from numerous families that could be traced back to a single lineage. These inmates in an Ulster County jail became the focus of his study exploring connections between criminality, pauperism, and heredity. Dugdale's pioneering work was not rigidly hereditarian and left open the possibility of both heredity and environmental influences contributing to the Jukes' criminality.

Recently, the biochemist and cell biologist Elof Axel Carlson has argued that "with a few exceptions, Dugdale claimed that what was inherited was a bad environment rather than a bad physiology." Ironically, this flexibility in thought was not adopted by most of the subsequent eugenicists, including Oscar McCulloch, whose 1888 study, The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation, was inspired by Dugdale's work.

"Juke" or "Jukes" was presented as a pseudonym by Dugdale, but why had he chosen such an unusual name? Had these inmates derived from one of the Mohican "Mestizo" or mixed-race groups mentioned by Brasser? If so, using their actual surname would not have disguised their identity. Another possibility is that the name Jukes had become a generic derogatory epithet that was floating around in the argot of the day and that Dugdale had picked up on it without appreciating its association with the actual Jukes of partial Mohican ancestry. As we will see, eugenicists were prone to constructing rustic, vaguely shameful-sounding fictitious names for their subjects, such as Dacks, Happy Hickories, Smokey Pilgrims, Yaks, Rasps, and Nats, among others. Whatever the circumstances, Dugdale's choice of the Jukes name is puzzling.

There is also a problem with Ulster County's location just south of traditional Mohican territory on the west side of the Hudson River. This was originally the homeland of the northern Delaware or Munsee, Algonquian-speaking people with whom the Mohican had close political ties. By the nineteenth century most indigenous people in this area had long since lost their lands and migrated westward, while remnants, perhaps, moved about in search of work and to escape adversity. An Ulster County jail in the 1870s might have held mixed-race inmates whose ancestors had originated from any number of tribes in upstate New York and western New England: Munsee, Mohican, Wappinger, Mohawk, Oneida, and Abenaki, among others. Yet, as already noted, if the Jukes of Mohican ancestry were actually part of Dugdale's study, it would have been illogical to use Jukes as a pseudonym. Herein lies the conundrum.

An appended list of geographical locations in Brasser's study presents a further complication. Here the Jukes are identified as a Mestizo group "probably related to Wapping and Scaticook Indians" and living in several localities in Dutchess County, New York from about 1850 to 1957. At first glance, this would seem to contradict his earlier characterization of the Jukes as a mixed-race Mohican group. Dutchess County, New York, lies on the east side of the Hudson River, opposite Ulster County, and was part of the traditional territory of the Wapping or Wappingers, Algonquian-speaking Indians who were close allies of the Mohicans. The Scaticook Indians, however, were an amalgam of groups, largely Paugusset and Potatuck, but also Wyachtonok and Stockbridges, who had gathered at a Moravian mission community on the Housatonic River in northwestern Connecticut. The fact that Stockbridge Indians were part of the mix at Scaticook may provide a partial resolution to confusion about Jukes identity. That is, while Mohicans were the predominant Indian group at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that mission community also attracted people from other tribes including the fore-mentioned Wyachtonok and Wappingers, as well as Tunxi and other Connecticut River peoples.

All of this attests to the volatility of the New York–New England frontier throughout the colonial period and up through the American Revolution. Losses of indigenous lands and livelihoods kept the Mohican and other Indian groups in a constant state of flux, uncertainty, movement and retreat. It is possible, then, that the Jukes were a complex mixed-race people descended from European unions with an array of Mohican and allied Hudson River Algonquian groups. Even if this interpretation has merit, it does not clarify why Dugdale selected Jukes, of all possibilities, as the pseudonym for his eugenics study. Why not Smith or Jones?

Mixed-Race People and Native American Identity

The identity of most Native American people is anchored in a combination of distinctive cultural traditions, bio-genetic or racial characteristics, and social structural relationships, including membership in legally defined tribes, bands, or First Nation groups. Indeed, the legal aspect of identity is also a structural dilemma for federally recognized or enrolled Indians in both the United States and Canada. That is, their special federal status makes them politically subservient to the state in a way that does not affect the general population or any other racial-cultural minority.

Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of other U.S. and Canadian citizens who have some Native American biological ancestry and a sense of cultural separateness as Indians but who have no federal recognition and whose projected identity is regarded with ambivalence or hostility by whites and many Native Americans of legal status. Such people have been termed "mixed-blood" or "mixed-race" groups, "tri-racial isolates," "little races," "racial islands," and "marginal peoples" by an earlier generation of social scientists, mostly in reference to eastern U.S. communities which, since colonial times, have derived from real or alleged admixture of Native American, African American, and white or Euro-American populations. These include some relatively large, publicly visible groups such as the Lumbees (formerly known as Croatans) of North Carolina, as well as dozens of small rural enclaves such as the Wesorts (or Brandywines) of Maryland, the Monacans (formerly known as Issues) of Virginia, the Haliwa and Sampson County Indians of North Carolina, and the Brass Ankles and Turks of South Carolina.

Yet other groups of this kind include the Carmel Indians of Ohio, the Pooles of Pennsylvania, the Moors and Nanticokes of Delaware and New Jersey, the Dominickers of Florida, the Red Bones and Sabines of Louisiana, the Cajans and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi, the Guineas of West Virginia, and the Melungeons (or Ramps) of Tennessee and Kentucky, among others. All told, there are nearly seventy named groups for people living in roughly two hundred tri-racial communities in the eastern United States. Calvin Beale estimated that these people numbered about seventy-five thousand in 1950, and perhaps remained at the same level twenty years later in 1970. The process of ethnic emergence and identity management currently unfolding among these people may well mark an important new chapter in Indian–Euro-American relations.

Mixed-race groups emerged across the eastern colonial frontier in the eighteenth century, proliferated in the nineteenth century, and, in some cases, declined or disintegrated by the mid-twentieth century. Shunned by mainstream society, mixed-race peoples were relegated to less desirable and less fertile lands in the mountainous recesses and hollows of the Appalachians and other upland regions. Their enclavement was reinforced by social ostracism, physical isolation, and, simultaneously, by intermarriage within the community. Tri-racial groups, therefore, were a distinctive "betwixt and between" social by-product of America's birth as a nation of privileged white landowners and power brokers. Held in check for two centuries or more by the stigmata of miscegenation, pauperization, and outcaste lifestyles, some of these communities would become low-hanging fruit for the eugenics profession in the early 1900s.

A. R. Dunlap and Clinton Weslager characterized the sociolinguistic principles involved in naming the mixed-race groups. In effect, "social pressure forced the adoption of names to distinguish the tri-racial from bi-racial groups on the one hand, and from whites, Indians and Negroes on the other hand." In the early stages of this process, family names were often generalized or extended to encompass related people known by many surnames, as in the case of the numerous and widely occurring Chavises and Goins. Over time, however, more-inclusive terms with derisive associations were often imposed by the socially and economically dominant white community to signal their superiority over the admixed groups. Hence, pejorative group names like Buckheads, Clay-Eaters, and Guineas were born. Such people became aware of themselves as "marginal groups," or isolates, as they became objects of derogatory epithets applied to them by the larger society.

This was driven home to me when I encountered a young man from West Virginia who introduced himself to me not only as Native American but also of the Guinea Nigger tribe or community. Despite the label's pejorative origins, it was ingrained as part of this man's identity. Roger Daniels and Harry Kitano argue that the American "ideology of race" is based on a rigid bipolar model of white and non-white categories, so that any degree of admixture is perceived as non-white, and any degree of black admixture is perceived as black. Paradoxically, a reverse logic applies to Native American racial identity. Evidence of a significant amount of "Indian blood" or blood quantum is needed to validate one's claims as a Native American, both in legal terms and in public perception. Given the foregoing dynamics, the mixed-race Indian groups generally have been treated as blacks by outsiders, so that their history can be seen as a quest for a dignified image emphasizing descent from esteemed Indian ancestors replete with justifying origin myths. Of relevance here is David Henige's contention that the origin traditions of mixed-race groups like the Guineas, Melungeons, Lumbees, and Ramapos (or Jackson Whites) have been constructed to accentuate Native American and European roots while dismissing or diminishing black ancestral ties. Given the restrictive nature of segregation and miscegenation laws and limited opportunities for social mobility among blacks, especially before the 1850s, such origin traditions have a distinctly pragmatic quality.

The dynamics are well illustrated by the "Monhegan Indians," a pseudonym used by George Hicks and David Kertzer for a group in southern New England. Since their defeat by colonists in the late seventeenth century, these people have intermarried with whites and blacks. Since the 1870s they have had no reservation, and without any distinctive language, dress, or occupations to bound them from the larger society, they have been perceived and treated as blacks. Contemporary Monhegan identity, therefore, has a contingent quality as each individual strives to assert his or her Indianness and have it validated. The most important validation derives from local whites who witness "Indian" performances and activities, such as powwows, and from other Monhegans who can reinforce genealogical claims to Indian ancestry.


Excerpted from "Declared Defective"
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
List of Tables,
Series Editors' Introduction,
Introduction: The Menace in the Hollow,
1. Native Americans and Eugenics,
2. Border Wars and the Origins of the Van Guilders,
3. A "New" Homeland and the Cradle of Guilder Hollow,
4. From Pioneers to Outcastes,
5. The Eugenicists Arrive,
6. Deconstructing the Nam and the Hidden Native Americans,
7. Demonizing the Marginalized Poor,
Conclusion: The Myth Unravels,

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