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Title page for ETD etd-07232016-223644

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Chresfield, Michell
URN etd-07232016-223644
Title Problem and Promise: Scientific Experts and the Mixed-Blood, 1870-1970
Degree PhD
Department History
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Sarah Igo Committee Chair
Arleen Tuchman Committee Member
Daniel Sharfstein Committee Member
Daniel Usner Committee Member
  • Indians
  • monacans
  • racial purity
  • eugenics
  • racial mixing
  • racial integrity
  • ramapough
Date of Defense 2016-06-27
Availability unrestricted
This dissertation examines a century of biological and social scientific interest in four communities of presumed white, Indian, and African-American ancestry. Prior to the 1970s the Monacan Indians of Virginia, the Piscataway Indians of Maryland, the Ramapough Indians of New Jersey, and the Nanticoke Indians of Delaware lacked formal recognition and other markers of identity commonly associated with federally recognized tribes, and yet they vehemently defended their identity claims as Native Americans. Thus, this dissertation explores how their avowal of Native American identity posed a problem for scientists whose theories depended upon viewing them as “triracial isolates,” geographically isolated maroon communities wishing to use the “Native” category as an means of escaping the stigma of blackness.

The dissertation begins in the 1870s as ethnologists turned their attention to investigating surviving Indian communities in the eastern United States. Believing that the nation’s Native American population was on the brink of extinction—through displacement and disease but more commonly as the result of racial mixture and assimilation—scientists turned to those Indian-descended peoples of both black and white admixture in order to understand how racial mixture influenced the maintenance of aboriginal culture. The dissertation then follows these communities across the next century as eugenicists, sociologists, and geneticists looked to triracial peoples in order to advance scientific theories about race and explores the impact of these investigations on the social and political organization of mixed-race native communities. And because these communities were not passive subjects of scientific scrutiny this study also explores how they used their own scientific experts to defend their racial claims. As such, this study reveals that the production of racial meanings involved moments of synergy as well as contestation between scientists and their subjects. The dissertation ends in the 1970s as the Monacans, Piscataway, Nanticoke, and Ramapough sought state and federal acknowledgement as Indian tribes. In examining the shifting frames through which anthropologists, sociologists, and geneticists justified their study of “red-white-black” groups reveals the extent to which scientific knowledge has been inextricably linked to the conviction that race is a measurable and determinable phenomenon.

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