Just A Few Thoughts From Abenaki Country
By Mike Plant, Roger & Tory Longtoe

The following essay was originally printed online forum called Frontier Folks.  It was in
response to people doing Native Re-enacting and Living History and queries as to why
Native Interpreters and Re-enactors don’t have the “Historical Native Look.”

A few of us have been lurking, and been flushed out by these thoughts
Many good things have been said, but we have some concerns...

First is the expectation of appearance:
  • A quarter of the worlds population has the look - Jim Northrup (Anishnaabe), in his
    column 'Fond-du-lac follies' describes being mistaken for a local in many countries
    he has visited.

  • 'The Look' is not an assurance of ancestry - Many Western Abenakis, Lorette
    Hurons and Akwesasne Mohawks accepted by their people do not have the 'Robert
    Griffing Look' - no insult is meant, this is the result of a population that is one of the
    fastest marrying out, and after 400 years, may have the traditions, but not the
    expected look - we are not the people our ancestors were 400 years ago.

  • Look through a copy of 'Akwesasne Times', Modern Indians pictured appear
    anywhere from straight off the boat at Ellis Island, to straight off the set of 'Dances
    With Wolves'. The same can be said about Odanak and the Narragansett
    communities in Rhode Island

  • Ever since the release of 'Last of the Mohicans' and the Ohio woodland
    Conferences, there has been a drive toward the perfect 'Magua' look. Are we
    returning to stereotypes we have tried so hard to dislodge? Period accounts often
    ignored because they do not represent 'The Ideal' and describe a great variance in
    color.

Historical Accounts:
  • Peter Kalm, 1750,1751 - Almost all the Indians have straight black hair, However, I
    have met with a few whose hair is quite curly. But it is to be observed that it is
    difficult to judge the true complexion of the Canada Indian, their blood being mixed
    with the European, either by the adopted prisoners of both sexes, or by the
    Frenchmen who travel in the country often contribute their share towards the
    increase if the Indian families, to which the women, it is said, have no serious
    objection.

  • Cadillac, on the Miami, "They are not as swarthy as the others, and if they did not
    grease themselves, would be whiter then the French"

  • Pouchot, on the late war in North America, pg 439 - "their skin is normally copper
    colored though they usually seem darker then that because they are brought up
    naked & because of their habit of rubbing grease, clay or brown dye into their
    skin"...."There are certain nations in the area of the Chaouanons who have a lighter
    skin; some of them are even as fair as Germans. that is very rare, however"

  • Isaac Weld, "Travels through the states of North America", pg 224 - "In general their
    skin is of a copper cast; but a most wonderful difference of colour is observable
    amongst them: some in whose veins there is no reason to think that any other then
    Indian blood flows, not having dark complexions then natives of the south of France
    or Spain, whilst others, on the contrary, are nearly as black as negros"

  • William Biggs, "Narrative of the captivity among the Kikapoo Indians", pg 27 - "She
    was a very handsome girl about 18 years of age, a beautiful full figure and
    handsome featured, and very white for a squaw. She was almost as white as dark
    complexioned white women generally are. Her father and mother were very white
    skinned Indians."

  • Journal of captain John Knox, 1757, "The old garrison embarked to-day for Halifax,
    and with them two Indian captives, a brother and sister, who passed by the names
    of Claire and Anselm Thomas; they are of the Mic-mac nation; she is comely and
    not disagreeable; her complexion was not so fair as the British, nor yet so dark as
    the French in general are"

  • Andrian Van Der Donck, 1641 - "We see some of them with fine skin and they are
    mostly born with good complexions, otherwise they have a yellowish color like the
    tartans or heathen we see in Holland, or like the outlanders, who keep in the fields
    and go uncovered as they do"... "Although the yellowness of the skin of the skin
    appears more or less on all this race, still we find many fair men and women among
    them"

  • Many coastal New England Indians, including Wampanoags, Nipmucs,
    Narragansetts, Pequots, Shinnacocks, Lumbees, Scatacooks and Ramapoes have
    African and European traits.

  • Period portraits often back this as well, Joseph Brant is pictured as light skinned,
    with reddish hair visible under his Gustawah, and Corn Planter is pictured as light
    skinned as well. His father was white.

Living History Today:
  • Is there is an expectation of hair dye, colored contact lenses and skin darkening?
    Try telling a Wampanoag applicant to Plimouth he was rejected over a Hopi as an
    Interpreter because he 'didn't’t have the right look' Should a modern Indian
    interpreter be denied an opportunity to explain his appearance as well?

  • Natives portraying their own ancestors seem to be a rarity in the Ohio Valley; This is
    not so much the case in the northeast.

  • 250 years ago, an individual would not have been shunned because of light skin,
    hair or blue eyes, they would have fit in as best as they could through dress and
    adornment, why does it make a difference now?

  • Then there is the 'R' word...

  • European culture went out of its way to separate religion to its own time and place,
    Native culture was not so regimented.

  • This is not talking about doing private ceremony at public events, rather that there
    is often meaning behind patterns and procedures, and even a simple greeting often
    translates to 'god bless' or other recognition of the spirit of a person.

  • Material culture types often avoid having to deal with the fact many accoutrement
    patterns and body adornment has religious significance as well as tribal identity.

  • Many non-natives focusing on the material culture are feeling threatened
by natives who portray their own ancestors as a part of reclaiming their heritage

  • And then there is the word  're-enactor' - Many natives view this as a red flag for a
    'wannabe' or other non-native. Convincing other abenakis on this has been an
    uphill battle, but we have been making progress.
Joseph Brant
Mohawk Chief
painted by Gilbert Stuart
in 1786
Cornplanter
Seneca Chief
Portrait by F. Bartoli, 1796
This painting is part of the
Henry Luce III Collection
at the
New York Historical Society
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