The Pocahontas Exception: American Indians and Exceptionalism in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924


Most scholarship on Loving v. Virginia (1967) briefly mentions the “Pocahontas Exception,” a subsection of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which counted persons of limited American Indian ancestry as white. However, few of these works raise the issue outside of a footnote. This article addresses the treatment of Native American ancestry as a curious exception to the threat of racial impurity. Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute sought to eradicate stealth intrusions of tainted blood into the white race, which proponents believed to be threatened “by the quagmire of mongrelization.” Exempted from this racial policing regime were those influential whites, the “First Families of Virginia,” who proudly claimed Native American ancestry from Pocahontas. Why would Native American ancestry, as opposed to others, pass as acceptable nonwhite blood and good law? This exception translates into contemporary social practice, as increasing numbers of Americans freely and lately claim Native ancestry. This openness escapes the triumvirate of resistance, shame, and secrecy that regularly accompanies findings of partial African ancestry. This paper contends that antimiscegenation laws such as the Racial Integrity Act relegate Indians to existence only in a distant past, creating a temporal disjuncture to free Indians from a contemporary discourse of racial politics. I argue that such exemptions assess Indians as abstractions rather than practicalities, which facilitates the miscegenistic exceptionalism as demonstrated in Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute.


Constitutional Law | Indigenous, Indian, and Aboriginal Law | Legal History

Date of this Version

March 2006