The Pocahontas Exception: The Exemption of American Indian Ancestry from Racial Purity Law


“The Pocahontas Exception” confronts the legal existence and cultural fascination with the eponymous “Indian Grandmother.” Laws existed in many states that prohibited marriage between whites and nonwhites to prevent the “quagmire of mongrelization.” Yet, this racial protectionism, as ingrained in law, blatantly exempted Indian blood from the threat to white racial purity. In Virginia, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 made exceptions for whites of mixed descent who proudly claimed Native American ancestry from Pocahontas. This paper questions the juridical exceptions made for Native American ancestry in antimiscegenation statues, and analyzes the concomitant exemptions in contemporary social practice. With increasing numbers of Americans freely and lately claiming Native ancestry, this openness escapes the triumvirate of resistance, shame, and secrecy that regularly accompanies findings of partial African ancestry. I contend 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.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law | Law and Society | Legal History

Date of this Version

August 2006