Indian Intermarriage

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INDIAN INTERMARRIAGE. It is impossible to say when the first marriage between an American Indian and a non-Indian occurred. Perhaps it was a marriage with an American Indian ceremony. Surely it was between an American Indian woman and a man, probablya white man.

Over the centuries, Indian intermarriages increased. Colonists, fur traders, soldiers, and settlers, faced with a demographic imbalance of women of their own race, turned to Indian women as mates. More intermarriages occurred, however, in areas where the fur trade lasted longer, such as in parts of the Southeast and around the Great Lakes. Such unions were often frowned upon, eventually giving rise in some states to antimiscegenation laws forbidding marriages between whites and Indians or blacks. In response to the unions, the derogatory term "squaw man" was created, with the even more derogatory term "buck woman" created for white women married to Indian men.

As America sought to assimilate American Indians, intermarriages became more acceptable and frequent. In fact, one solution to the "Indian problem" was to dilute Indian blood (and Indian cultures) through intermarriage. In turn, tribes in propinquity to numbers of whites responded by bringing intermarried spouses into the tribe: the Cherokee constitution of 1839, for example, granted tribal membership to intermarried whites. In Canada, intermarriages produced a legally, racially, and culturally distinct people—the Métis. In the United States, unique, isolated groups developed, typically in the mid-Atlantic and southern states. Included here are the Brass Ankles, Cajuns and Creoles, Croatans, Guineas, Issues, Jackson Whites, Melungeons, Moors, Nanticokes, Red Bones, and Wesorts. The well-known Lumbees could also be included in the list. In Oklahoma, mixed Indians and blacks were often designated as "red-black." In the Southwest and California, Spaniards and Mexicans—often racially mixed themselves—moved northward from Mexico and intermarried with native populations. In the missions that were established throughout the area, however, Indian women were forced into sexual relations without the formalities of marriage.

By the early twentieth century, intermarriages were becoming relatively common in some states. They produced more offspring than Indian–Indian unions, and U.S. policy makers realized that American Indians as a distinctive race might disappear through intermarriage and differential fertility. But as health conditions for "full bloods" improved, so did fertility rates. Eventually, the fertility of Indian–Indian marriages surpassed that of both Indian mixed marriages and the general U.S. population.

The American Indian population of the United States and Canada also reached its nadir of some 400,000 by the early twentieth century, down from more than 7 million around 1492. The American Indian population has increased since, more or less steadily, and in large part because of intermarriage. The 2000 U.S. Census enumerated some 2.5 million American Indians (plus more than 1.6 million reporting themselves as racially mixed); the 1996 Census of Canada enumerated some 800,000 Native Americans in Canada (554,000 American Indians, 41,000 Inuit [Eskimo], and 210,000 Métis). The total then becomes around 3.5 million (or around 5 million, if racially mixed Native Americans in the U.S. Census are included).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, around two-thirds of all married American Indians in the United States were married to non-Indians, with intermarriage less prevalent in Canada. Rates varied by state and urbanization: they were higher in urban areas, lower on reservations or reserves; rates were higher in California and the Midwestern states, lower in Alaska and the Southwest and Northern Plains. If high intermarriage rates continue, at a future point American Indians may cease being a racial group and become an ethnic group with Indian ancestry and distinctive social and cultural characteristics.


Price, Edward T. "A Geographic Analysis of White–Negro–Indian Racial Mixtures in Eastern United States." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 43 (1953): 138–155.

Sandefur, Gary D., and Trudy McKinnell. "American Indian Intermarriage." Social Science Research 15 (1986): 347–371.

Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

———. The Cherokees: A Population History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.


See alsoCreoles ; Miscegenation .