How does racism work in American Indian law and policy? Scholarship on the subject too often has assumed that racism works for Indians in the same way that it does for African Americans, and has therefore either emphasized the presence of hallmarks of black-white racism, such as uses of blood quantum, as evidence of racism, or has emphasized the lack of such hallmarks, such as prohibitions on interracial marriage, to argue that racism is not a significant factor. This Article surveys the different eras of Indian-white interaction to argue that racism has been important in those interactions, but has worked in a distinctive way. North Americans were not primarily concerned with using Indian people as a source of labor, and therefore did not have to theorize Indians as inferior individuals to control that labor. Rather, the primary concern was to obtain tribal resources and use tribes as a flattering foil for American society and culture. As a result, it was necessary to theorize tribal societies as fatally and racially inferior groups, while emphasizing the ability of Indian individuals to leave their societies and join non-Indian ones. This theory addresses the odd paradox that the most unquestionably racist eras in Indian-white interaction emphasized and encouraged assimilation of Indian individuals. It also contributes to the ongoing effort to understand the varying manifestations of racism in a multiracial America. Most important, it provides a new perspective on efforts to curtail tribal sovereignty in the name of racial equality, revealing their connection to historic efforts to maintain the inferiority of Indian tribes by treating them as racial groups rather than political entities with governmental rights.

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