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

42 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2005 Last revised: 5 May 2009


This article addresses the treatment of Native American ancestry as a curious exception to the threat of racial impurity. Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 aimed to prevent all interracial marriages in the state between white and nonwhite persons. This 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. For a statue with racial purity as its obsession and mantra, how does this exceptionalism hold? Why would Native American ancestry, as opposed to others, pass as acceptable nonwhite blood and good law? Even in our contemporary era, why do claims of the Cherokee Princess Grandmother not invoke multiraciality? This disparity calls for a critical inquiry of the miscegenistic exceptionalism accorded to American Indians. With increasing numbers of Americans freely and lately claiming Native ancestry, we may ask why such affirmations do not meet the triumvirate of resistance, shame, and secrecy that regularly accompanies findings of partial African ancestry. This paper contends that antimiscegenation laws 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. These practices bifurcate treatments of Indian blood, either essentializing a pre-modern and ahistorical culture, or trivializing this ancestry as inconsequential ethnicity.

Keywords: legal history, law & humanities, Pocahontas, miscegenation, law, racial integrity, eugenics, American Indian, Native American, antimiscegenation

Suggested Citation

Maillard, Kevin Noble, The Pocahontas Exception: The Exemption of American Indian Ancestry from Racial Purity Law. Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Vol. 12, No. 107, 2007, Available at SSRN: or

Kevin Noble Maillard (Contact Author)

Syracuse University College of Law ( email )

Syracuse, NY 13244-1030
United States

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