Beyoncé on Keepin’ It Creole: What Defines an Indigenous Group?

Beyoncé on Keepin’ It Creole: What Defines an Indigenous Group?

Recent controversies over claiming group identity (Native American and African American), who can claim it, and one’s connection to a particular community reminded me of a 2012 L’Oreal commercial featuring Beyoncé. She has been on record stating that she is Creole (Louisiana). She even has a song titled, “Creole,” in which she celebrates her Creole heritage (on her 2006 album B’Day). But on the commercial it stated that she was also “African American, Native American, and French.” I began thinking, well, what is the relationship between being Creole and Native American?

I understand the advertising goal of a company trying to market to a particular audience, especially in an allegedly period where we can celebrate our multicultural heritages and simultaneously exist in a post-racial world (though just about any social indicators suggests otherwise). However, the link between being Creole and Native remains an interesting point. On the one hand, being Creole is celebrated as a unique identity, with African, French, or sometimes Spanish mixture. Creole people emerged with a unique mixture of cultural/ethnic heritages that influence everything from foods to language. Some even cite the generic term “Native American” as a part of this racial mixture.

The term Creole is a broad term, which has many (unstable) definitions, but is generally based upon geographic location and historical experience. If you scour the Internet, you can find numerous sites that celebrate being Creole, but they don’t usually cite a specific Indigenous community or tribe. I reached out to Andrew Jolivette, Professor and Chair in American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University for comment. In an email he exchange he wrote, “there is a longstanding and interwoven cultural, ethnic, and land based and kinship connection between Native peoples of Louisiana and Creoles.” However, the general public lacks an understanding of this relationship because of “coercive settler colonial forces” that “render those relationships as invisible through a systematic form of paper genocide through the [U.S.] Census.”

Numerous scholars, including Brian Klopotek, Andrew Jolivette, Carolyn Dunn, and Rain Gomez, among others, have written extensively about the relationship between Creole and Indigenous identities. On an extensive Facebook post, Rain Gomez, an expert on Creole indigeneity wrote, “Louisiana holds within its territories intensely multilayered histories” and “Louisiana’s history of racial mixing has given rise to specific Indigenous descended communities.” She notes that there are four federally recognized tribes and seven state recognized tribes. Gomez also notes that there are many Creole communities. She identifies as Cane River Creole and Opelousas Creole. The Cane River Creole are a well-documented group, according to Gomez. This group intermarried among other Creoles, traded, and consists of particular Indigenous groups including “Caddo, Choctaw, Wichita, Chitimacha, Tunica, Choctaw-Biloxi, Apache, and Quapaw.” Importantly, she identifies particular tribal communities. Thus, she avoids the erasure of Native peoples while highlighting the diversity that makes up a particular Creole community, and herself. Thus, being Creole and Indigenous are not separate, but can be embodied in unique, if not wonderful ways. Recognizing the links between Creoleness and indigeneity, according to Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd, is to recognize “the deep connection to indigenous resistances and cultural practices as well as indigenous kinship.”

The research and writing of some of the aforementioned scholars will continue to shed light on Creole indigeneity in Louisiana and beyond. I think Rain Gomez summarized well the importance of this work, and why it matters in our multicultural society:

“Understanding how Louisiana Creoles have been marginalized, fractionalized, and racialized means serious conversations about colorism, racism, and the lasting effects of Jim Crow segregation, exclusion from both White and Black communities, Indian Removal, and Indian Termination and Relocation, all of which had serious impacts on Louisiana Creole peoples and their perspectives within both home communities and (more importantly) outside communities.”

Although misperceptions about Creole indigeneity persist, Jolivette stated that relationships within the Creole community are “being strengthened” among the “Coushatta, Choctaw, and Atakapa-Ishak.” During a so-called post-racial era, Native identity policing, and when many Native people are fighting tribal disenrollment the story of Louisiana Creoles suggest that Native communities might do well to embrace their broad diversity and rid themselves of essentialized notions of Native identity that ignore the reality of how people actually live today.

Kyle T. Mays (Black/Saginaw Chippewa) earned his Ph.D. in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is working to transform his dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racial and Gender Formation in a Modern American City, 1871-2000, into a book. He can be followed on Twitter @mays_kyle.