Passing as White

Albert Barros, enrolled Nez Perce and old friend of Josephys and mine, recently forwarded a piece on jazz musician Mildred Bailey. Bailey, who sang In the 30s and 40s, was considered the first big white jazz singer and a trail blazer for later female jazz stars Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

White? Her mother was a Coeur d’Alene tribal member, her father Swiss-Irish. She was born Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, Washington in 1900, and the family moved to Spokane when she was 13. They were called “breeds” in Spokane, and her father suggested they downplay the Indian heritage (at a time when light skinned blacks across the country were passing as white and my Indian classmates in California were passing as Mexican).

One of their Spokane neighbors, who joined with her brother Al to form a group called the “Rhythm Boys,” later became known as Bing Crosby. By the late 20s, all three were in California, and, through Bing, Mildred got a first big gig with Paul Whiteman’s band.

Mildred Rinker-Bailey died impoverished in New York in 1951, forgotten by most, but known by music lovers as an early and great white jazz singer. Last week the Cour d’Alene Tribe asked the Idaho legislature to honor Mildred Rinker-Bailey, the great Indian singer. The whole story can be found at:

Which reminds me of a recent “Oregon Movies, A-Z” blog post by friend and film historian Anne Richardson on Oregon’s bi-racial story. There are great photos and brief stories about Thomas Morning Owl Jr. and the play, “Ghosts of Celilo”; Will and Tim Sampson, father and son, who played the mute Indian narrator in the film version and a new stage version of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She goes back to Modocs and Piutes with Joaquin Miller and Sarah Winnemucca, and forward to Jon Raymond’s Meek’s Cutoff and Indian Chris Eyre’s directing Indian writer Sherman Alexie’s “Smoke Signals.”

In Richardson’s view, Indians may have passed as whites and we have some ugly racial history in the Northwest, but to this day our writers and movie makers acknowledge that we live in a multi-colored world. Here is that interesting post: