Racially Sensitive Casting: Tamara Tunie, "The Red Road"

Marie Van Der Veen, the matriarch of the show The Red Road, is a character that is special to Tamara Tunie, who we know previously from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Tunie, who is of Native American, African-American and European ancestry, loves playing a character who represents all facets of herself.

I’m not an actor, but I get the struggle. I am, for all intent and purposes, black. I have no ties to Native American culture. The only supposed tie I have* is through blood; my great-great grandfather is, I’ve been told, a full-blooded Cherokee. First of all, it’s always “Cherokee,” isn’t it? That alone makes me wonder. But, if I’m going by what I’ve been told (some of it supposedly coming straight from my grandmother and great grandmother’s mouths), I have a side of myself that I haven’t represented and should probably learn more about. If I was an actress, I’d love to be able to play a character that was as racially and culturally multi-faceted as I am.

Like my family, Tunie was raised with the knowledge of a Native American relative while still being raised as black. “My Native American heritage was not embraced by our family, and we grew up African-American,” she said, “so I didn’t have a lot of access or history to that line of my family,” she said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. What she said is my life to a T.

So when the chance came to play Marie, it’s no surprise that Tunie jumped at the chance.  “Her ancestry is very similar to my own in real life,” she said. “I have Native American blood. I have African blood. I have European blood. And so it was the first time that a role was presented to me that actually completely embraced my entire DNA makeup, so I was really excited.”

It’s really exciting to have a character who embodies the actual reality of Americans–most of us have a mixed-up DNA background, yet we codify ourselves in narrow boxes.

*Let me state that for the record, I’m going off of relative accounts only when it comes to my great-great grandfather. I haven’t gotten my situation clarified through ancestry records (although I’m working on it). A lot of African-Americans claim to have a Native relative and at least half of the time, that relative is a myth. As to why that is? Well, it’s complicated, as Henry Louis Gates discusses on The Root:

So why did we invent, and why do we hold on to, this myth of our putative Cherokee great-grandmothers? (And, by the way, both genealogists and geneticists have told me that white Americans share the same myth, which both their family trees and their admixtures disprove.) I think that Chris Rock put his finger on the answer in African American Lives 2. He said that it was much easier to fantasize about noble ancestors we never had than to deal with the fact of rape during slavery, the heinous act that produced such high percentages of European ancestry in the black community, the component of admixture that is responsible for those high cheekbones and that straight black hair. Despite African-American genealogical mythology, it turns out that we simply do not have many Native Americans on the branches of our family trees.

There are black Native Americans, so that isn’t a myth, but the “long lost Native relative” in every family probably is. Supposedly, mine isn’t, but if he’s made up, I’m just putting it out there that I’m working off the information I have at this point in time.

Still of Tamara Tunie and Kiowa Gordon in The Red Road. Credit: The Sundance Channel

  • NOne

    I’ve watched the series that features Dr. Gates, and it is unfair that he suggests that most African-Americans are not telling the truth about Native American heritage. Because of him, it has become a joke in the African-American community where others laugh at us when we claim to have Native American heritage. I actually had my DNA tested because my own parents were raised by their Native American grandparents, so it was not just a myth. They lived with these people and even learned some of their ways. As it turned out, I have 60% African heritage and the rest was European and Asian. Guess which people originated from Asian heritage? Native Americans!