By Mia Taper
The complexion of these people is black, not much different from that of the Ethiopians; their hair is black and thick, and not very long. It is worn tied back upon the head in the form of a little tail. In person they are of good proportions, of middle stature, a little above our own, broad across the breast, strong in the arms, and well formed in the legs and other parts of the body; the only exception to their good looks is that they have broad faces, but not all, however, as we saw many that had sharp ones, with large black eyes and a fixed expression. They are . . . acute in mind, active and swift of foot, as far as we could judge by observation. In these last two particulars they resemble the people of the east
Giovanni di Verrazano, Italian explorer, 1521
When Jeff Sott, an American of black and Native American background, lived in a white neighborhood, he was referred to as “a nigger,” he said in a documentary titled Black Indians: The American Story. When he moved to a black neighborhood, his Indian background singled him out a “yellow nigger.” He couldn’t quite fit in.
During the potato harvesting season, the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island were on the receiving end of insults, not by non-Natives, but by fellow tribes. “Potato niggers” is what they were called, referring to their black mixture. In a time when America’s race dialogue is more open than ever, the black American Indian, perhaps one of history’s most interesting identities, begs to be addressed.
According to the 2010 US Census, 5.2 million people identified themselves as American Indian, some of those only as American Indian, others as American Indian plus another ethnic group. However, only 1.9 million people are actually registered to one of the 562 federally recognized tribes. The registration comes at with a caveat: how much Indian blood do you have in you, formally known as Blood Quantum laws, or the US law regarding membership of those attempting to register with a tribe. Depending on the tribe, you either have to be 1/2 – 1/32nd (equivalent to one great-great-great grandparent) of that tribe or show documents that you have a family background in that tribe. The result is that many of these people who go ahead to register with tribes are often of mixed backgrounds. One ethnic group that’s often mixed with Native blood is black. According to the US Census, out of the 42 million African-Americans in the country, almost 270,000 identify as being mixed with Native American blood. With the racial dialogue more open than ever, more people have been exploring their heritage in order to gain a sense of who they are as a whole.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation of Southampton, New York was just federally recognized in 2010, despite having documented history since the 1700s, and their roots going even further back in history. The Shinnecock people currently number a little over 1,400 people, with 662 residing on the reservation. Though it’s hard to pinpoint what an exact Native looks like, it’s no doubt that the Shinnecock people look black, a product of black slaves and Native Americans intermarrying and producing mixed offspring in the times of slavery. According to the US government census of the reservation, 13.6 percent of the population consider themselves black or black and American Indian, while 88.2 percent consider themselves to be just American Indian. Similarly, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut are also black at first glance, but identify with both their black and Indian roots. The Pequots are 725 strong, with around 300 living on the actual Connecticut reservation, with 28 percent recognizing both black and Indian sides. They’re one of the few American tribes to not retain their Algonquian-based language, a big faux pas amongst other tribes, and they’re also one of the richest tribes for they own one of the world’s largest casinos, Foxwoods Resort Casino. The casino pulls half a billion each year.
The black American/Native American identity can be somewhat of a difficult thing to identify as. For those who actually identify as both, it’s beyond frustrating. Jay Waya Gola Sunoyi, or Jay Nightwolf, founder of the National Congress for Black American Indians, needed to find a way to express himself and allow other people like him to do the same. So in the mid-2000s, Sunoyi founded the National Congress for Black American Indians, and in July 2014, the organization had its first big gathering in Washington, DC. Hundreds showed up. Black Indians came from all over the country, including from California, Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, and Oklahoma just to name a few.
“It was time, you know, that black Indians should come together, in a place where they wouldn’t feel left out or pushed aside or ridiculed,” Sunoyi explained. He remembers the day vividly, there was laughing, there was crying. “They finally had a place to go.”
But not all were pleased that the organization existed. Many Indian Nations were not happy, in fact, there was a lot of pushback. “There’s not a problem with a white Indian, but there’s a problem with a black Indian,” Sunoyi sighed with frustration. And that mindset, he believes, dates back to America’s foundation. “America was founded on white supremacy,” he says. That idea of the lighter the skin, the better has affected the way he and his fellow black Indians have been treated, with some leaders of Indian Nations denying the existence of the black Indian. “God put us all here for one reason: to get along, to take care of each other,” Sunoyi said irritated.
Producer Steven Heape wondered what happened to the black slaves that were taken into Native tribes during The Trail of Tears. Steven Heape is a co-founder of Native American production company Rich-Heape Films. Since 1994, Heape and producing partner Chip Richie have made over nine documentaries concerning the issues of the Native people. His documentary Trail of Tears examines what Cherokees call the period when members of the Cherokee Nation were forceably removed from their land, east of the Mississippi, and relocating to Oklahoma under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. More than 1/4 of the Cherokee Nation died during the journey, forever earning the episode in history its fitting name: Trail of Tears. While doing research for that documentary, Heape noticed that there were black slaves, often runaways, that lived with the tribes. He soon realized that there was a whole group of people, the black Indians, who have barely received any recognition, even from the tribes themselves. “It’s a story that most people had no idea existed,” he explained. “[The story] has to do with repressing two groups of people, and those two groups really came together and united as one.” That’s when Heape and Richie decided their next film would be Black Indians: The American Story, narrated by the great voice of actor James Earl Jones.
Released in 2001, Black Indians explains the relationship, its history and the evolution of the black and Native identity. The relationship dates back to the Triangular Trade. The Europeans brought over the Africans as slaves to the New World. Though the Europeans imposed the idea of racial inequality, the Native Americans didn’t see race in the way that the Europeans did. They didn’t differentiate the Africans and the Europeans as being of a different, in the way that Europeans saw Africans and Natives differently. The Africans, mainly runaway slaves, were let into tribes because they knew how the Englishmen functioned but soon after the American Revolution, inter-marriages began, some out of genuine love, some out of strategy. The strategy that the children born out of this marriage, especially between a black slave and a Native woman, would be free, even if their father was still considered enslaved.
As the Africans and Indians grew closer, the Europeans saw their close relationship as threatening. In times of war against Natives, the slaves were enlisted in militias to fight against them. In times of slavery, tribes were hired as bounty hunters, or “slave catchers,” to find runaway slaves. Sometimes, the slaves would be found by the bounty hunters but were let into the tribe until there was enough pressure from the slave owners to return their property. With regards to identity, there were no problems…yet.
Around the time of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Indians, if they chose to identify themselves as such, were forcibly removed from their lands and pushed West. However, the people of both black and Native backgrounds had a tough choice: to identify as black and remain in their home lands and potentially become enslaved or identify as a Native American and be forced off the land they called home for thousands of years. In 1887, the Dawes Act was introduced, which pardoned off certain lands, or reservations, for Indian tribes. The act also introduced another sinister caveat: Blood Quantum. Blood Quantum laws are laws that determine, through documentation, how much Indian is in your blood. Blood Quantum laws helped to figure out who could and couldn’t live on reservation lands and who could and couldn’t receive benefits from the government.
Soon, “pencil genocide” became a normal process at town halls – changing the race on a chid’s birth certificate to better fit their skin color. Those of mixed backgrounds were forced to only claim their black background because of even a drop of black blood meant you were black. Detribalizing hearings began in many tribes, using one’s heritage, as one of the factors of kicking them out of the tribe, deeming them not “authentic” to be a part of the community.
“It may take one drop of black blood to make a person black, but it takes a lot of Indian blood to make a person Indian,” UNC-Chapel Hill professor Theda Perdue proclaimed.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that those of mixed backgrounds began to reclaim both cultures. The black power movement in the 1970s also spurred the red power movement for Natives. But for many black Americans, coming out as part or half-Native was a whole other can of worms.
The Montaukett people of Long Island, New York were taken off of federal recognition in 1910 in order to further build the Long Island Railroad. The judge’s reasoning? The tribe has intermarried with African-Americans so much that it “diluted” their blood, therefore the original tribe was extinct. According to the tribe’s official website, the now-defunct Brooklyn Eagle published an article in 1877 declaring “there is a large admixture of African blood in the tribe as it now exists and only one or two families remain pure Indian,” and only twelve full-blooded Indians remained. The tribe has been tirelessly fighting for federal recognition ever since. In May 2014, the tribe submitted a bill to the New York State Legislature, asking to be reinstated as a New York State-recognized tribe.
These Eastern tribes have a “disruptive history,” says professor Tiya Miles of University of Michigan. Miles is a scholar in the interrelations between black Americans and Native Americans. Tribes of the West often “take jabs” at Eastern tribes, like the Pequots because of their mixed lineage, but “who took the hits first?” Miles asks. The eastern tribes had first contact with the Europeans and their slaves. The African men were imported and the native men killed, it was only natural that the new offspring of tribes were of black and Indian background. “It’s completely unfair and wrong to say ‘you’re not Indian” because you have black ancestry,” Miles says.
It’s not just the outsiders who are not onboard with the idea of a black Indian, some Natives themselves are also skeptical. In a controversial 2002 article, scholar and writer Delphine Red Shirt of the Ogala Sioux tribe, penned in the Hartford Courant a piece called, “These Are Not Indians.” With a scathing tone, Red Shirt writes of how Eastern Indians, specifically those in Connecticut like the Pequots, aren’t true Indians at all. To her, these tribes “look more like they come from European or African stock.” She questioned the idea of Blood Quantum, and how those who may have 1/32 of Indian blood can register to a tribe, with financial motives in mind. These people are “so-called “newly born” Indians,” she boldly wrote, “who had not identified themselves as Indian until it became profitable to do so.”
The currently ongoing lawsuit, originally filed in the Cherokee Supreme Court in 2011 but has now been taken to US federal courts, between the Cherokee tribe and the Cherokee Freedmen adds to the harsh identity crisis. The case, formally known as Cherokee Nation v. Raymond Nash, if it rules in favor of the Cherokee, will essentially kick-out the black Americans from that tribe, revoking their membership and any Cherokee benefits. In 1866, the United States and the Cherokee Nation signed a treaty stating that any slave or free man can have the rights of a Cherokee citizen. Those slaves or free men were known as Cherokee Freedmen. Now, the Cherokee nation argues that having the same rights as a Cherokee isn’t the same as being a citizen of the Cherokee nation. The Cherokee Freedman, who don’t just identify as black, but as Cherokee as well, currently number around 30,000 people. The very public lawsuit has sparked Op-Ed pieces, debates, and numerous articles about what it truly means to be an Indian. The pieces have been seen in Indian media outlets, The New York Times, and Henry Gates Jr’s publication The Root. Writer, law professor, and black Indian Kevin Noble Maillard authored a pieced called “Define ‘Real Indians’” for NYT. He recalled of a time when his own tribe, the Seminoles of Oklahoma, were going through a similar Freedman case. The black Indians of the Seminoles were chased around town with cries of “Go back to Africa!” Most interestingly, he notes how the white bureaucrats, likely from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, classified those of mixed black and Indian backgrounds as Freedmen while those of mixed white and Indian ancestry were allowed to be just Indians, no further questions asked.
Professor Miles is heavily disappointed in the Cherokee attempt to kick out the Freedmen. “You can’t use people and build your wealth on their suffering and then say ‘we don’t want anything to do with you,’” Miles says. The Cherokee Indians were also slaveowners. Professor Fay Yarbrough of Rice University says that the Cherokee sided with the Confederates during the Civil War, and the last Confederate general to surrender was Cherokee. While some of the Freedmen don’t have direct lineages to the Cherokee tribe, there are those who do have Cherokee blood, but they’re considered a Freedmen so it, seemingly, doesn’t matter.
UCLA professor of American Indian studies and Indian Country Today Media Network contributor, Duane Champagne, has frequently written about identity and culture within the Native community, as well as indigenous communities abroad like the mestizos in Latin America and the métis in Canada. In a piece for ICTMN called “Are Ethnic Indians a Threat to Indigenous Rights?”, Champagne defines ethnic Indians as “those persons who have an Indian identity and lineage, but are not members of a tribal community [for reasons such as not qualifying to join].” What he argues in his piece is that the ethnic Indians are more American, and are more assimilated to American culture, than their fellow tribal members are. If they want to continue to align themselves with these tribes, they have to be allies and rally for indigenous rights to be the same as the rights as the country’s majority.
I always knew I was part Native American. It was a part of me that my mother told me to be proud of and to recognize. Sometimes, she’ll send emails and texts that end with our tribe’s motto: “Always Sovereign.” As I grew older and really began to embrace this side of me, all those outside my family didn’t quite buy it.
“But you look black! You don’t look Indian,” friends would tell me.
“I’ve never even heard of your tribe,” others would say.
Even though I have the lineage to prove my heritage and I am an official card-carrying Shinnecock Indian of Southampton, New York, I decided to keep quiet about this part of me. Well, if people saw me for just black and would furrow their eyebrows or shut down my claims of being Native American, then why bother even bringing it up, right?
Only recently did I learn that my issue is not just my own. There are thousands of Afro-Natives out there in the United States who struggle with their identity. Though, there are many that mold their struggle into a creative outlet.
The Groovalottos, a 3 piece funk outfit from Mashpee, Massachusetts, comprises of three black Indians: Mwalim, Christopher Sweeting, and Eddie Ray Johnson, of Wampanoag, Cherokee, and Choctaw backgrounds. Finding their beginnings in 2009, The Groovalottos blend elements of their black and Native roots in their music. Mwalim, Director of Black Studies at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and professor of English, had been doing musicology research when he began to see elements of Native elements in African-American music. Melodically, blues and spirituals are Native-based.
“Funk music is more Native American than African-American,” Mwalim says.
The band has enjoyed their share of success, with hundreds of Facebook fans to support them, but they’ve also had their own struggles with identity. “It’s a stigma [to be black and Indian,” Sweeting says. Mwalim and Johnson agreed. In Mwalim’s tribe, the Wampanoag, a council member declared that Mwalim was “confused” because of his decision to lock his hair. Johnson remembers a time in grade school when he became “the biggest joke of the class” when he declared that he was Native American. For his classmates, he was “too dark.” Those moments are barely blips on their radar. The self-proclaimed “Song Keepers” keep making their Afro-Native music, taking it upon themselves to keeping their rich mixed history alive.
That’s how it’s been with the black Indians. A history of denied identity and a lifetime’s worth of struggle to find acceptance. When professor Yarbrough presented her findings on the interrelations of black Americans and Native Americans at Trail of Tears conference, she was unsure if those attending Natives wanted to even hear her presentation.
Someone pulled her aside and said “no, they need to hear this.”
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