Native American roots in Black America run deep

Dennis Redmoon of the Seminole-Cherokee Nation watches during the grand opening procession of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian 21 September, 2004 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan SMIALOWSKIGetty Images)

Dennis Redmoon of the Seminole-Cherokee Nation watches during the grand opening procession of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian 21 September, 2004 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan SMIALOWSKIGetty Images)

Do you have Indian in your family?  That’s a common question asked in the black community. Many African-Americans lay claim to Native American ancestry, and yet very few blacks have taken the steps to research this part of their history, to learn about their Native American roots and embrace the culture.

Thanksgiving is known as a time for American families to reunite, partake in feast and be grateful.  And yet for Native Americans it is a time for mourning, a reflection on the arrival of European settlers that ultimately led to their displacement and elimination by the millions.  Blacks in America are intertwined with that history, and yet the evidence they possess is mostly anecdotal, such as the grandmother who had long, straight black hair, high cheekbones or a red tint to her skin.

While most African-Americans would likely say they have Indian blood flowing in their veins, DNA testing suggests that fewer than 10 percent of black people are of Native American ancestry.  To be exact, 5 percent of African-Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, meaning at least one great-grand parent.  In contrast, 58 percent of black Americans have at least 12.5 percent white ancestry.

Many of the notable African Americans who participated in the PBS documentary miniseries African American Lives, including Oprah Winfrey, believed they were part Native American until the facts proved them wrong.  The program, hosted by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, used DNA testing and genealogical and historical research to help blacks connect with their previously unknown ancestors.

Meanwhile, actor Don Cheadle learned his ancestors were enslaved by the Chickasaw Nation.

Nevertheless, Black Indians—a longstanding topic of black oral history—are real.  As a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution reveals, the two cultures have blended since the arrival of Columbus.  The exhibition—IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas— tells the story of two groups united by enslavement, genocide and a legacy of being uprooted from the land of their ancestors.

It is a complicated history filled with the good and the unpleasant.  African slaves were known to escape from the plantations and find refuge among Indian tribes.  Native people were involved in the Underground Railroad, and Indian trails provided a pathway to freedom for runaway slaves.  They fought together in uprisings against their oppressive conditions and the white man’s incursion, and they married and had children.

For example, Black Seminoles were Gullah people who escaped the rice plantations of South Carolina and joined forces with Seminole Indians in Florida and Oklahoma.

Further, Black Indians served in colored regiments with black soldiers, and black soldiers known as the Buffalo Soldiers fought against Native American tribes in the West, while some refused.  And black women on the frontier took a leading role in helping Native Americans.

Meanwhile, a number of tribes— including the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles, together known as the Five Civilized Tribes—owned slaves at the urging of the federal government.  This was an attempt to by whites to “civilize” the tribes through the use of wide-scale agriculture and slave ownership.

Historians have argued that Native Americans had a different attitude towards slavery than the rest of society, treating their slaves more like servants and at times making them part of the tribe.  Regardless, the role of Native Americans as slave owners complicates the narrative of the tribes solely as victims of racist policies.  Even today, these tribes have not come to terms with their role in that dreaded institution, as evidenced by the civil rights struggles of African Native Americans.

Descendants of those slaves, known as the Black Cherokees, sued the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in federal court.  At issue was a provision of an 1866 post-Civil War treaty granting the freedmen and their descendants “all the rights of native Cherokees.”  The treaty came after the Trail of Tears, when Cherokees and their slaves were forcibly marched in the 1830s from the Deep South to present-day Oklahoma, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

In 2007, the Cherokees voted to revoke the tribal citizenship of these 2,800 African Americans on the grounds they did not have at least one ancestor on the U.S. government list of ethnic Cherokees at the time the treaty was signed.

The Cherokee Supreme Court upheld the vote, and the freedmen’s descendants fought back against the expulsion and won.

Meanwhile, while citizenship and identity were a factor for the Black Cherokees, money and wealth also played a role: the tribal gambling industry, of which the Cherokees are a part, is a $26 billion business.  The expulsion of the African American members reflected a concern that more blacks would seek membership in the tribe for a share of the gambling revenues.

Often invisible and deleted from history, the story of black Indians is an important though once forgotten chapter in American history.  And for that we should all be thankful.  Blacks do have American Indian blood in their family, and the roots run deep.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove