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Dual heritage: new resources offer clues to the hidden legacy of Afro-Native American kinships.

IT COULD BE THE RECENT OPENING OF A Smithsonian museum dedicated to Native Americans. Maybe it's the allure of glitz and rumors of tax-free cash from reservation casinos. Or perhaps it's just a deep-seated desire to nail down those venerable stories of that great-great-great relative who was "full-blooded Indian."

Whatever the catalyst, this past decade has seen a boost in interest among African Americans searching to relocate--or simply verify--their Native American heritage.

Where books on the subject were once sparse, today there is a steady stream of new titles, fiction and nonfiction, that explore those connections more fully.

"The African American community is probably more aggressive in their hunt, just because it [information] has been denied," says Steven R. Heape, producer of Black Indians: An American Story, a 2000 documentary narrated by James Earl Jones. "For so long, it has been a history of their family that has been overlooked and denied," says Heape, who also produced How to Trace Your Native American Heritage (Rich-Heape Films, 1997).

The fact is more African Americans have taken to genealogy, looking to document their past. But whereas the 1970s and Alex Haley led many to explore Goree Island in Senegal and other parts of West Africa in search of clues about relatives long gone, these days the searches are taking an increasingly domestic turn.

With advances in technology and scholarship, more are empowering themselves to dig into the past; and generational shifts are fueling a new urgency, says Tiya Miles, a professor of American studies at the University of Michigan and author of Ties That Bind: A Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (University of California Press, February 2005, $34.95, ISBN 0520-24132-0).

"We're losing our grandparents ... those direct connections to a past of the early 1900s or late 1800s," Miles says. "People feel a need to retain this information for themselves and their children. It's not just about the information. It's the experience, and the power behind the information."

The National Museum of the American Indian opened in September 2004 in Washington, D.C., to much pomp and fanfare, including a processional of tribes from across the United States. Among those numbers were Afro-Natives, even though their history is not fully documented within the latest addition to the Smithsonian Institute. Museum officials insist that the story of Afro-Natives will play an integral role as both research and the museum itself evolve; in the meantime, the in-house librarian can assist those looking for titles, and on occasion, an Afro-Native may be among the docent corps.

Even with today's relative accessibility to databases, there is considerable work that has to be done to find truthful depictions of any Afro-Native past. Usually, birth and death records have to be garnered, as well as census reports, deeds, wills and other tools to unleashing secrets of the centuries.

For descendants of the five civilized nations forced westward on the Trail of Tears--Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw Creek and Seminole--some of the legwork is cut down, since repositories such as the Five Civilized Tribes Museum and the regional National Archives facility in Fort Worth, Texas, hold a wealth of documents.

Some African Americans wound up members of these sovereign nations as "freedmen" and had citizenship there, if not direct bloodlines.

With the Stroke of a Pen

But for those whose connections rink to lesser recognized tribes, the work intensifies, says Alva Griffith, author of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, Register of Free Negroes and Related Documentation (Heritage Books, January 2001, $26, ISBN 0-788-41780-0). In that state, one clerk rewrote history by simply categorizing people as black, white or mulatto, Griffith says, and "you will find that a great many of those listed as mulattoes were Native American."

Smaller tribes were absorbed by others, and branches of larger tribes that refused to move west technically disappeared as documentation ended. Even today, federal recognition escapes many such tribes, including the Shinnecock Indian Nation, of Southampton, New York, which has a sizable Afro-Native membership, as well as state-level documentation.

"It's just so hard to prove unless you hap pen to be in one of those lucky tribes that have a lot of paperwork" she says. "But if your grandmama told you somebody in the family was Indian or part Indian, it's not impossible. It's just that everybody wants to be Cherokee or Blackfoot. But Blackfoot are Montana people and the Cherokee didn't have that many babies."

Updating the Guide

Finding links to the nations east of the Mississippi recently pushed Angela Y. WaltonRaji to start revising Black Indian Genealogy Research: African American Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes (Heritage Books, September 1993, $20.50, ISBN 1-556-13856-3). With its rolls of federally recognized tribes and associated surnames among other highlights, genealogists consider her book an indispensable guide, even if it is out of print. Walton-Raji says she plans to add more information on peoples of the Carolinas, Georgia and beyond. She expects her book to be released this spring.

Despite a decade's worth of lectures and the continued references to her book, Walton-Raji still runs into people who cling to a more romanticized version of the Afro-Native past, one that omits those Indians who served as slave catchers, or even held blacks in bondage themselves. Theirs is mostly a historical fiction, one that seeks to justify certain images or familial customs without sound proof of those assertions, she says.

Then, on the other end, some people are looking for some kind of link in order to join a tribe and snag gaming dividends or set-aside scholarships.

The reversal of fortunes for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation--which has a chunk of African American members, compliments of the Foxwood Casino in Connecticut--piqued a lot of recent genealogical interest, Walton-Raji says.

"It's a case of greed and ambition overcoming reality. When many tribes reorganized in the 1970s, blacks often were the first ones shown the door, and if there were such an abundance of scholarship funds, Native Americans wouldn't be the largely impoverished group that they are," she says.

"People can be motivated by this issue of racial identity, and it's the fervor," Walton-Raji says. "But many people are not really that well informed as to what the history was. They are trying to force some Indian blood into the family. Genealogy is not about identity. It can't be politically motivated."

Tensions remain high between many Native Americans and their African kin. Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations all have faced lawsuits from black freedmen. In Oklahoma, a case is winding through tribal courts involving two Afro-Native descendants, Ron Graham and Fred Johnson, who have been denied admission to the Muscogee Creek Nation, despite meeting the stated criteria, according to attorney Damario Solomon Simmons, himself an Afro-Creek descendant.

Stories such as these from the present and others even more painful from the past are far from the conventional notion of blacks and Indians living in Kumbaya unity.

Beyond Heroic Mythology

Miles, who is married to a Native American, admits that when she began the book seven years ago, she expected to find a story of two oppressed sets of peoples, battling racism and classism during America's formative years. Instead, she found a story far messier and more complicated.

But uncovering the trail of the Shoeboot family, a story that unwinds from a black woman enslaved--not liberated--by a famed Cherokee fighter who is both her master and lover, brought together the complexities of racial prejudice and hatred, along with survival, recognition and familial love.

What others can gain from is a great deal of satisfaction, Miles says.

"When we joined our families together, we found they were wrapped in misconceptions on both sides" Miles says. "There's really a thirst out there for wanting to know where one's roots are. It's up to you, it's up to me, to tell these stories. That's why we have to keep going, looking for our ancestors.

"Even if you walk away without that piece of paper [asserting a lineage], you are enriched," she says. "You walk away learning about your family contextually. And that's a wonderfully interactive process." Nia Ngina Meeks is a Philadelphia freelance writer who covers political and cultural issues. Log on to www.bibookreview for more books and resources to research African American/Native American ties.
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Title Annotation:bibliomane: Choice Books From University Presses and Small Publishers
Author:Meeks, Nia Ngina
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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