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Shades of difference: Alastair Bonnett investigates the intriguing and often controversial history of African Native Americans--black Indians--in the light of present-day concerns about citizenship.

A genealogical cottage industry has sprung up in the United States offering to help 'African ancestored Indians' locate and reclaim their Indian roots. The hunger to add 'a bit of Indian' to one's individual racial heritage is widespread among whites as well as blacks, but it is one that complicates and compromises the picture of twenty-first-century black Indians--the descendants of freed African slaves belonging to native tribes.

At the root of this story lies the history of two diverse communities with a shared experience of racial violence. Many historians continue to treat white, black and indigenous people (still commonly referred to simply as 'Indians') as mutually exclusive categories. Yet consider the following notice from 1747 about a runaway slave:
   Runaway on the 20th of September ... a very
   lusty Negro fellow ... aged about 53 years,
   and had some Indian blood in him ... he had
   with him a boy about 12 or 13 years of age ...
   born of an Indian woman, and looks like an
   Indian ... they both talk Indian very well, and
   it is likely they have dressed themselves in
   the Indian dress and gone to Carolina.

Another fragment of evidence comes from 1812, when white Virginians wanted to gain ownership of the Gingaskin Indian Reservation. The petition to end the reserve stated that:
   the place is now inhabited by as many black
   men as Indians ... the Indian women have
   many of them married black men, and a
   majority probably of the inhabitants are
   blacks or have black-blood in them ... the
   real Indians are few.

These concerns had the desired effect. The reservation was divided up and soon whites had bought up most of the land.

Such glimpses into a once forgotten history suggest quite extensive relations between Indians and African Americans, at least at certain times and in certain places. Yet the overall scale of the interchange between the two groups remains hard to calculate. One African American journalist recently estimated that 85 per cent of African Americans have native ancestry. Like so many other aspects of this story, this figure seems to be larded with wishful thinking.


However, some concrete data can be found. One example comes from interviews undertaken as part of the New Deal funded Federal Writers' Project between 1935 and 1939. Transcripts of over 2,000 interviews with former slaves included twelve per cent making some reference to the interviewee being related to or descended from Native Americans. It might be thought that firmer evidence would come from the various census rolls of those living on Indian land, which from the late nineteenth century enumerated 'blood' Indians as well as freedmen. Many thousand such ex-slaves are listed, but the usefulness of the rolls is undermined by the fact that they often counted anyone with any African ancestry as non-native. Natives with European ancestry were deemed to be natives, but those with African heritage were excluded from 'blood' membership.

But what of the bonds of solidarity between natives and blacks? The notion that the two groups assisted each other is central to recent attempts to celebrate black Indian history. That they did sometimes act in unison is easily confirmed. For example, in 1836 General Sidney Jesup identified what he regarded as the dangerous alliance of blacks and Indians amongst the Seminoles of Florida, warning that:
   the two races are identified in interests and
   feelings ... Should the Indians remain in this
   territory the negroes among them will form a
   rallying point for runaway Negroes from adjacent

However, the Native American and black communities were mutually vulnerable. When, in the 1830s, the federal government decided to evict Native Americans living east of the Mississippi and columns of refugees journeyed 1,200 miles to the designated 'Indian Territory' (later the state of Oklahoma), these 'Trails of Tears' were miserable treks of the dispossessed. Some 4,000 died on the Cherokee trail alone; up to a third of those who died were escaped African slaves or black Indians.

In June 2004 the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History celebrated another such desperate flight. The dedication of the Opothleyahola Memorial Building in LeRoy, Kansas, honoured the Muskogee Creek leader Opothleyahola (c. 1798-1863), who rescued thousands of natives and hundreds of African Americans by leading them out of Confederate Territory into Kansas in 1861.

More intimate alliances can also be identified. Under colonial and American law, the so-called 'five civilized tribes'- the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles - were all permitted to hold black slaves. In 1770, a European observer reported that the Creeks allowed their slaves freedom upon marriage, a practice that was 'permitted and encouraged' and that also bestowed freedom upon any children of the union. Among the Seminoles, the practice of marrying black wives appears to have been common. Chief Osceola (1804-38) not only had a black wife but all but three of his fifty-five bodyguards were black.


In recent years amateur historians have begun to piece together biographical accounts of 'African ancestored Indians'. Though frequently veering towards hagiography, some contain revealing material. Take, for example, the story of Cow Tom (c. 1810-74), who began life as a slave tending the cattle of a Muskogee Creek chief in Alabama. Tom was fluent in several native tongues as well as English. It was this facility that made him a valuable commodity - indeed, his owner rented him out to the US army as a translator.

Tom's reputation began to grow when he succeeded in convincing the army that the Creek's black slaves should be relocated with them. This saved several hundred of them from falling into the hands of the far harsher Southern white slave owners. In Indian Territory, Cow Tom became translator and assistant to the leader of the Upper Creek people, Chief Yargee. He also began to earn money, using it to buy his own freedom as well as that of his wife and children.

The Upper Creek Indians, who kept themselves separate from white society (hence the need for translators), seem to have provided a relatively welcoming environment for Cow Tom. By contrast, the Lower Creeks, a tribe with a more permeable relationship with European Americans, had a more suspicious attitude towards black people. They also aligned themselves with the Confederate cause in the Civil War. Thus, when they began to settle in the Upper Creek's new lands, Cow Tom and many others were forced to move on. They ended up at Fort Gibson, some fifty miles from Tulsa. There Tom assumed the role of a tribal chief, helped by his ability to speak English.

After the Civil War Cow Tom travelled to Washington as part of a small delegation to plead for the now free black Creeks to have the same rights and privileges granted to the Creek nation. This appeal was successful. The 1866 treaty with the Creek nation contained a passage - echoed in other treaties with native groups - that must have been music to the ears of black Indians:
   inasmuch as there are among the Creeks many
   persons of African descent ... it is stipulated
   that hereafter these persons lawfully residing
   in said Creek country under their laws and
   usages ... and their descendants and such
   others of the same race as may be permitted
   by the laws of the said nation to settle within
   the limits of the jurisdiction of the Creek
   Nation as citizens, shall have and enjoy all
   the rights and privileges of native citizens ...


Over a century later, however, in 1979 the Creeks debarred the descendants of Creek freedmen from membership of the Creek nation. In 2000 the Seminoles also sought to remove the descendants of freedmen from citizenship and in 2007 Cherokees also voted overwhelmingly to do the same. An email widely circulated ahead of the vote claimed that freedmen were 'infiltrators' cashing in on the tribe's resources: 'Don't get taken advantage of by these people,' it warned. 'They will suck you dry.'

Ever since the 1887 federal decision to replace native people's traditional system of collective land ownership with individual titles to property, the need to get one's family background recognized as legitimately 'Indian' has been a fraught business. While only about one per cent of Americans are indigenous, there are over 560 federally recognized native nations. Each has its own experiences, circumstances and attitude to membership. The resultant paperwork is the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which issues official Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood.

Native leaders determine the 'blood quantum' required for membership of their tribe. For highly practical reasons they guard this right jealously. Federal and state resources for things such as medical aid, affirmative action in education and the allocation of 'native only' gaming licences mean that membership decisions are critical. The Cherokee nation, for example, has an annual government budget of $350 million to share out amongst its 270,000 members. The idea that any of this money should go also to those whose tribal affiliation now seems an anachronism sticks in the craw of many native chiefs.

However, those like Loys Everett of the Black Native American Association, founded in 1992, are insulted by the assumption that they are just after casino money and educational opportunities. He says:
   What I am after is celebrating what I am,
   which is African and Native American. I want
   to know who my family is: I want to find my
   Native American relatives. I feel that coming to
   powwows enables me to celebrate my culture.

Others have pointed out that the exclusion of black Indians contrasts with tribal acceptance of white Indians. Many whites claim native citizenship on the basis of a single ancestor on one of the old census rolls. 'There are blond people who are 1/1000th Cherokee who are members,' comments Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. Yet 'there are Freedmen who can prove they have a full-blooded Cherokee grandfather who won't be members.'

The Cherokee freedmen are currently seeking to overturn last year's decision against them on the grounds that it contravenes the 1866 treaty and is unconstitutional. But their appeal also calls into question the right of native nations to be treated as autonomous legal entities. Matthew Fletcher, a Professor of Indigenous Law at Michigan State University, argues that defending native people's power to decide who belongs and who doesn't is a key test of native sovereignty. 'Placing Indian tribes in the controlling hands of an American or even a state-wide electorate,' he says, would be 'to eviscerate tribal legal and political identities.'

Among black intellectuals there is also suspicion of the urge to identify with Native Americans and it is easy enough to mock such apparently strained efforts to find what would seem to be unlikely roots. But the urge for African Americans to establish Native American roots is real enough and it is clear, even if it cannot be quantified, that the relationship between the two races was once quite extensive. It is to be hoped that a way can be found to acknowledge this historical connection which respects the few remaining rights of autonomy left to native American people in what was once their own country.

Alastair Bonnett is Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University
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Author:Bonnett, Alastair
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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