Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage

“I got Indian in my family” is a phrase not foreign to Black folks, especially Southerners. It quickly rolls off the tongue as an explanation for phenotypic attributes such as keen noses, high cheekbones or “good hair.” Often dismissed as cliché, the notion is brushed off as foolish banter, but once upon a time Native American and Black communities did merge. With everyone so quick to claim “Indian blood” has anyone really questioned why and how this historic alliance came to be and why it dissolved?

William Loren Katz, a former public school teacher, wrote Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage to turn one dimensional accounts on their heads, shine a light of shame on American “heroes”and fill in where the blatant omission of textbooks fail us. While it is an insightful read targeted at middle and high schoolers, don’t be ashamed to walk into the young adult literature section of your local bookstore or library and pick it up. This factual work is a great resource for adults who have been deprived of this history, too!

Katz provides brief examples of the Afro-Native American experience in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil and Mexico, and then moves to provide deeper coverage of the Black and Red alliance in what we now call the United States of America.

He emphasizes overlooked firsts, like the earliest European settlement in the “USA”, San Miguel de Guadalupe (in current day South Carolina) built on the backs of enslaved Africans in 1526. These architects later caused the first rebellion in North America, fleeing inland to safety. This is the beginning of what he calls the Black Indian alliance. Katz also meticulously narrates the history of the Seminole Tribe, a nation with strong ties to African people, documenting successes and failures of the Black and Native union. He also gives vivid examples of how the other four of the Five Civilized Tribes interacted with Blacks.

The Black Indian alliance in the USA was based on uniting and fighting together to survive the tyranny of land pirates and freedom usurpers. Ironically, it was destroyed by the very people that unintentionally brought them together. Policies, written and informally expressed, based on lineage, colorism and “civility” were used to determine favorableness to Whites. This favor had tremendous implications for access to tangible resources (land, for instance) and intangible benefits (like autonomy over community and safety from attack by colonizers). Such tactics were used well into the 20th century when Blacks pushed to integrate into White society (which was never the goal of Native Americans) and were granted citizenship before Native Americans, the true citizens of the land. Other power politics that destroyed relationships between Natives and Blacks throughout the centuries, as outlined by Katz, resulted in the independent cultures we are familiar with today. Sadly, the rift continues to widen. At the turn of this century, Cherokee and Seminole nations made legal attempts to exclude members of African descent from receiving government benefits and strip them of their citizenship.

It is more important now than ever to learn what was lost, how it uplifted Blacks and Native Americans in the past, and how it can improve the futures of these communities. Because academic institutions and museums (including The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian [NMAI]) fail to adequately and permanently display this historical bond, historians like Katz and, most importantly, the voices of Black Indians are pivot to recapturing and sharing the story of these long lost allies. A web search for Black Native Americans returns a host of results with lots of genealogy-based tribes and organizations with discontinued sites; those that have sites haven’t updated them. Groups like the Black Native American Association on Facebook, Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, Black Indians & InterTribal Native American Association, Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. dispel conventional wisdom that “Black Indians” are a myth by existing—which in itself is powerful—and provide the public with information about linked ancestries. One critique of these organizations, however, is they have no clear agendas or plans of action, especially in reference to mending the divide between Black and Native communities in America. How will the plights of Black Indians, Black Americans and Native Americans improve if the focus of these organizations is solely based on bloodline instead of addressing the issues holding Black and Native American communities back? Maybe it’s just easier to acknowledge “I got Indian in my family” than to rekindle the lost unity from centuries past to fight yet another battle in the war of survival in Eurocentric America.

by Francesca H. Brown, Master’s Candidate in Urban Policy and Management at The New School for Public Engagement

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4 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on ACRAH.

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  2. rina3

     /  November 21, 2013

    Found your post very insightful on the history of the Native Indians and Blacks. It is unfortunate that these organizations have fallen apart and haven’t been reorganized. Society has been able to divide many people from different backgrounds living in poverty.

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  3. Ebony

     /  December 11, 2013

    I found this post very interesting, being that I was raised in the south and experienced the ‘you must be mixed with indian, you have good hair” mentality growing up. Having Indian in your family was a privilege growing up, it set you apart. Its important to rekindle the lost unity from centuries past to fight oppression, to understand what it means to be Afro-Native American and not just what you think the perks are.

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  4. Amanda C.

     /  March 10, 2014

    I have to admit, that before writing my own blog post about Black Native Americans, and before reading your post about Katz’s book, I was unaware that there was such a large group of Americans that fall into this category. It is unfortunate that their history is left out of our school’s version of American History. Like you, I was surprised that the Cherokee and Seminole Nations have made attempts to strip Black Indians of their legal rights and heritage. I was also surprised to learn that so many of our nation’s museums do not have permanent exhibits on Black Native Americans. However, I wanted to share with you a current exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian: http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indivisible/ . Although I cannot determine if this is just temporary or not, I do know that they do tours, symposiums and have learning resources attached to the site. It may not be as progressive as we’d hope for, but it’s a step in the right direction!

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