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Black Indian girl, ca. 1910
As images of happy pilgrims and “Indians” play out on TV, take the time to learn a few facts about how Black people are connected to the original inhabitants of this land.
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While Thanksgiving has largely transitioned from a day marking a fictionalized relationship between European settlers (they’d be considered “terrorists” by today’s standards) and the Natives who originally inhabited what came to be known as the United States, the holiday is now primarily focused on time with family, overeating and giving thanks. However, it’s still the perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the Native Americans and how we are connected to them.
Here are a few important things to know about the relationship between Blacks and Native Americans. Feel free to share these with your little cousin after snatching off the handmade feather headband she made in school and ruining all her racially insensitive fun.
- How We First Hooked Up: The earliest recorded African and Native American contact occurred in April 1502, when the first enslaved Africans were taken to Hispanola; some Africans escaped to Santo Domingo. The first Black Native Americans emerged from these groups.
- Some Native American Tribes Held Slaves: Unfortunately, the relationship between Blacks and Natives prior to emancipation was often rocky, as some Native tribes sided with the Confederacy and owned slave plantations. While the dynamics between Native slave holders and enslaved Africans was often different than those that existed on European run plantations, this still complicated the Black/Native relationship in a way that challenges the narrative many of us have embraced regarding that connection, which brings us to…
- You Do Not Have “Indian Up In Your Family”: As Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote in 2009, “Only 5 percent of all Black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent. Those ‘high cheek bones’ and ‘straight black hair’ your relatives brag about at every family reunion and holiday meal since you were 2 years old? Where did they come from? To paraphrase a well-known French saying, “Seek the White man.”
Some 58 percent of African Americans possess at least 12.5 percent European blood. In other words, our variances in complexion and hair texture are more likely to be attributed to our White ancestry (which most of us have via slavery, even if we cannot trace it back on our family trees) than the “Cherokee” heritage so many of us have been claiming for so many years. Unless you have documented evidence, please stop telling people that Grandma Mary Louise Jenkins was “full-blood Indian” just because she rocked long, silky plaits her entire life. Oh, and don’t run out telling people you’re 12 percent White now and acting like that makes you mixed, either.
- Okay, Maybe You Do Have Some Native Blood: Some Seminole Natives of Florida did form communities with escaped Africans, creating what came to be known as Black Seminoles. Hundreds of Africans traveled with the Seminole nation when they were forced to relocate to Native American territory, while some remained with those who stayed in Florida. The 1835 Census showed that some 10% of the Cherokee people had African blood. Before the Civil War, the Africans living amongst Cherokee people were either enslaved by them or they were free, but lacking citizenship. In 1866, the Cherokee nation signed a treaty with the US government recognizing those people of African heritage as full citizens. If you are curious to learn if and how you might have Native American blood ties, try a genealogy expert or source that specializes in Black/Native relationships.
- The definitive book Black Indians by William Loren Katz is by far the most comprehensive book on the historical relationship between Blacks and Native Americans. It’s not a scholarly work, but it’s an amazing resource for those looking to learn more about our connection.