ONTD Political

Native American roots in Black America run deep

2:18 am - 12/12/2012
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.

source: The Grio
art_house_queen 12th-Dec-2012 01:14 pm (UTC)
Everyone should sit down and watch "African American Lives", it's exceptionally well-crafted and researched. I love the show.

In contrast, 58 percent of black Americans have at least 12.5 percent white ancestry.

I've read that many black families decided to go the "Native American" route because this invented history was much less painful that revealing how/why white ancestors exist. Oftentimes, it's not really a happy story.
kitanabychoice 12th-Dec-2012 02:58 pm (UTC)
Your comment reminds me of a teacher I had, who said that basically any black person who isn't very dark in America has white ancestry. At the time I believed him, because, well, it made sense in a way -- both my mom and dad were fairly dark but I'm shaded pretty well in the middle, so obviously there's just some white in my DNA somewhere! :|a
tabaqui 13th-Dec-2012 12:41 am (UTC)
I got to see parts of it - it was so amazing and interesting. I'll have to search around and see if it's available anywhere.

It also made me want to get that DNA testing - how very interesting to discover your ancestral past!
romp 13th-Dec-2012 06:57 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed the episodes I've seen, just wish it was easier to find.
angelofdeath275 12th-Dec-2012 01:23 pm (UTC)
I know that on my dad's side, uhh how did it go.... my grandma's grandma was native american, and her brother has a pic of her and showed it to my dad, lil sis and I before

Don't know...anything about them since I didn't ask.
kitanabychoice 12th-Dec-2012 02:55 pm (UTC)
I'm glad I read this. I know one person who has claims to Cherokee history, and her grandmother (or great-grandmother, it slips my mind) was Cherokee. It was one of my friend's goals to get something certifying that she was part of the Cherokee tribe, but I don't know how that ever turned out.
a_phoenixdragon 12th-Dec-2012 03:10 pm (UTC)
This was very informative and well researched. Thank you for sharing OP!
thevelvetsun 12th-Dec-2012 04:31 pm (UTC)
This is very interesting. Thanks for the article, as phoenixdragon said it is very well researched.

(Not trying to derail but if anyone can point me to other sources that discuss this same phenomenon in other ethnicities and races, I would be very interested in it. In my experience, many white Americans like to claim Native American and also Irish ancestry.)
switch_heart 12th-Dec-2012 04:38 pm (UTC)
I swear if I had a dollar for everyone I know who claims to have "Cherokee" or "Blackfoot" blood, I'd be rich.
skellington1 12th-Dec-2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
I was wondering the same thing -- it feels like people (in my experience generally white middle-aged women, but that's anecdote based) like to pick a few vogue ethnicities to claim.

The following is off topic, seeing as it's shifting to an apparently white phenomenon, but I do think you'd get interesting data from a comparison of how likely different racial groups were to claim small fractions of other groups in their ancestry.

OT: The Irish thing in particular used to really irritate me because I play Irish traditional music and the people most set on their 1/32 or whatever of Irish 'heritage' used to be SO SURE it was because I was "part Irish." Explaining that I was a white mutt and just liked the music, and that I'd encourage anyone who liked the music to play it regardless of ancestral nationality, totally baffled them. I had people argue with me! Yeah, there's probably Irish in there with the rest of the northern/western Europe generic-white, but this is NOT cultural heritage -- my grandparents listened to Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, ffs).

Now I happily claim that I'm 1/17 whatever (or some other biologically impossible fraction) and wait to see if they figure it out.

nikcool 12th-Dec-2012 05:47 pm (UTC)
My grandmother has told me that her grandfather was born on a reservation, but other than that i'm not sure about my ancestors. When my son was born last year, he was marked as white hispanic, then the birth certificate lady saw a black woman in the room and wtfed. So, I know theres white somewhere in my background.
underfiend 12th-Dec-2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
This article reminds me that I still need to go find a decent DNA testing service that can give me some useful information about my heritage while my parents are still alive. I have issue with spending $200+ on some random genetic test though I was interested in the human genome project.

My dad keeps telling me my grandmother was "full-blood" Cherokee and my mom once mentioned their being Blackfoot on her side. I don't know how much my mom was following the Black folk meme of having Native in the family but my dad has been pretty adamant about it all my life. It would be nice to get some evidence of that and possibly where our family came from, but I'm not so sure how much a genetic test would provide. I kind of assume a lot of Blacks families want to trace their lineage, especially around family reunion time.
skellington1 12th-Dec-2012 07:00 pm (UTC)
I wonder if that's something that'll come down in price, ever. I think it's stayed around the $200 mark for awhile, but it seems like there'd be a lot more people interested in DNA testing just for curiosity's sake if it wasn't such a steep price tag -- and with more people they'd get more data. I looked at the human genome project page recently -- the part that markets the DNA testing -- and my first thought was that their data collection had to be skewed by economic class, and therefore by race, too. :|

Now, granted, I don't think they're using the data in a way that requires even sampling, but if you HAD a more even sampling, it seems like you could use the data for more kinds of projects.
msdevin92 12th-Dec-2012 10:19 pm (UTC)
IA on the tests being expensive. Hell, even stuff like the Ancestry database charges you. My paternal grandparents are Native American (Cherokee grandfather, Choctaw grandmother with a little black and white) but we haven't been able to dig up written proof; Grandpa died when I was pretty young and Grandma's family apparently tried avoiding any outright affiliation with the tribe so they could pass more easily, not to mention that her memory's going nowadays. I really wish I could find some sort of certification because another scholarship would really help with college.
mercystars 12th-Dec-2012 06:58 pm (UTC)
I spent a lot of time in Oklahoma as a kid, and there is a (mostly oral) history there of escaped African slaves being taken in and sheltered by many of the Native American tribes who had been removed from their traditional lands and were living in what is now the state of Oklahoma--then known as "Indian Territory". I remember seeing old black and white photographs (maybe taken by Edward Curtis...? I can't remember and Google is being unhelpful) of "Black native people" in traditional Native American clothes, as well as hearing lots of stories about slaves and their families being adopted into tribes. And there's also the "WIN tribe", with the acronym "WIN" standing for "White, Indian, Negro" of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but there were people in OK when I was a kid who referred to themselves as WIN people.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Indians_in_the_United_States
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seminole_freedmen
http://www.blackindiansunited5tribesembassy.org/default.html

There is very little literature out there on this topic (surprise, surprise), but there is this book, an incomplete history but a good place to start:
http://www.amazon.com/Black-Indians-A-Hidden-Heritage/dp/0689809018
jettakd 12th-Dec-2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
Aren't Black Natives where the term Buffalo Warrior (like the song) were coined? I've seen a lot of photos of Black members of the Cherokee tribe (to be fair though I live in TN and most people have someone with a Native ancestor in their family.(
homasse 13th-Dec-2012 01:25 am (UTC)
Dad's side of the family says we've got native American in us, but not sure what (supposedly Cherokee, but EVERYONE claims Cherokee, and I don't think they were in that part of Virginia my family is from). I tend to believe it, because, well, I've seen my family, lol, and have had people look at pictures of my grandparents and dad and have gotten, "...Your grandpa looks Asian!" "Your grandma looks Asian, too!" (different sides of the family) and "Your dad is NOT black! He's Pacific Islander or something!" We look too much like a mix of everything to, well, NOT be a mix of everything.

It does make me want to get a DNA test just to find out what all there is making me and the rest of my family the ethnic Rorschach tests that we are.
skellington1 13th-Dec-2012 01:40 am (UTC)
I'm giggling madly over the phrase 'Ethnic Rorschach tests". I look at you and I see a... bird! A quiet lake! No, wait, it's my lost childhood!

(I understood what you meant, but it's been a long day at work, and silliness overwhelms).
lickety_split 13th-Dec-2012 04:49 am (UTC)
My great-grandfather was Crow.

And there's a British guy in there somewhere too. I know there have to be a lot more though but nobody's ever tried to claim us.

... Okay cept in the early 90's we got this HILARIOUSLY formal letter from this wealthy white family to my dad talking about how they traced their family tree and found out he was "one of them" and were inviting him over to the family reunion. They even included a picture of everyone waving! My mom and I still LOLOLOLOL FOREVER about it but my dad was a young man during Black Power and gets soooooo salty when we bring it up.
toxic_glory 13th-Dec-2012 07:16 am (UTC)
that's kind of hilarious

like, did they expect him to be like, "HELLO NEW WHITE FAMILY, LET US REJOICE OVER OUR SHARED ANCESTRY~"
pistol_eyes 13th-Dec-2012 05:05 am (UTC)
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.

This is really interesting. I know for a fact that I have Native American ancestry. My maternal grandmother has portraits of her grandparents who were Native. But I would love to take one of those genetic tests to see what I'm truly "made up of."

lickety_split 13th-Dec-2012 06:30 am (UTC)
Me too, but then again I'm also afraid of being disappointed by the results.
romp 13th-Dec-2012 07:14 am (UTC)
Read this a few days ago and found it fascinating. Thanks for posting, OP.
toxic_glory 13th-Dec-2012 07:22 am (UTC)
I think a lot of black people cling to possibly being Native American because they want to know something about their ancestry

I feel like a lot of white Americans are so eager to talk about being 1/50000th French and whatnot, so maybe black people want to be able to claim something in those weird "what ethnicity are you~" conversations that pop up

although a fun response is to say, "well, your ancestors kidnapped my ancestors and then enslaved them for a couple of centuries, robbing them of their culture and failing to keep any records of their families, so I can't really say where they were from."
thevelvetsun 13th-Dec-2012 02:58 pm (UTC)
That is a very good point. When someone was essentially robbed of knowing their ancestry, I imagine filling that gap of knowledge with SOMETHING is very appealing.
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