Many, if not most, African Americans are believed to be of partial Native American ancestry. William Loren Katz in Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage explored the roots of this Black and Native American admixture. Black contact with Native Americans goes back long before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. In 1526, a large expedition left the Spanish settlement of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispanola, and landed in coastal South Carolina along the Pee Dee River. Within a short time, however, the few Spaniards not felled by disease and infighting, sailed back to Santo Domingo leaving the enslaved Africans they had brought with them. These had no problem living, and eventually blending in, with the Native Americans.
The pattern continued for centuries as Europeans set up ever expanding settlements along the east coast of what would become the United States. Time and again enslaved Africans ran away to the interior and made common cause with the locals. They understood the language and ways of the Europeans. The Native Americans knew the land and how to thrive upon it. Together they often forcibly resisted encroaching white settlements. The most spectacular example was the Seminole War, the longest conflict in American history. It raged on and off through Florida for more than 40 years (1815 – 1858).
However, at times Blacks joined whites in exploiting the indigenous peoples. For example, Bacon’s Rebellion, the uprising of Black and white poor in 1676 in Virginia and Maryland, was actually sparked by the planters refusal to allow them to expand into Native American lands. And the Buffalo Soldiers, Black US cavalrymen who patrolled the far West after the Civil War, many of partial Native American ancestry, at various times protected or fought against the indigenous peoples as their white commanders directed.
In the midwest and far west, long before sustained European settlement, Blacks were trading, interacting and intermarrying with Native Americans. For example, Jean Baptiste pont du Sable, whose trading post blossomed into the city of Chicago, was a Black Indian. Other famous Black Indians include Crispus Attucks, first person to die in the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist Frederick Douglas and author Langston Hughes.
James Beckwourth, a legendary scout, explorer and pathfinder who has been portrayed in Hollywood as a white man, was a Black Indian. Bill Pickett, the man who developed the art of “bulldogging,” that is, roping steers in prize competitions that later came to be called rodeos, was another. His two “white” assistants, Tom Mix and Will Rogers, went on to spectacular Hollywood careers that set the pattern for the cowboy in films. Many of the famous figures of the Old West had mixed racial heritage including Nat Love, also known as Deadwood Dick, a superb marksman and horseman and Bass Reeves, a lawman whose adventures have been made into popular films and TV shows in which he is regularly portrayed by white actors.
Since the arrival of Europeans there have been many types of “miscegenation,” that have resulted in admixtures of Native peoples, Europeans and Africans. (Will Rogers, for example, was of partial Native American ancestry. The actress Lauren Hutton is white, Native American and Black.) Being less susceptible to the diseases of the Old Word, which proved deadly in the New, those Native Americans that were mixed were more likely to have the immunities to survive.
As Dr. Vilna Treitler in her book The Ethnic Project has observed, Native Americans and African Americans “are quite conjoined in their history and in their progeny, and therefore even to think of them as distinct groups is to think erroneously.” Identification as Native American or Black has “less to do with who the group members are and with whom they procreate than with how outsiders have constructed them and how they have constructed themselves.” However, “(t)ribes seeking federal recognition were aware that relationships with African-descendant members could affect the chance at recognition. Indian tribes without African ancestry were more likely to receive federal recognition than tribes who mixed with Africans.”
Oklahoma, the territory to which many Native Americans from the Southeast were forcibly relocated, contained many Black Indians. “Each of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole) has in varying degrees excluded people from tribal enrollment because of African ancestry, leading some of the remaining tribal members with African ancestry to hide their heritage behind particularly loud anti-black rhetoric.” (112)
Much of Oklahoma had been Indian Territory, land set aside by the federal government in perpetuity for Native Americans from the East forced to relocate here in the early Nineteenth century on the Trail of Tears. Once the survivors arrived, however, much of the land they had been promised was seized by settlers, thanks to the Curtis Act (1898). This measure was penned by Kansas Congressman Charles Curtis whose mother was a Native American, and who went on to become Vice President of the United States in 1929. The Curtis Act also took away the right of Native Americans to decide who does and does not belong to their “tribe” placing it in the hands of the federal government.
Since the federal government has traditionally frowned upon granting tribal status to Native American groups perceived to have Black members, many have traditionally sought to cut off those labelled Black. The granting of licenses for casino gambling to Native American groups has only intensified these efforts as tribes seek any and all means to limit enrollment so as to maximize each individual’s share of gambling profit.
Note that mixed race individuals like James Beckwourth and John Baptist pont du Sable may not have been the exception but the norm amongst the pioneers and pathfinders in the leading edge of the westward expansion of the American frontier. After all a frontier is just that, the “front tier,” the cutting edge of one culture into another, where the dominant, encroaching people’s customs cannot be effectively enforced.
Numerous clusters of people found in pockets throughout the North American countryside are of what E. Franklin Frazier has called “indeterminate race,” and who later scientists refer to as “tri-racial isolates,” that is mixtures of Black, white and Native American. They have been given various local names (Redbones, Brass Ankles, Jackson Whites, etc.). These isolated groups are all related. They are remnants of the frontier people, the cutting edge of the Westward expansion. Today there are official Melngeon associations actively probing and documenting their mixed racial heritage.
Keep in mind, however, that there is considerable evidence that many Native Americans in North America were Black before the arrival of the Europeans with African captives. Ivan Van Sertima in They Came Before Columbus documented that Africans repeatedly crossed the Atlantic over thousands of years. (Arthur Lewin, www.AfricaUnlimited.com )
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