*Editor’s note: A prior title of this piece included a playful reference to African Americans erroneously claiming to have ‘Indian in their family’. Many of our commenters rightfully found this title offensive and dismissive of the many African Americans who have Native American blood and show reverence for their Native American culture. We apologize and have changed the title to be reflective of the piece’s intent — shining a spotlight on a cultural subset that is often overlooked.*
Throughout the years many black people have laid claim to Native American heritage. Interestingly, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates’ research claims that the average African American actually has very little Native American blood — less than 1%. However, behind the talk of ‘high cheekbones’ and ‘red skin tone’ there actually is a fascinating history of African American and Native cultures combining.
Although there are over 500 federally recognized Native American tribes, only 5 were considered to be “civil” during the colonial period. These 5 tribes which consisted of Cheek, Chocktaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole had adopted colonial practices such as Christianity, written constitutions and plantation slavery. Yes, native Americans were coerced into owning black slaves under the direction of British colonists, in efforts to secure the Transatlantic Slave trade. The colonists felt native Americans who accepted slavery would not harbor fleeing runaway slaves.
Slavery within the Native American Nations
The only tribe that rejected bondage slavery was the Seminole “in favor of a system of friendship and alliance with their black members.”
Like European slaveowners, Native americans adopted Slave Codes to control their black population by hindering runaways and preventing them from learning how to read and write. It was required for members of the nation to catch runaway slaves.
However, the concept of slavery varied tremendously from what was seen in white-owned plantations. Because bondage was seen as a violation of the human spirit and will to be free, many observers noticed the chains were placed loosely upon slaves which upset white slaveowners. Only the Chickasaw upheld the reputation of treating slaves as poorly as white slaveowners.
Former Cherokee slaves detailed their experiences in interviews in William Katz’s book, “Black Indians”:
Johnson Thompson, eighty, and a former Cherokee slave, said: “The master never punish anybody, and I never see anybody whipped, and only one slave sold. Lots of slave children didn’t ever learn to read.”
Some even have stories of slaves who were able to earn money to purchase their freedom:
Rochelle Ward, ninety-one, remembere: “Some of the slaves work around and get money and pay this money to their master for freedom, so there was some freed before the close of the war.
British colonies posed many treaties with the Native American nations for the return of fugitive slaves. However, because of the adoption system which existed among the nations new members were welcomed and offered full protection.
“When whites argued about the right of private property in owning people and insisted Africans were inferior beings, the Indians shrugged, “no.”
Notable Black Native Americans
Edmonia Lewis who previously went by her Chippewa name of Wildfire was a prominent artist of the 19th century.
Diana Fletcher was a member of the Seminole nation but was later adopted into Kiowa. She was said to be a school teacher at the schools built for black native Americans.
Black Native Americans Today
In 2007, the Cherokee nation Supreme Court ruled black members who were brought into the tribe by Native American slave owners or freedmen, before were no longer to be considered members of the tribe. This decision means black members would no longer be eligible for free healthcare and education benefits.
Similarly in 2000, after receiving $56 million in reparations from the U.S. government for land taken in Florida, the Seminole nation restricted its membership to those who could only prove their lineage via the Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Rolls authorized by the U.S. congress as a requirement to negotiate with the Five Civilized Tribes to convince them to agree to an allotment plan and dissolution of the reservation system. Citizens of the tribe fell under several categories: by blood, marriage, freedmen(formerly enslaved by Native Americans) and Delaware/Lenape.
Despite the adversity, black native Americans have continued to foster a community to preserve their culture. These photos were taken at the first annual Mountain Eagle Place Inter-Tribal Pow Wow in Virginia.
What is your knowledge behind the Black Native American population?
Sources: Black Indians by William Loren Katz