History of Black Indians – Past and Present

12 May


My family heritage is interwoven with Native America, African and Dutch ancestry. Growing up I had only fragments of these familial links. My mother told me many stories about my paternal grand mother and my great great grand father were descendants of the Arawak Indians indigenous to Suriname, where my family and acceptors are from. I remember a period of my childhood when I learned about these ‘Indian connections’ that I would claim to my friends, “I’m half Indian.” At that time, it was considered cool to have Native American roots. When I added that I also had ‘Dutch heritage’. ‘Most often, as children will do, I was dismissed as being ‘in denial’ about ‘being Black’.  I was puzzled by the assertion that I was ‘denying my Black/African heritage’, because I ‘knew’ I was  ‘Black’ but why could I not be all three? It wasn’t until 2013, when I went to Suriname to do research on my family genealogy that I learned from my great Aunt about our family’s Native American, African/Surinamese and Dutch roots. The history my aunt shared with me was much more enriching than anything I discovered in the archives and continues to define the depth and complexity of my multi-layered heritage..

The study of the history of Black Indians is very much still a ‘hidden history’. My personal history and this gap in public history that continues to influence my research and a major reason why it was so important to include the Native American heritage and history in developing the new tour in New York State. This past April, at the Schomburg – Lapidus Center, Anthropologist Robert Collins and Historian Tiya Miles explored the complexities, tensions, intimacies, alliances, and legacies of the interrelated histories of African Americans and Native Americans..

Introduction: Relations between African Americans and Native Americans have been complex. While some nations enslaved black men and women; others welcomed runaways in their villages and towns. African Americans were integrated into and fought alongside the Seminoles in Florida; but Buffalo Soldiers battled American Indians after the Civil War. All along mixed families were formed, embraced, or rejected.

Watch the event held at Schomburg Center 21 April 2016:

“Within the fabric of American identity is woven a story that has long been invisible—the lives and experiences of people who share African American and Native American ancestry. African and Native peoples came together in the Americas. Over centuries, African Americans and Native Americans created shared histories, communities, families, and ways of life. Prejudice, laws, and twists of history have often divided them from others, yet African-Native American people were united in the struggle against slavery and dispossession, and then for self-determination and freedom.

Background: In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the Taíno island of Guanahani (now part of the Bahamas). The arrival of Spanish ships unleashed a series of devastating changes for millions of Natives, Africans and their descendants.European colonizers set about seizing Native land and enslaving Native peoples. The demand for even more laborers swelled, and the slave trade exploded. Sea traders bought kidnapped Africans and shipped them across the Atlantic to sell them into slavery. Colonial rulers made laws and policies that treated Natives and Africans as inferior to Europeans. For many generations, these laws and attitudes damaged the lives of Native and African peoples.

Native peoples experienced slavery—and saw enslaved Africans—differently at different times and places. Early in the colonial period, Native Americans were sometimes enslaved alongside African Americans. They intermarried and lived through common struggles. Some even coordinated armed resistance to white encroachment. Later, Native tribes sometimes took in and harbored runaway slaves, accepting them into their communities and blending in their cultural expressions. But members of some Native nations, particularly the southeastern tribes that emulated white society, themselves kept African American slaves.

Early in the 1800s, some Cherokees acquired slaves, and in the 1830s, enslaved African Americans accompanied the Cherokees when the federal government forced them to move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where the tribe struggled to rebuild its culture and institutions. By 1861, there were 4,000 black slaves living among the Cherokees. After the Civil War, the tribe signed a treaty that granted former slaves, or freedmen, “all the rights of Native Cherokees.” But in 2007, Cherokees amended their tribal constitution, making “Indian blood” a requirement for citizenship. As a result, some 2,800 descendants of Cherokee freedmen were excluded from membership..

Read/view full online exhibition: Indivisible: African – Native American Lives in the Americas

Black Indians: An American Story Documentary brings to light a forgotten part of Americans past – the cultural and racial fusion of Native and African Americans. Narrated by James Earl Jones, “Black Indians: An American Story” explores what brought the two groups together, what drove them apart and the challenges they face today.

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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Black Heritage Tours New York


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