Black Indians Explore Challenges Of 'Hidden' Heritage

Tell Me More concludes its observance of National Native American Heritage Month with a look at the struggle of some African Americans for acceptance by those whom they consider kin. Host Michel Martin explores shared black and Native American heritage with William Katz, author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, and Shonda Buchanan, an English professor, who is of North Carolina and Mississippi Choctaw Indian ancestry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to our final conversation marking Native American Heritage Month. Throughout the month, we've had a series of conversations about how this continent's first people are living and making their mark on this country. We've talked about Native American veterans. We've heard about how the musical group Blackfire draws on both American punk rock and their tribal heritage to create a unique sound.

We've also heard from a filmmaker who relayed the sometimes difficult story of how five members of the Crow tribe became part of his family. And we heard from the leaders of the other Congress, the National Congress of American Indians. If you missed any of those conversations, by the way, you can find them on our website. Just go to the TELL ME MORE programs page at npr.org.

Today, this final day in November, we decided to take a look at one group's shared heritage with Native Americans and efforts to have that heritage more broadly recognized. I'm talking about so-called black Indians, people who are considered black or African-American, but who also claim American Indian heritage.

For decades, that shared history has sometimes been celebrated, but sometimes the opposite is true. Joining us to talk about that, William Loren Katz, he's the author of the book "Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage." And he's with us from our bureau in New York.

Also with us is Shonda Buchanan. She's a descendent of North Carolina and Mississippi Choctaw Indians. And she's a professor of English at Hampton University in Virginia. And she's with us from the studios on campus. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Professor SHONDA BUCHANAN (English, Hampton University): Thank you.

Mr. WILLIAM LOREN KATZ (Author, "Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage"): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Katz, will you start with us and just tell us how the relationship between African-Americans and Native Americans began?

Mr. KATZ: Well, it began with the earliest colonial period. Soon after Columbus arrived, Africans were brought in. And so you have a pattern of Native Americans taking in African-Americans and the two people mixing and forming a kind of united front against the forces that were bringing slavery and colonialism to the Americas. So this has a long, long history.

MARTIN: Is this a history that is generally acknowledged by the tribes?

Mr. KATZ: Well, I think some of them do, certainly along the East Coast, where the African-American members are prominent. And they played a very central role among the Seminole Nation. The Africans were among the leaders of it and took part in the 42-year war the Seminoles waged against the United States government and the slave catchers.

MARTIN: And forgive me, Mr. Katz, is it also true, though, that there were tribes who owned slaves?

Mr. KATZ: Absolutely true, including the five so-called civilized nations. But I have to explain, it wasn't the kind of slavery that we associate with the plantations of the South. And people could get married, they could eat at the same table. People could get free and they were treated nicely. And we know this from the testimony, they would much rather have had Native Americans to be their masters than the white slave owners of the South.

MARTIN: Well, that's a tough call, isn't it, who you'd want to own you? But be that as it may, Shonda, you wrote a piece for Indian Country Today about your experience of being a black Indian at a Chickahominy powwow. Tell us a little bit about it. It was not a good experience.

Ms. BUCHANAN: Well, what happened to me was I was basically dressed in my buckskin and regalia and I danced in the circle the first time and one of the Chickahominy council members came to me and he said, do you have your tribal enrollment card. And I said, no, do you card here? And I actually had heard that the Chickahominy did card. So, I said, okay, I won't dance. And I asked my husband, do you want to leave? He said no.

When I heard the announcer call for intertribals, generally at all the powwows, intertribal is anyone who is dressed in regalia can go ahead and go dance in the circle. And so I said, all right, well, it's intertribal, I'll go ahead and dance. I'm not disrespecting the tribe by dancing intertribals since I share this history.

And when I came out of the circle after dancing intertribals, I was accosted by three of the council members who said to me, didn't you hear what we said the first time?

MARTIN: But you didn't notice them asking anybody else for a tribal card?

Ms. BUCHANAN: No, they did not ask any of them.

MARTIN: And so what do you think that meant? What did that mean? I assume that you were the only person who was visibly black, let's put it that way.

Ms. BUCHANAN: I was the only one who was visibly black in that circle. And even though this is one of their rules, they cannot negate my heritage and my history, my oral tradition.

MARTIN: Well, was this an isolated incident? Or is this something that happens to you or to others who are visibly black with some frequency?

Ms. BUCHANAN: It does happen with frequency. Last year we also went to the Chickahominy powwow and actually one of the council members asked another one of our friends who, you know, we call ourselves red-blacks - another red-black if he had his card and if my husband had his card. And my husband was so upset, he said, I'll never dance at that powwow again. So, yes, it does happen with a frequency and it seems that darker skinned people get carded, whereas the lighter skinned or visibly Indian folks do not.

MARTIN: But, Shonda, you know, I think some people want to ask, why do you keep at it if people keep dissing you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BUCHANAN: It's who I am. I don't know, sometimes I feel like, you know, I'm going to sit at that counter. I'm going to drink out of that water fountain, you know? This is a heritage that my people have. And I wasn't raised on a reservation, but I was raised knowing I was black and Indian.

MARTIN: Mr. Katz, what about you? What do you make of this?

Mr. KATZ: Well, let me come at it from another way. A very sad thing has happened. This has nothing to do with dancing, this is worse. But the Seminole Nation has tried to remove members who are of mixed African and Native American descent. And this has happened with the Cherokees also. There's been a kind of rift. So it seems that the initial lack of racism that led to this amalgamation has now gradually morphed into the acceptance of the kind of racism that was so prevalent in the white societies that nurtured it with slavery.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with historian and author William Loren Katz, as well as Shonda Buchanan, an English professor at Hampton University, who's also of North Carolina and Mississippi Choctaw descent. And we're talking about the shared heritage, sometimes disputed, between people of African descent who are also -claim Indian heritage.

So, Mr. Katz, what is that about? I mean there are those who would say, really, what this is about is these tribes trying to narrow the pool of people who are eligible for tribal benefits. Do you think it's that? Or do you think it's something else?

Mr. KATZ: Well, I think it can be that. And, also, remember, the U.S. government has always set the rules, which is kind of odd because it was the first, you know, oppressor in the United States of both peoples. And the people suffering under it have a right to declare who they are and what they are and they know their history.

MARTIN: And, Mr. Katz, is there a similar effort to disenroll Indians who are white-looking?

Mr. KATZ: No.

Ms. BUCHANAN: No. Absolutely not.

Mr. KATZ: I think that's the proof of the pudding.

MARTIN: Where does this conversation go from here? I do want to note that last year the National Museum of the American Indian had an exhibition about the relationship between African-Americans and Native Americans. It was called Indivisible. As I understand it, it was quite well received. That's one data point.

And then the other data points are the experiences that you are having, Ms. Buchanan, where do you think - and I'll ask each of you to answer this as your final question. Where do you think this conversation goes from here?

Ms. BUCHANAN: I think that that exhibit at the Smithsonian was one beautiful small step towards recognizing the shared heritage of African and Native Americans. And the next step would be for tribal councils to actually have these kinds of conversations and to say, you know, are we denying our brothers and sisters and cousins the journey that they took with us on that great walk, you know? When the Cherokee were removed from the North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama area, their slaves were on the great walk or the Trail of Tears with them.

MARTIN: And Mr. Katz, what do you think? Final thought from you. Where do you think this conversation goes from here?

Mr. KATZ: Well, I think that's a very good idea. This should be a conversation, because this is a wonderful heritage. This is something to be proud of, not to turn on in this post-Civil Rights era and raise issues that are really from the Civil Rights era.

MARTIN: William Loren Katz is the author of "Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage." Shonda Buchanan, who has North Carolina and Mississippi Choctaw ancestry, is a professor of English at Hampton University in Virginia. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BUCHANAN: Thank you very much.

Mr. KATZ: Thank you.

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