For Some, Native American History Also Includes Black History On Thanksgiving, it's common for the country to reflect on the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. But it is far less common to look at the shared history of Native Americans and blacks. That history is brought to light with a new exhibition called: "IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” Guest host Jennifer Ludden discusses the exhibit with Rex Ellisof the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Gabrielle Tayac, a historian with the National Museum of the American Indian.
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For Some, Native American History Also Includes Black History

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For Some, Native American History Also Includes Black History

For Some, Native American History Also Includes Black History

For Some, Native American History Also Includes Black History

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On Thanksgiving, it's common for the country to reflect on the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. But it is far less common to look at the shared history of Native Americans and blacks. That history is brought to light with a new exhibition called: "IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” Guest host Jennifer Ludden discusses the exhibit with Rex Ellisof the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Gabrielle Tayac, a historian with the National Museum of the American Indian.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

The holiday movie season is upon us. We'll look at what's out now and preview what's coming up. But first: the complicated relationship between African-Americans and Native Americans. Their history has been marked by divisions and alliances, slavery and intermarriage. This is the theme of a new exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian. It's called �IndiVisible,� and I'm joined now by one of its co-curators. Gabrielle Tayac is a historian with the National Museum of the American Indian. And she is a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation. Also with me, Rex Ellis; he's a curator at the National Museum of African-America History and Culture. And welcome to both of you.

Mr. REX ELLIS (Curator, National Museum of African-America History and Culture): Great to be here.

Ms. GABRIELLE TAYAC (Historian, National Museum of the American Indian): Yeah, I'm very pleased to be here with you.

LUDDEN: Gabrielle, let me start with you - and I want to ask you about this wonderful photograph that's on the front of one of the brochures for this exhibit. It looks like a mixed family. You have gotten an older Native American couple in Native American dress. The man has a full ceremonial head dress, feathers down to the floor. And then there's children, these two black, young boys in Western knickers, shirt and tie. Do you know the story of the family in that photo?

Ms. TAYAC: Yes, this was an amazing find for our exhibition. And as you described, this (unintelligible) is actually a photo of a Comanche family, and it was collected by our late project director Fred Nahwooksy - who is also Comanche, who went home to Oklahoma - in doing research for the exhibition and spoke to an elder named Sam Divini(ph) who happened to have this photograph in his personal collection. What you see in the photograph is a man named Ta-Ten-e-quer, and on the far other side is his wife, Wife-per, also in Comanche traditional dress. In between them, embraced by them, is a woman named Frances. And this woman is actually their niece. She was the child of a Comanche woman and a man who had been a Buffalo Soldier, and she has been raised as a Comanche woman. You can see in how she's dressed, actually, is very much in early 20th century clothing. So, she is not dressed in Comanche traditional clothing and the two boys in front of her are her sons. She ended up marrying an African-American man, and so those are her two sons. So this is a family together, and the two boys are dressed in early 20th century clothing.

LUDDEN: So, a real testament to the mixing and close bonds of these groups. Can I ask you, what was the motivation for putting on his exhibit?

Ms. TAYAC: This exhibit came out as a request from people in the Washington, D.C. community who have the heritage of African-American and Native American mix, who came into our museum and were looking at a wall of photographs that we have of contemporary native people, and some of them are clearly mixed African-Americans, and said well, it's great that you guys have these photographs but what's the story behind it. And so the museum picked it up, and we decided that we really did need to explore this missing piece.

LUDDEN: And, Rex, I want to ask you about some of this history, but first I would like to listen to a couple of clips from interviews that were collected as part of the research for this exhibit. First, we are going to hear from Sandra Washington(ph), who is a Native African-American, and also Angela Gonzales, a Hopi Indian and also a co-curator of the exhibit. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of audio clip)

Ms. SANDRA WASHINGTON: We get treated as Africans and not as Native Americans. And sometimes it hurts, because we know we're Seneca and Narragansett but they don't accept that - the Native Americans don't accept that sometimes. Like there's no such thing as a black Indian.

Ms. ANGELA GONZALES: This really firm belief, for many native folks, that there really aren't Indians east of the Mississippi; because they don't look like us, they don't have the cultural traditions that we do, they don't speak the language like we do; and it's really a failure, I think, to recognize the history of this country and its impact on all of us as native people.

LUDDEN: So, this exhibit is called IndiVisible but Rex that certainly sounds like there have been divisions over the generations. Can you take us back in time, a bit, and tell us first about some of the moments of conflicts between Native Americans and African-Americans?

Mr. ELLIS: I think, certainly, the colonial period sort of begins us with that story, and with the different ways that enslaved Africans and natives were treated. But in that was also a combination of treatment that was similar, in terms of how natives were oppressed as well as African-Americans, throughout that period - from there to the end of the revolution to the antebellum period - there was also this sort of struggle to move from where you were to a more acceptable kind of position.

LUDDEN: A common struggle among�

Mr. ELLIS: I think it's a common struggle, and I think as those struggles took place, there was a sort of division in terms of the roads that were taken by African-Americans as well as by Native Americans. And I think those roads sort of also created a sort of division within the communities as they both tried to struggle for citizenship and recognition.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with curator Rex Ellis and historian Gabrielle Tayac about the new exhibit �IndiVisible, African-Native American Lives in the Americas.� Gabrielle, can you give me a bit more history on what has united African-Americans and Native Americans? What were some moments when they overcame differences?

Ms. TAYAC: You know, there's a number of very amazing points in our history that you can see. One of the most significant is when you see the Seminole wars of the early 19th century. Seminole people were primarily in Florida. They were composed of native people from the Southeast, primarily Creeks and also many runaway or marooned African-American, sometimes previously had been slaves; and they had banded together to really fight against being removed out of their communities. And many of these people who were African-Americans at the time, were actually also Afro-Seminoles. These are people who are mixed already and had been for several generations. So, the lines between Indian and black were - were quite diffused already.

LUDDEN: But this was before the Civil War. I'm so interested - how did that work out where you had, at the same time, some mixed Native African-Americans, and also native tribes holding African-American slaves.

Ms. TAYAC: Well, you have to see that native America is incredibly diverse, whereas you see chattel slavery, for example, among Cherokee or what they call the five civilized tribes - and that was about seven percent of Cherokees were chattel slaveholders.

LUDDEN: Weren't they called civilized, in part�

Ms. TAYAC: Yeah.

LUDDEN: �because they also were slaveholders�

Ms. TAYAC: Exactly.

LUDDEN: �which the whites related to?

Ms. TAYAC: That's precisely. And sometimes we laugh, you know, among Native Americans, about okay, civilized tribes - let's see what that really means. But they were much more assimilated, as a whole, than others, or had chosen certain features of white society in order to being seen as, you know, society like any other. And of course, they also conscientiously made the decision to be slaveholders. So, there is - there is really no excuse there.

Mr. ELLIS: And, you know, my former point - when you think of what happened with the Buffalo soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were African-American soldiers, who were so named, by the Indians, because of the connection with their hair and also their fierceness in terms of the way they fought. And that name and that reputation was a result of oppression that they were responsible for heaping on the native community.

So, there are a variety of ways that contradictions within both communities happened, because both were trying to move themselves out of their situation, into a better situation, and in many instances, it meant that they oppressed each other or they contributed to the oppression of each other.

LUDDEN: One of the real flashpoints of this has been the conflict between the Cherokee tribe, about its relationship with so-called Cherokee Freedmen -former African-American slaves. Can you explain a bit of this history, Gabrielle?

Ms. TAYAC: Yes, and you're absolutely right that this is - this is a major flashpoint, which shows the legacy of - of our history and how it still plays out today, and why it's relevant. Cherokee elites - I would like to also bring that out, that about seven percent of Cherokees were slaveholders. And more recently, there was a discussion and a very, very extreme debate within Cherokee Nation, about whether or not people who were apparently what they called blooded citizens, descendents of people that were recorded as having Cherokee blood, should be the only people who should be members of Cherokee Nation today.

There had been a treaty in 1866, in which the Freedmen - these were people who had been enslaved by Cherokee Nation - were given full citizenship rights into�

LUDDEN: Of the Cherokee Nation.

Ms. TAYAC: That's right, were given full citizenship rights as Cherokee, in the Cherokee Nation. This has actually been a debate, ongoing throughout the past hundred plus years. And finally in 2007, there was a vote within Cherokee Nation that decided that people who were on the Freedman rolls, and descendents of people on the Freedman rolls, should no longer be considered citizens of Cherokee Nation.

And this was something that had been brewing for quite some time. There were similar votes in other tribes, as well, and really became quite ugly. It wasn't the motivation for us to do this exhibition, but it was one that we really had to address, because it has been the most present in the news.

LUDDEN: And where does this debate stand now?

Ms. TAYAC: There's certain movement, I think, within the nation to reexamine it. On the one hand, Cherokee Nation is saying that this is not a decision based on race, that it has to do with people who they feel are - don't carry the same requirements as their other members. On the other side, the Freedmen are saying that many of them actually probably do have Cherokee ancestry, but it was never recorded. So that's highly debated, and regardless, that they've been culturally Cherokee for hundreds of years and they don't want to give up their tribal status and their relationships.

Mr. ELLIS: You know the significance of �IndiVisible� is the exhibition and the symposiums that we have done, but it also is the collaboration that's taken place between The National Museum of the American Indian, and The National Museum of African-American History and Culture. I think if both voices were not a part of this exhibition, it would not be a strong as it is.

This is the kind of thing that I think the Smithsonian does very well. And that is - pulls together wonderful, credible scholarship to grapple with issues unlike this issue, and sort of exploring, in ways that haven't been done before, and bringing to the public, in ways that haven't been done before, the very real history and tensions that have created that history over time. So, bringing it to the fore has been very, very important, and collaboration by these two museums have also been very, very important.

LUDDEN: Rex Ellis is a curator at The National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Gabrielle Tayac is a historian with The National Museum of the American Indian, and co-curator of the exhibit �Indivisible.� They both joined me here in our Washington, Studios. Thank you so much.

Mr. ELLIS: Thank you.

Ms. TAYAC: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And you can see the photo we discussed of the mixed native And African-American family, just go to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE.

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