Black Native Americans beginning to assert identity
Morgan James Peters wears dreadlocks and directs the African and African-American Studies program at the UMass Dartmouth. The single name he prefers to use, Mwalim, is similar to the Swahili word for teacher.
But Mwalim traces his ancestry not only to Africa, but also to North America — the Mashpee Wampanoag. He says he embraces both parts of his racial-ethnic identity.
“My primary identity is I’m a black Wampanoag,” Mwalim said. “It’s having a foot in both communities, being part of the Wampanoag community, being part of the black community and recognizing that they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Many African Americans claim some Native ancestry, often based on family oral history passed through the generations but undocumented. Mwalim’s Native heritage is certain as a member of the Mashpee’s prominent Peters family.
His lineage represents a major source of Native ancestry in African-Americans — the Eastern tribes, according to J. Cedric Woods, director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the UMass Boston.
“Most of the tribes have some degree or another of African intermixture,” said Woods, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. “It may be a single family line. It may be multiple lines. It may be most of the lines in the tribe. It can run the entire spectrum.”
Like Mwalim, people with that ancestral mix have begun to assert their identity more openly. In July, more than 400 attended the inaugural meeting of the National Congress of Black American Indians in Washington.
The new organization does not require participants to prove their Native lineage. Other Native Americans accuse people who say they are Indian without documentation, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, of “ethnic identity fraud.”
Tribes have various eligibility requirements, including the degree of Indian blood, to become a member or citizen of that Native nation.
“Tribes have all kinds of … ways to determine whether somebody meets particular criteria to be a citizen of a particular government,” Woods said. “You have some tribes who use blood quantum…How much of that blood quantum is required is all across the map.”
The rights and benefits that come with tribal citizenship also vary, Woods said, but generally include the right to vote in the tribe’s elections, hold office in its government, and receive social benefits, such as health care and education. Some tribes that own casinos distribute equal payments to members; others do not.
Some African-Americans have been recognized as citizens of Native nations without necessarily having any Indian blood. They are descendants of the slaves of five tribes originally from the Southeast — the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw.
Those tribes were called “civilized” after settling down to farm, with more prosperous members copying the Southern plantation model. They were nonetheless forced out of the South in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears, taking their slaves on the deadly trek to Oklahoma.
During the Civil War, those tribes supported the Confederacy. Afterwards, the federal government drafted similar treaties in 1866 requiring the tribes to free slaves and make them and their descendants tribal citizens.
Those black people became known as the freedmen of each tribe. Despite the treaties, their citizenship rights have been repeatedly contested in the courts.
Few people know that unusual piece of history, even in Oklahoma, said Hannibal Johnson, a Tulsa lawyer and author of the 2012 book, Apartheid in Indian Country?: Seeing Red over Black Disenfranchisement.
“They are still largely unaware of the present controversy over the status of the freedmen in the context of the five tribes,” Johnson said. “I would describe that status in all five tribes as tenuous at best.”
A small percentage of Cherokee Freedmen are tribal members, and a decision on the citizenship issue is pending from a federal judge in Washington. Seminole Freedmen have limited citizenship. Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen do not have tribal rights.
Johnson said people misunderstand the controversy. He and Woods noted that being a member of a Native tribe, as far as the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs is concerned, is a matter of political affiliation.
Of the Cherokee Freedmen, Johnson said he hears people say: “‘They’re black. They’re not Indian.’ That conversation is really about biology and culture, not really about politics. The freedmen debate is essentially about politics.”
The Cherokee Nation has tried to limit membership to people who have an ancestor with Cherokee blood on a census that a federal commission compiled a century ago. The commission followed the one-drop rule, so a blood quantum is generally not listed for freedmen.
That process “masks the fact that they have Indian blood coursing through their veins,” Johnson said, referring to some freedmen of the five tribes.
Tribes that have remained in the Southeast, Woods said, have members of African descent because black people have lived nearby for so long — starting with the first slaves in the 1600s.
“Most of the African people were in the South, but there were also large concentrations in southern New England. I’d say those tribes that are in those areas have the highest probability of having African ancestry,” explained Woods, who has Native and African ancestry.
In New England and other parts of the Northeast, Woods said, ports, maritime trade and whaling brought Natives and Africans together. Free or escaped slaves from the South who went north, he says, had “the shared experience of working on ships with Native men, and finding their way back to those Native communities and intermarrying.”
Northeastern tribes that Woods identified as having members with African ancestry include the Wampanoag communities and Nipmuc of Massachusetts, and the Pequot of Connecticut.
Some Black families have oral histories about ancestors escaping slavery and finding refuge among Native Americans.
“It did happen occasionally, but it was fairly rare,” Woods said. “Probably the best known situation where that occurred was with the Seminole of Florida.”
Runaway slaves from the American South fled to Florida when it was Spanish territory and blended into the Seminole. The African-descended members joined blood Seminole in an ultimately unsuccessful defense against American soldiers.
Like the Seminole, many tribes historically adopted as members individuals from other tribes and people who were not Native, be they of European or African descent. White settlers introduced the concepts of race and blood quantum.
“If you were of those people and you lived among that tribe long enough, you were eventually part of that tribe. And that’s how it was,” Mwalim said. “Then what happened was that Western concepts of lineage and line and pedigree and so forth were imposed. If you think about it, the only beings that are asked about blood quantum are Indians, dogs, horses or cats.”
But it is by blood from eastern tribes that African Americans are most likely to be eligible for tribal membership, or by descent from the slaves of the Seminole or Cherokee.