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“In 1812 it was argued that: ‘the place is now inhabited by as many black men as Indians… the Indian women have many of them married black men, and a majority probably, of the inhabitants are blacks or have black-blood in them… the real Indians [are few].’ The reserve was divided (allotted) in 1813 and by 1832 whites had acquired most of it.”

Africans and Native Americans: The language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples

It’s become a fatigued joke, one that brings attention to the mass miscegenation on which this country was founded. Or it could just be one of those sayings that people mindlessly repeat because it’s fashionable. You know, because the herd mentality doesn’t exist at all.

“Girl, that’s just Indian in my family.”

The “Indian in my family” is a running gag that tends to expose not only a need for people to know more about their past, but another example of the legacy of European colonialization. Many African-American women love to toss this term around without awareness of any actual Cherokee or Macushi legacy in their family bloodline.

But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Actually, Black and Native Americans have a quite complex history. Procreative activities existed between these two races in the 17th and 18th centuries. These activities also were duplicated among Blacks and Whites. Of course, you rarely hear a Black person credit her mane to her Irish roots with the same excitement of one crediting her Seneca sisters.

Digging into the family tree to explain a current phenotype is all good. It should be encouraged. Long before new European settlers brought African slaves to the Americas, African and Native American copulation was firmly established. Before the Europeans arrived, the Moors had reached the shores of the American continent as traders and businessmen.

This was exacerbated by the Middle Passage. According to Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, by Jack Forbes, indigenous peoples of America shared quarters with African slaves, which led to inter-mating.

Before the U.S. gained independence from Great Britain, British colonies in the South requested that the Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, and other tribes, own slaves. These tribes took in many escaped slaves and remained tight-lipped when slave owners came calling.

South Carolina law in the 18th century stated that the “carrying of Negroes among the Indians has all along been thought detrimental, as in intimacy ought to be avoided.” Despite these threats and any associated stigmas, Native Americans formed bonds with not only escaped slaves, but free Africans.

Native American women married African men when the number of men in their own communities was decimated by war or natural disaster. Some Native Americans listed themselves as “Negro” or “mixed” in order to retain ownership of their land because of the land ownership laws created by European settlers.

There’s a delicate connection between Native American and African ancestry. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to see any awareness being drummed up by American Blacks about the plight of the Native Americans. Is this an accepted fate or neglect?

Either way, “I got that Indian in my blood” is no longer a sufficient explanation of any variation in the physical appearance. A certain point comes when etymology has to supplant simple clichés to get to the heart of the matter. If indigenous families that we claim wholeheartedly comprise one percent of the U.S. population, then at what point do we begin to critically examine the plight of these families?

A cursory glance through world history annals reveals a habit of colonizers wiping out and displacing native cultures. American history is no exception, and the Trail of Tears has been chronicled as a sore spot in Andrew Jackson’s tenure. Today, movies and television have depicted “Indians” as having certain facial features of high cheekbones and weathered skin, but in reality their features exist in many forms.

When the Census report came in 1790, some Native Americans refused to sign and register with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some refused to allow themselves to be “removed” to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma during the 1800s. As a result, many of their descendants grew up in urban environments instead of on reservations.

Think Jimi Hendrix. Tina Turner. Andre 3000. James Brown. And on and on.

Remnants of Blackfoots, Choctaws, Lenapes, Matinecocks, Mohawks and Munsees are in our metropolitan areas under the classification of being African-American. Claiming Indian in the blood is not incorrect, but to just do so without vetting the intricate nature of the relationship is a disservice. There’s a richness of historical stock and unity that gets lost under such banalities.

Claim it. Love it. Embrace it. Just know it’s more than physical features. It’s an essential aspect of American culture.

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  • we had to do a presentation about our culture(s) and ethnicity in my intercultural class, and i was profoundly shocked, sad, and amused by all but 3 or 4 black people (myself being one) who felt the need to talk about all the “indian” in their family. of course, most of it was cherokee or sioux or something, which made me LOL even more. i’m not one for policing identities, but when you look as “black” as the next person, going on about all the natives in your family and talking about how, “you could really tell my great grandma was cherokee!!” looks desperate and–yes–self-hating. one girl who actually had RECENT mixed heritage (1/2 Eritrean, 1/2 afro-american mom, afro-american dad, native grandmother) actually said that she identified as an afro-american because that’s all she really knows, while all these desperate self-hating blacks w/ native blood 60 years back want to harp on it. how embarrassing.

    it made me go up there and say, “um i’m african-american and that’s it” even though my ~great grandmother~ was 1/2 native and my last name is obviously creole. they embarrassed me so much i felt the need to represent for us “just black” people–and anyway–i look “just black” so why go on about parts of me i don’t know? i have no problem with people claiming recent lineage or when they KNOW what they’re talking avout, but when it’s a) distance b) you’re not sure c) you know nothing about it or d) the most egregious offense of all–making it up–i’m going to side-eye you. some girl even talked about white slave masters being her descents fondly, i laughed and mouthed, “rape.”

  • openlysilent

    I find it utterly disturbing when people claim nationalities as their race or races. There is no such thing as half African American and half Irish, or half Nigerian and half Spanish. How can you be half a nationality? To call yourself Irish, Indian, Nigerian, etc., means you are either born in the country, or you are a descendant of that country and practice the cultural norms. Race, however, refers to a specific genetoype (that can sometimes be identified by one’s phenotype), such as Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, etc. I for one know that my paternal grandfather was Siseka. Moreover, I know that my great great great grandfather was Irish. But to say I am one-quarter Siseka or 1/16 Irish sounds ridiculous. I don’t practice either culture, and I for sure, was not born in Ireland. So racially, as far as my genotype, I could be a mixure of Negroid, Caucasoid and Mongoloid, like many folks. But, phenotypically, I look Black (negroid). Moreover, I was born in America. Therefore, I am satisfied with being Black American. I find no need to dissect my genetic pool to explain curly hair or skin tone. If there is one advantage to the Negroid genotype, it is the ability to produce a wide variety of skin tones, hair textures, and body types. YAY!

    • African American is considered an ethnicity as well because most black americans do not know their ethnicity. But glad to know you find it “utterly disturbing” when people who were ripped from their homeland.

    • Blair

      I agree. Personally, I think this article was dumb–plain and simple. I think black people carry around this self-loathing image of themselves. I’m so sick of hearing black people brag about their white great grandmothers, or their Indian great-great-grandfather. Like give me a break. *rolls eyes*

    • anab

      Wow! Negroid, Caucsoid, Mongoloid? I didn’t know people still used those archaic terms. I agree that Italian, Irish, African-American are nationalities and ethnic groups-like hispanic is an ethnicity not a race- but I don’t see anything wrong with referring to your heratige as 1/4 Irish or 1/2 Mexican. People know that these aren’t races they are just trying to claim a connection to a place and a people not a race per se.

      While I’m not a fan of black people trying to be everything but black-don’t kid yourself claiming that your great great grandma was raped by a white man and that your grandpa was sitting bull is definately a way to disconnect form your blackness which has been viewed as something that is less than by our society- I don’t have a problem with you acknowledging the every culture that makes up your background. Hence the reason I prefer to self idenity as a black american not african american, I am a mutt and Charlize Theron is an African.

  • Ahmad

    Hmmmmm..Lots of indians in here. I am thinking about Henry Luis Gates special on public television that actually spoke towards black folks’ love affair with their native American heritage–or is it actually European/white? Why not DNA map to find your African roots?

    Either way, while I find the subject intriguing, and i applaud anyone who takes the time out to uncover their history, I am disturbed that the deeper implication seems to be that to be simply black ain’t good enough.

    • Pamela Kennedy

      Having yourself DNA tested is basically calling your parents LIARS. That’s why not.

  • I always find this a fascinating topic, demonstrating the complexity of living in a post-colonial, multi-cultural society. Being from Louisiana, I’ve learned to embrace the ambiguity of mixed Creole heritage, while still maintaining pride in my identity as a Black American. My grandmother can tell me that her grand mother was Native, but does not know what tribe, or her whole name. Yet, we’ve been able to trace our European descent to the first colonial settler carrying our family’s patrilineal name (and actually marrying across race). That’s no surprise since records were kept to preserve a white, male dominant history. Furthermore, the reservation system (in my opinion) weakened the connections between Native and Black communities by reinforcing physical segregation. African Americans often grasp for connections to historic narratives that we can carry forth with confidence, but our references to Native culture often lack certainty or clarity.

    Unfortunately, there has not been–to my knowledge–any modern, formally recognized ambassadorship between the African American community and First Nations. I find it a shame that our communities seem to have lost that once kindred bond. What is left is a sometimes tangible, but more often vague claim of heritage on the part of African Americans, and what sometimes seems to be selective memory (bordering itself on racist) among First Nation tribes as to our shared cultural alliances.

    This weak connection disturbs me because I think it’s incredibly important for African Americans not to forget our knowledge of sacred and natural healing systems, or our historic roles as keepers of the land. That is a legacy that the First Nations should be proud to claim partnership with and help foster in the present day.

  • Pamela Kennedy

    OK here we go. Choctaws are mentioned in this. At least we’re not the only tribe whom the world thinks is “Black” instead of Native American. I mean, I know this: I’m just wondering if anyone else in the world knows this too. I actually came across this in googling “why does everyone hate Choctaws.” I’m Choctaw, I’m dark-skinned, and people get hell-bent on telling me, as if THEY’RE the ones deciding this and NOT MY PARENTS…that I’m “black” and NOT Choctaw. Or they CORRECT me when I tell them I’m Choctaw as if it were phrased as a QUESTION or as if it were DEBATABLE when I’ve been Choctaw for 42 misspent years….I mean, in my day you didn’t go have a DNA test to determine what RACE you were or weren’t, you asked your parents. I had my Choctaw PARENT standing right in front of me for a lot of years. I guess I’m getting more and more cynical and bitter as I get older and get treated like I must look progressively YOUNGER or something. I don’t know, it’s either I look “stupid” or I look TWELVE or they’re flat-out calling my father a liar….