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|Just Trees - Native and Black|
Just Trees: Reflections on Ancestry Among Black Indians by Kevin Noble Maillard
Where I am from, there is an old oak tree that sits by itself in the middle of a field. Its branches are low and wide, its roots thick and substantial. Its arms, legs, and torso spark the playfulness of children, who swing and jump on the boughs of history. This tree has seen the flow of generations of family, and it continues to witness more. I admire this tree because it sits alone, defiant yet proud of its surroundings – an understated announcement of decided existence. It has branches new and old, the younger supported by the older, with a massive, common trunk that connects them all. It houses a deciduous community that reflects the changes and developments from the passing of time. Broadly categorized from afar, yet closely scrutinized from within the tree is an impressionist composition of diversity and order.
Strange things happen when people address my racial identity. A college friend has assumed for years that one of my parents was White (which is not true). Another acquaintance insisted that my father was French (although they had never met). In other situations, I often get chatted up by cab drivers who are curious to know “where I am from” (guessing India). Depending on who I am with, what I am wearing, and whether I open my mouth, it seems that other people want to have a stake in defining my ethnic allegiances. My body exists a a palette for others to paint their expectations of race on unfamiliar territory. My speech, my hair, my cheekbones, my skin – each tell different stories about a racial history. Each one pulls in a different way to tell a story about a racial history. Each one pulls in a different way to tell a story about origins and influences. The truth is, I can’t always be sure what I look like to other people.
To myself, I look like any Black person on the street, with a serious shade of red belying my “true” racial identity. To others however, it is enough to spark a prying conversation about mixed people or interracial marriage. I am a member of the Seminole Nation in Wewoka, Oklahoma, where my mother’s family has lived for generations. I shy from romanticizing home, as I was always eager to move east. But Oklahoma is a place where people generally understand what it means to be a contemporary Indian. California aside, more American Indians live in Oklahoma than any other state. 1 It may be safe to say that a substantial portion of Oklahomans have some degree of “Indian blood,” although many of these individuals assert Native ancestry in curious opposition to an established identity as White.
As Vine Deloria, Jr. points out, the “Indian Princess Grandmother” stands as a popular trope: “Ah, there was royalty for the taking. Somehow the White was linked with the noble house of gentility and culture if his grandmother was an Indian princess who ran away with an intrepid pioneer.” 2 I cannot count the number of times that a perceptibly White person has eagerly told me to their native ancestry. Usually, the person can’t identify a specific tribe, and if they can, they say, “Cherokee.” These assertions of race are curious, perhaps because the primary identity as a white isn’t disturbed by a remote non-White variable. Or, the willingness to share their fall from White racial purity adds to the sincerity of the story. Either way, the admittance of the Indian Grandmother does little to augment the racial identity of the White person.
When Black people claim Indian ancestry, the case is remarkably different. An assertion that is seen for Whites as a proud declaration of distinct, if not exotic origin, for Blacks faces criticisms of disbelief or derision. Being Black, as it stands, already asserts a distinct racial presence, and other racial variables aren’t strong enough to disturb its primary claim on a person’s identity. In the American racial system, Black ancestry supplants the existence of others, even when these “others” are also minority groups. Thus, a person is already “Black,” and seeing this same person as “Indian” becomes a difficult task. The assertions of Native American ancestry may be interpreted by some (namely Blacks) as attempts to evade a Black identity. Thus, mixed-race persons are seen as either avoiding Blackness or boasting difference. From both angles, the case of multiracial identity finds obstacles in the immovable specter of Black blood.
Within tribes themselves, it is my opinion that accepting and recognizing Black Indians as members potentially threatens a protected sense of identity. It is not enough to say that Indians which to be treated as Indians, but that the goal of maintaining a unique community be unfettered by competing interests. The actual number of people eligible for tribal membership is quite small, considering the population at large. For the few people who can meet the criteria, it is hoped that they enter the Indian community with a strong and concerted identity as citizens who will bolster, not enervate the existing population. Thus, biracial or multiracial identity poses a threat to a singular, albeit diversified, identity as Native. But this is not to be identified as a sort of xenophobia or exclusion; rather, it is an emphatic inclusion of all Indians, multiracial or not, to cast their lot with the tribe.
Generally, I do not believe that a prejudice exists among non-Black Indians toward Black Indians. Physical appearances may generate assumptions that the Black Indian cannot be Indian, and this ancestral combination even sparks disbelief that the person could really be Indian. In recent history, the Navajo tribe selected Radmilla Cody as Miss Navajo Nation, leading her to justify her Native identity: “my grandmother raised me herding sheep, weaving rugs, and speaking the Navajo language being that was our source of communication.” 3 I cannot help but think whether such emphasis would carry the same meaning for someone else. Not only must Black Indians announce their identity by proving ancestry, they must qualify it by exhibiting Indian characteristics and traditions. It is not enough, then, in the eyes of other tribal members, to have “Indian blood”, but to “be Indian” as well. This is a common trope, specter, or issue for most Indians, but for Black Indians, the question posed is a familiar hurdle: Aside from blood, why are you Indian?
The idea of being a member of two minority groups brings concerns of allegiance, and an allocation of moral energies. We can guess that it is never “easy” being Black/White or Asian/White, or Native/White. Surely, such mixtures are about integrating minority and majority cultures. So being part White involves a possibility of assimilation or accommodation with majority culture; non-White heritage distinctly contracts with the majority group. Particularly in America, where “White” seems to mean the lace of race, or better conceived, a normalcy of a race, the inclusion of a non-White identity generates distinctly different issues than do minority-minority mixes. 4 In these cases, such as Black/Indian, Latino/Asian, Arab/Black, the pull for inclusion comes from both sides. In fact, it is a dual call to represent different minority groups, each with a distinct minority culture. It is a competition, a dynamism, even a tug-of-war, to satisfy the calls for cultural allegiance.
In Native American culture and in African American culture, the extended family has always played a large role in the construction of a community. Anyone is a cousin or an aunt if you know them long enough (and in real cases, some “real cousins” that you just met are just family in the formal sense). Grandparents may serve as primary parents, while aunts and uncles may step in as elder figures, whether they are related to you or not. I have never had actual grandparents during my lifetime, but I have their siblings and friends as irreplaceable substitutes. My nephew was raised by his grandmother the first five years of his life, and my cousin was raised by her grandmother – while her biological mother lived next door. The absence of a rigid family structure gives way to a fluid notion of function, which encourages improvisation and accommodation.
Nowhere does this nexus between two cultures run more strongly than the tie to the land. For Indians, the connections is spiritual and historical: the idea of the ancestral home and sharing it in common is what defines and distinguishes one community from another. American, Western, or even “White” ideas of property are different: land must be improved, divided, and fenced. Separation is integral to maintain your possessions from others. But for Indians, land is a place to come together, cohabitate, and share with others. Political movements such as the Allotment Acts worked to destroy the establishment of land held in common – they took the ancestral land away and divided unknown, unseen plots for individual families. 5 This was not a welcome move – yet the love of land was rechanneled in a different way to reflect a private approach to public issues that distinguished Indian land from others. These plots, farms, acreages, with their attendant hills, lakes, cabins, and dirt, come together, one by one, to form Indian Country. African American culture reflects a unique connection to land as well, in the ancestral home of the South. The history that exists behind its origin and exodus is rife with memory, painful and joyous, practical and romantic. But, like for Indians, there is a realization of a place called home, whether this reflection is cajoled or sought, that mixes one’s practical, historical, and spiritual experience as a person of color with the physical independence of the soil.
Talk of family and land brings about ideas of inheritance, of the genealogical sort. A notable difference in Black-Indian identity from others in the predominance of multigenerational intermixture. 6 It may not be entirely correct to classify most Black Indians as “biracial,” if that term is to signify persons of mixed racial descent with racially distinct parents. In most cases, people with dual red and black heritages do not simply have one Black parent and one Indian parent. Rather, it is more likely that one or both parents are of partial Indian ancestry, thus complicating a simple declaration of “half and half.” Similar to Louisiana Creoles, racial intermixture develops over time, with racially “pure” individuals existing far back in one’s genealogy. Many tribes, such as the Seminoles, Creeks, and Mashpee, have long histories of intermarriage between Blacks and Indians, and this results in a population of tribal members with variegated racial histories. 7 Because most people of Black-Indian ancestry are not directly connected to a living full-blooded Indian, claims to Indian identity are met with suspicion.
The ability to identify a full-blooded Indian as an ancestor is necessary to membership in a tribe. Those Black-Indians who are enrolled as tribal members were able to provide documentation of their ancestry, which goes beyond hearsay and oral histories. Most tribes have historical membership roll, and applicants must identify a pre-existing tribal member as an ancestor in order to be enrolled. From this list, one’s blood quantum is calculated, and tribes vary in their minimum blood levels. 8 Many tribes hover around the one-quarter requirement, while others require no minimum at all. Nevertheless, tribal membership, as an official recognition of one’s status and identity as Native American, solely depends upon an accepted demonstration of genealogical ties to Indian people.
These requirements are not entirely unassailable, however. A number of tribes in Oklahoma, including my own, base their membership upon rolls drawn according to nineteenth century separatist conceptions of race. In this Jim Crow scheme, Blacks with mixed racial ancestry were included in tribal membership, but were place on separate rolls apart from the rest of the membership. In the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole), agents of the federal government segregated tribes into “Blood Indians” and “Freedmen,” the latter signifying those of Black ancestry who had been adopted, who intermarried, or who were born into the various tribes. 9 The government refused to recognize Freedmen as tribal members related by blood, despite the fact that people of White-Indian ancestry with less “Indian blood” were classified as Blood Indians. As a result, no blood quantums were indicated for Black Indians – a historical practice that influences current membership policies. No blood, no membership.
There is no uniformity of a Black-Indian identity. The gamut ranges from descendant of the Cherokee princess to the active member in tribal culture and politics. In rural areas, where tribal politics and culture thrive, Black-Indians have greater affiliations with native life. In reality, however, the majority of Indian people live in urban areas. Maintaining a connection to this culture, by subscribing to the tribal paper or newsletter, voting in tribal elections, and visiting home all keep Indian culture alive. Such concerted efforts prevent tribal members and affiliates from losing a distinct identity as Black-Indians.
1 M.A. Jaimes, “Some Kind of Indian,” in American Mixed Race, ed. N. Zack (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1995), 139.
2 V. Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 11.
3 Radmilla Cody, Miss Navajo Nation 1997-1998. Quote found on Navajoland Online, 7 March 2003.
4 C. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” in Critical Race Theory, eds. Kimberle Crenshaw, et. al (New York: New Press, 1995), 281.
5 For a general discussion of the Allotment Acts, the motives and the effects on Native Americans, see: F.P. Prucha, The Great Father, The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
6 Two books readily come to mind that address the unique character of multigenerational intermixture. See: W.L. Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage (New York: Atheneum, 1986). Also see: J. Brooks, ed. Confounding the Color Line (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
7 G. Torres and K. Milun, “Translating “Yonnondio” by Precedent and Evidence: The Mashpee Indian case,” in Critical Race Theory, eds. Kimberle Crenshaw, et. al. (New York: New Press, 1995), 181.
8 M.A. Jaimes, American Mixed Race (1995), 137.
9 W. Glaberson, “Who is a Seminole, and Who Gets to Decide?” New York Times (29 January 2001).