Racist Tendencies Common in Too Many Tribes

Cedric Sunray

Last month’s racially motivated killings in Oklahoma, perpetrated by Cherokee Indian Jake England and his white roommate against members of North Tulsa’s black community, once again bring to light the prejudicial tendencies held by many in our Indian communities.

This reality is the literal “Negro Elephant in the Room," which many tribal communities attempt to pass off as issues of sovereignty, enrollment decision making, “and, well we had it as bad as them” rhetoric. However, the real effect is that our children grow up in environments where tribal governments and tribal members broadcast their racist ideologies -- such as in the more recent case of the Cherokee Freedmen—to an audience of young people who are not provided with the full histories and realities of their historical connections to the black community.

I have seen one too many times where the half-black grandchildren of Indian people are even marginalized by their own Indian families or are viewed as the “lone exception” to their prejudicial leanings due to their blood connection.

In 1978, Terry Anderson and Kirke Kickingbird were hired by the National Congress of American Indians to research the issue of federal recognition and present a paper on their findings to the National Conference on Federal Recognition which was being held in Nashville, Tennessee. Their paper, “An Historical Perspective on the Issue of Federal Recognition and Non-recognition” closed with the following statement:

“The reasons that are usually presented to withhold recognition from tribes are 1) that they are racially tainted with the blood of African tribes-men or 2) greed, for newly recognized tribes will share in the appropriations for services given to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The names of justice, mercy, sanity, common sense, fiscal responsibility, and rationality can be presented just as easily on the side of those advocating recognition.”

Professor Don Rankin from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama has recounted by letter a disturbing incident occurring during a June 1995 genealogy seminar conducted by Sharon Scholars Brown at Samford University. His letter states:

“Someone brought up the MOWA Choctaw and their attempt at federal recognition. At this stage, several people had gathered around as we were talking. Ms. Brown responded in an even professional tone of voice that she felt that they would not be successful. When asked why, she responded that they had black ancestors and in her opinion were not Indian. Mr. Lee Fleming, who was at the time the Tribal Registrar for the Western Band of Cherokees and one of the lecturers, agreed with her. I was shocked at their statements.”

Lee Fleming, a Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) citizen, is now the Director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment and was the responsible party for the denial of the MOWA Choctaw petition.

Another CNO tribal member, Darrin Buzzard, remarked in an email in referencing the Cherokee Freedmen, “...they will suck you dry. Their children will suck you dry…protect Cherokee culture for our children. For our daughter, for the American people as a whole. Fight against the infiltration.”

Some tribal members attempt to disassociate their own ancestry from any black connection. At a conference a few years back I was speaking with a member of a federally recognized Northeastern tribe who told me he had no black ancestry, his afro hairstyle not withstanding, I assumed.

In 2005, my wife was invited as a judge overseeing the annual Mississippi Choctaw Princess Pageant. The only entrant of mixed Indian and black heritage amongst the 20 competitors was crowned, much to the dismay of many in attendance. Radmilla Cody, the first Miss Navajo Nation of mixed Indian and black ancestry has relayed the reality of the racial prejudice she experienced from her own people as well.

Aside from perceived gaming competition is the primary reason why historic “non-federal” tribes such as the Lumbee, Chickahominy, MOWA Choctaw, Nanticoke, Houma, Haliwa-Saponi, Unkechaug, and others in the eastern and southern US regions remain without recognition. They all share the “burden” of being either of some or presumed to be of some black ancestry. On the contrary, many federal tribes who are of predominantly white ancestry are never questioned as to their racial reality.

Black ancestry within Indian communities does not nullify or lessen Indian social, cultural, and familial fabrics. Black people, Indian people, poor whites and others have endured great atrocities throughout history.

In the end, the greatest atrocity may be that we don’t recognize that commonality fully in one another and that Jake England, as a young, identifiable Indian with a murdered father, incarcerated mother, girlfriend who committed suicide, and one with responsibilities as a single, teenage father to a young child, is as much a victim as a perpetrator in the historical narrative that is race.

Cedric Sunray is one of four generations of enrolled family members of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama.

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husbandofmoonlight's picture
The "world" human "genome" having been charted as recently as 2000, reveals that ALL of humanity is in reality by their DNA 99.09% related, this by nature of "factual information" makes "race" simply a matter of "melanin content of the skin, blood type and physical type" and no other differences. The fact that a "negro" person can "donate an internal organ" to a "caucaisian"--(whitie")--and have the recipient live---is a startling example of the scientific facts. Give up the outlandishly ridiculous notion of "race"----it is as out dated as "stone tools"----and should be relegated to the museums. As for Native American DNA it is as distinctive as "African" and as unique and should be held at a much higher degree of respect--- but that will be determined by the "people who possess it"----and no one else. "If the USA were any other criminal nation the 'Americans would invade the USA to keep the world safe; and they would be justified."
hontasfarmer's picture
Sadly there is much truth in this article. I have spoken with many black people who have provable Indian ancestry but they do not claim it. They related to me heartbreaking stories of their ancestors rejection. There are even tribes in the east, who due to the racial climate of the time would expel any member who consorted with a black person. How has this effected Indian country? According to the PBS documentary "African American Lives" 5% of black Americans have 1/8 American Indian DNA. That works out to about 1.9 million people Only about half of that number of people claimed both African American and Native American on the census. Who does it benefit for so many native nations, many which would/should have east coast reservations, to be so weakened?
quinzy's picture
Racism is disgusting but I have learned to take advantage of racism in my own little way. I am a 4/4 Indian, which means a "full blood" in White language. I look Mexican. I experienced much racism from the White tribes like the federal Choctaw. I also experience considerable racism from some educated federal Wampanoags who have White (Portuguese) blood in them with some Black blood. And of course I experience racism in Canada every day. I take advantage of this racism. My job unfortunately requires me to take advantage of people. Some jobs (like car salesmen, real estate sales, etc.) require you to take advantage of people. In my employment, people realize they have been taken in but it's too late by then because they have already signed a contract with us. This is how I take advantage of the racism I experience: customers ask me about my race and background. Instead of telling them my real tribal affiliation, I tell them I am either Choctaw or Wampanoag or Canadian. After customers realize my company has taken them for a ride, they blame me for it. All they remember of me is that I am Canadian and Choctaw or Wampanoag. Then they go on their blog and Facebook pages and bad-mouth the Choctaws and Wampanoags and Canadians. Just retribution I would say for the racism I have to put up with. It's all messed up and I shouldn't be this way.
thechief's picture
when i first started to read this i was excited because it seemed like a new topic. unfortunately it is another article about the freedmen issue. it is quite obvious that blacks and indians are both quite ignorant about each other. thats real elephant in the room. why did the cherokee kid go on a shooting spree? Didn't his father get killed by a black person? did radmilla cody spend time in prison because of her mixed ancestory or because she had a black boyfriend? if she stayed on the rez and dated a navajo would she had the same fate? I think these examples are why rez people have such racist tendencies. how can we over come them?
hontasfarmer's picture
Really? What do you call racism from the Wampanoag or Choctaw? Their daring to claim to be NDN even though they don't look like you? False flagging as a member of a different tribe, and doing wrong in their name, is at least as bad if not worse than someone who is not NDN at all claiming to be one. How about not taking advantage of people.
hontasfarmer's picture
Do you see that your comment "because she had a black boyfriend" only confirms the main thrust of the article. The racism she encountered started well before her problems. The hateful things said and written about her after she won the pageant were not the first things to be sure. It's just so easy to blame a reservations problems on the few who look a bit darker or lighter. It can't be a 4/4 indians fault that they got hooked on the meth they made themselves... it's Walgreens fault for selling them the medicine it is derived from.
thechief's picture
that was the point I was making. It's easy to simplify things and say radmilla was nieve rez girl that was turned into drug dealing criminal by a black guy. I would like to know where this racism derived from.
sunalei's picture
As a 'lost' Cherokee I relate to this article. I have been discriminated against by fellow Natives and even Cherokee because I cannot prove my ancestry enough to get my card. Yet I have dedicated my entire life, since I was 7 years old, to the people around me and helping them to walk softly and find their way. I still to this day sit in circle with anyone who wants to learn whether they are Native or not! And I still hope that I will some day be accepted by my own people.
evadne's picture
Thank you for putting voice to my family's struggle of many years! eiayay(Choctaw/Catawba/African American)
swkyle's picture
Well the racism I've received from white looking Natives has always been condescension, a belief without even knowing me that I'm backward or otherwise unsophisticated, that I'm stupid even though I graduated from Stanford University or that because I'm brown I'm just not acceptable for anything else but color. All of this happened when I was living and working in Washington DC by mostly the staff of the Indian nonprofits and also Native identified attorneys.