This archival image is often identified as 'An Indian and his slave.'

Black History Month, Indian-Style: Natives and Black Folks in This Together Since 1492

Gyasi Ross
2/18/15

Sorry I waited until halfway through Black History Month to start writing about it.  Indian Time, y'know.  Anyway…

I love being Native. 

I literally had no choice.  My beautiful full-blooded Blackfeet mom—the most beautiful woman in the world—taught me to love who I am.  I also love being a quarter black—my mixed-breed dad, part black, white and Native—was strong and smart with amazing almond brown skin. 

A powerful combination. 

I literally didn’t realize I was a quarter black (actually a bit less than a quarter, but I’ll claim a quarter for easy math) until I was almost 13.  My (almost) half-black dad really didn’t look stereotypically “black.”  He looked Hispanic or maybe even Middle-Eastern—handsome dude with long wavy hair, brown skin and he had the coolest mustache.  Hey, it was the 80s!

Growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation (and then later on the Nisqually and Suquamish Reservations, as well as urban areas), I was a dusty rez kid just like the other dusty rez kids.  I didn’t really get treated differently or even know that I was part black—at least I never really noticed.  I always identified as simply “Native” because I was raised by a full-blooded Native, single mom—but when I actually found out, I was overjoyed!!  “Heck, that means I’m a little bit like Michael Jackson!!” 

It was never really an issue.

In hindsight, I realize that I (probably fortunately) missed out on some of the complicated and ugly stuff that sometimes happens to Natives with black ancestry.  Colonization is complicated, and in the same way that even black folks have been convinced that other black people are inherently dangerous—hence the disgusting amount of black-on-black crime—many Native people seemingly have bought that lie and sometimes given into ugly racist attitudes toward black folks (to wit, the Cherokee Nation with the Freedmen racism).  

The saga of the Cherokee Freedmen is a tangle of heritage, culture and treaties.

We also sometimes see examples of black folks buying into the ugly racism against Native people and we realize that we all buy into the racist bullsh*t.  Even black folks.  Even Native folks.  None of us are exempt.

Zema Williams, aka Chief Zee, controversial symbol of the Washington Redskins football team.

We’re all human. 

"We all buy into the racist bullsh*t. Even black folks. Even Native folks."

For example, a friend of mine told me about his experience learning proper protocol for ceremony.  He’s a young man, fluent in his Native language and consequently was being trained in being a leader in his people’s ceremonies.  He was also, like many young people, a product of the hip-hop generation and dressed accordingly.  One day, one of the older ceremonial men asked him, “Why do you dress like those black rapper guys?” 

My friend responded, “Should I dress like those white cowboy guys like you?”

And that’s precisely right.  Natives oftentimes don’t question white people’s influence on Native culture—from the English language we speak to the white blood in many Natives.  Most Natives don’t bat an eye when they see a Native person with light hair or light eyes or light skin—“that’s just a fair-skinned Native”; many of those Natives do, consciously or unconsciously, question the “Nativeness” a person when they have kinky hair or dark skin.

"Natives oftentimes don’t question white people’s influence on Native culture."

It’s not our fault—all of us have been trained through 500 years of brainwashing, that light skin is “normal.”  The dark skin is foreign to us even though, before colonization, Native people’s skin color was much closer to that dark skin than white skin.  In the words of Chris Rock, “It’s alright because it’s all white.”

Hopefully that’s changing a bit.  African-Americans dominate pop culture in America; they influence everyone.  While some talk about non-Natives appropriating (I call it “being influenced by”) Native culture, we must also acknowledge the Natives who appropriate (“are influenced by”) black culture, as evidenced by the many Native hip-hop artists, fashion, etc.  Everyone is influenced by someone, right? Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it’s positive—with every single Native kid who loves or emulates Jay-Z or Drake, it’s actually acknowledging a link that’s been present for centuries. 

LL Cool J.

Let me explain. 

We’re gonna examine this history a bit.  I will interview a couple of Natives with black ancestry and let them explain their own experiences and speak for themselves; I think you’ll enjoy.  I’d like to leave you with this thought: the history, post-1492, of black folks and Native people are inextricably linked. Natives and African-Americans are forever profoundly connected on Turtle Island through blood, money and time, from the Triangle Trade to slavery. Specifically, when the white settlers first landed on this continent, they were looking for resources to exploit. Finding Turtle Island to be a land of plenty with cotton, sugar, and tobacco (the beginning of the Triangle Trade), the white settlers sought sources of labor. Native people, unfortunately, had very little immunity to the disgusting diseases the white settlers brought over from the Old World.  Therefore, many Natives died very quickly and were not able/willing to be enslaved to the European interlopers. Hence, the “Middle Passage” route began which brought Africans from the West Coast of Africa to replace the rapidly dying Natives as the Source of Labor.

Later, as those African slaves were shackled into brutal slavery, those who escaped the hands and whips of the slaveholders oftentimes sought/found refuge in our beautiful Native homelands, where territorial law enforcement was unwelcome.

From that very early moment in history, there was much cultural, linguistic and biological mixing between Native and black lives and cultures. 

In 2015, we still see those narratives intersect, with increasing scrutiny for the brutal pattern of law enforcement’s treatment within both of our communities.   When we look close enough we realize that black folks’ and Natives’ history, conquest and ultimately, liberation is very closely related.  As Martin Luther King Jr. said,  “Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.”

In other words, we’re stuck with each other.  Black folks know it too—that’s why so many of them are always excited to tell any Native person within earshot about their Native ancestry. 

Together, we could be an incredibly powerful force if we’re just willing to look deeply enough. 

Happy Black History Month, Native-style.  

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Dad/Author/Attorney
www.cutbankcreekpress.com
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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Holly James
Holly James
Submitted by Holly James on
Good article. Sadly, this is one of the reasons some folks discredit Southern tribes, because they have too much "black" blood. I take it as a sign of courage, that they were taken in during times when that was a very dangerous thing to do. Nothing says "not welcome" like a bunch of Klansmen at your doorstep.

curtj's picture
curtj
Submitted by curtj on
Nice words and so very true. I see it here in Alaska amongst the Natives, but not all Natives. In my experience in the village, because of pettiness, jealousies, and just plain meanness because they can, people will cut you down and backstab you to the max, if you are a Native is trying to find work to support a family, and if a white family moves to the village, the same Natives will bend over backward to help them, all the newcomers have to say is jesus. I have seen Natives who are part black, are discriminated against and made fun of, many times while they are mere children. At the same time, Natives who are part Caucasian, are welcomed and can do no wrong. For the little minded Natives out there who only think with their hatred against blacks.. What are the lasting effects, or impressions on the minds of the children who are discriminated against, with a lifetime of cutdowns, and actions denigrating them, by other Natives? Does it leave them with sadness? hatred? or both? I would have to say that there is a big difference in a adults mind if they were raised with love and respect that all Native and part white children in the village receive from the whole village, compared to if the adult had to endure insults, cutdowns and deliberate actions that marginalize them as blacks, not Natives, and not worthy of the respect that the Dene' bestows on all living things. A very good article that should be shown to school children throughout America.

curtj's picture
curtj
Submitted by curtj on
Nice words and so very true. I see it here in Alaska amongst the Natives, but not all Natives. In my experience in the village, because of pettiness, jealousies, and just plain meanness because they can, people will cut you down and backstab you to the max, if you are a Native is trying to find work to support a family, and if a white family moves to the village, the same Natives will bend over backward to help them, all the newcomers have to say is jesus. I have seen Natives who are part black, are discriminated against and made fun of, many times while they are mere children. At the same time, Natives who are part Caucasian, are welcomed and can do no wrong. For the little minded Natives out there who only think with their hatred against blacks.. What are the lasting effects, or impressions on the minds of the children who are discriminated against, with a lifetime of cutdowns, and actions denigrating them, by other Natives? Does it leave them with sadness? hatred? or both? I would have to say that there is a big difference in a adults mind if they were raised with love and respect that all Native and part white children in the village receive from the whole village, compared to if the adult had to endure insults, cut downs, and deliberate actions that marginalize them as blacks, not Natives, and not worthy of the respect that the Dene' bestows on all living things. A very good article that should be shown to school children throughout America.

Antonio Valladares
Antonio Valladares
Submitted by Antonio Valladares on
"Colonization is complicated, and in the same way that even black folks have been convinced that other black people are inherently dangerous—hence the disgusting amount of black-on-black crime—many Native people seemingly have bought that lie and sometimes given into ugly racist attitudes toward black folks" I’m confused. Are you saying some native ppl have bought into lies of black people being inherently dangerous? Are you saying this is true or false? Because you follow it up with "hence the disgusting amount of black-on-black crime” which seems odd. It’s a pretty racist thing to say, but it's also totally off topic… and it might be confusing for readers. What if, in the middle of you teaching me about equality and native history, I bring up 'disgusting native on native crime... ” i.e. "Indian reservations across the United States have grappled for years with chronic rates of crime higher than all but a handful of the nation’s most violent cities. But the Justice Department, which is responsible for prosecuting the most serious crimes on reservations, files charges in only about half of Indian Country murder investigations and turns down nearly two-thirds of sexual assault cases, according to new federal data.” Personally, I wouldn’t do that, it’s rude, off topic but it seems that just happened in this article. If we’re just willing to look deeply enough, we might find we have an implicit bias towards others - a bias we don’t see/recognize. It may come in peaks & valleys and easy to miss at times. And if history of black folks and Native people are inextricably linked, and if black history month is important, then maybe we (& the author) should work to not perpetuate ugly ideas like the author’s comment above when writing an article on the importance of unity. just my two cents, respectfully...feel free to disagree/comment.

OldSarg's picture
OldSarg
Submitted by OldSarg on
When the people of this Nation move beyond the color of the people's skin we will all move into the future. Only those of ignorance decide how others are by their color instead of their works.

Jessina Mercy Van Datta
Jessina Mercy V...
Submitted by Jessina Mercy V... on
Thank you so much for this article! Racism is racism is racism, it's just plain bad.

georgeprice's picture
georgeprice
Submitted by georgeprice on
Thanks, Gyassi, for another insightful and thought-provoking editorial. You know me, but for those who don't, my ancestry and identity includes much of the powerful history to which you refer: Wampanoag, Choctaw ("by blood" and from Choctaw Freedmen); Indigenous Africans; French, Scottish and other humans, but culturally I identify as Indigenous, primarily Wampanoag, although I have lived for the last 30 years on the Flathead Reservation in the occupied territory known as "Montana." I really love the conversation that you quoted, “Why do you dress like those black rapper guys?” “Should I dress like those white cowboy guys like you?" That exchange really says so much, particularly about the power of "normal," and how that creates blinders which prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are. Colonialism has really done a thorough number on all of us, and it will take quite a bit more work and more illumination like you provide here to untangle the mess and re-indigenize our thinking. But, Earth first, my friends. Right now it is my hope that we can focus on stopping this most significant product of the colonialist, divide and conquer mess, the destruction of the biosphere, ALL of our homelands, worldwide, air and water. Perhaps, with all people of all of the beautiful Earth colors working on this together, we can remove our blinders and all colonialist delusions, while keeping the relations (all life) alive at the same time. Wunniook.

Black Red Hawk's picture
Black Red Hawk
Submitted by Black Red Hawk on
... Halito ... Gyasi Ross ... Thank You !!! ... To The Point ... Liberating Article ... Wide Disemination ... !!! Felicidades !!! ...

ARed's picture
ARed
Submitted by ARed on
Nice article Gyasi. Perhaps a tad gentle for your style. Try reading, They Came Before Columbus by Historian Ivan Van Sertima. The Black and Native connection preceded European influence. A Great read.

TalkingStone's picture
TalkingStone
Submitted by TalkingStone on
Great article Gyasi. Coming from a multicultural & multiracial family this rings so true. My mother was proudly Black Indian with a sprinkling of the finest families of Virginia - ask Mr Jefferson how that happens. But she was smart and elegant and very bravely married my very white father. [French/German/ /Anglo] While as a leftist, a union man and former Communist he endured a fair amount of institutional persecution. But the only time I ever saw them go head to head was about this. He could always comb his hair, trim his beard, put on a tie and be JUST FINE in the Dominant Culture – if he kept his mouth shut. Mother could never EVER shed her Black and Nativeness. And even more sadly, most white people never even saw her Native side, they only perceived a black women. They taught me SO much inner strength and tolerance.

sweetgrass777's picture
sweetgrass777
Submitted by sweetgrass777 on
Great Article! Many of the southern tribes no matter how much "black blood" have documented ties to Native tribes and groups that inhabited the southeast. Their ancestral ties are strong and true. Everyone wasn't afraid of the Klan. Some of our families they would not dare to tangle with. Some of the most feared people where the Mixed Native/Blacks. Keep Telling the truth Native Brother.

Ka's picture
Ka
Submitted by Ka on
This is the first time, I've came across this site. Being born and raised in England, I've ancestry to the Caribbean with apparent native ancestry, I was raised by my Scottish single mother, My feelings towards the land beneath my feet developed with no influence, other than life its self, from an early age.I remember one summer when I was 17, sitting down to paint patterned images of turtles, only to find out years later, when I was researching the heritage of my fathers Island, that these images where common place in the artistic culture of the Island prior to colonization. Some would call such a thing a mere coincidence. I for one realized this, then and know as a small act of awakening, to something inherent to my lineage. My point is this, in link with your fine article, that I feel even miles away from one of my ancestral homes/land, this affinity flourishes once you awaken from the slumber of ignorant separatist thinking, and its refreshing to see someone across the pond, acknowledging and embracing such thinking, in times where much has been buried under the concrete. A fine article I specially the part about your friend and his choice of clothing, a fine point.

Justincase's picture
Justincase
Submitted by Justincase on
Beautifully written article. I will recommend "They Came Before Columbus". Indigenous of Turtle Island and Indigenous of Afrika have collaborated with one another pre-Columbus. I am full blooded indigenous West Afrikan and have learned about the Indigenous on Turtle Island since adolescence. Ethnic groups on both sides of the Atlantic have similar conceptions of The Creator, similar attitudes towards existing with the land, and, of course, the DRUMS. This isn't a coincidence; we both have shared ancestry. It is only recently, with the strength of the White Man's indoctrination of both of us, and our shared (do you see a rhythm here?) subsequent post-colonial stress disorder that we overlook the many commonalities. Learn more about traditional beliefs of the Yoruba, Dagara, or Asante and you will see the similarities between us.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To Antonio Valladares: I think what Mr. Ross is saying is that we're all in this fight together and that Black on Black crime is disgusting (for the same reason that Native on Native crime is EQUALLY disgusting) because we should be helping each other. _____________________________________________________________ At the risk of offending innocent White people, I'd like to repeat the adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." This is an excellent reason to use a little more empathy when dealing with African-Americans. It's actually a GREAT reason to use more empathy when dealing with ANY American minority; most of them have suffered the ills of racism and discrimination at some point in their U.S. history. Of course ANY ethnic/cultural group might exhibit racism and when it happens amongst our own we should call out the perpetrator and publicly embarrass him.
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