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Black Native Americans: What To Know About Afro-Indigenous Peoples

Posted By BrittanyLCerny August 4th, 2022 Last Updated on: August 4th, 2022

It's no secret that America is a melting pot of cultures. Yet while some people of European, African, and Native descent, can claim a single racial or ethnic identity, others have intersectional identities. Such is the case with Black Native Americans.

Because their lineage traces back to both African and Indigenous origins, Black Native Americans' genetic heritage distinguishes them from other African American and Native American communities.

Despite making up a small percentage of the population, black Natives have a rich history in the U.S. Unfortunately, their stories are often left out of the history books, which is why we must speak about them now.



Let’s explore the history and genetics of the Afro-Indigenous to better understand this diverse yet underrepresented community.

What is a Black Native American?

Black Native American at a Pow wow.

African-Native Americans are people whose lineage traces back to both Native American and African roots. This has created a subculture that blends the two ethnic backgrounds.

While this topic is mostly overlooked in educational lectures, textbooks, and mainstream media, it is a significant part of history. Several hundred thousand Black Native Americans still live in the U.S., and they deserve to know who they are, where they come from, and what their ancestral story is all about. 

Black Natives are racially and ethnically African and Native American and are culturally affiliated with an Indigenous community. Historically, when enslaved Africans came to the country, many developed close ties to Native Americans. In addition, wealthy Native individuals owned African slaves and often reproduced with them. During the Indian Removal Act of 1830, thousands of African-Americans (enslaved and freed) voluntarily traveled west with their Native counterparts along the Trail of Tears. Unfortunately, Black Native Americans often lacked proper documentation, resulting in unclear ancestral origins.

Today, most Afro-Indigenous people reside in Southern states and states associated with original Southern descendants. Obtaining tribal membership is a constant battle for Black Natives. Some tribes, such as the Cherokee in 2011, have even gone as far as stripping their membership. Even in 2022, many Black Native Americans still yearn for recognition and citizenship.

Usage of Black Native American Terms

Regarding being culturally knowledgable and sensitive, we must learn the correct terms and usages of others’ heritages. Our responsibility is to open our minds to culture and treat it respectfully. These explain the terms used in this article to refer to Black Native Americans. 

Afro-Indigenous

A term that refers to peoples who have both Indigenous and African lineage



Black Native/Black Indigenous/Black Indian

These each refer to peoples who have both Indigenous and African lineage. These terms can be but are not always synonymous with Afro-Indigenous. Ultimately, their usage depends on how an individual chooses to describe themselves. 

Blood Quantum - Black Indians

Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.

Blood Quantum

Blood quantum is a system developed by the United States federal government to determine how much “Indian blood” is required of an Indigenous person in order to officially enroll with a Native American tribe. Blood quantum emerged as a way to measure “Indian-ness” through a construct of race. It became one of the primary ways to cap the number of people who could enroll in a tribe. Today, some tribes still use blood quantum as criteria for tribal enrollment, though each federally recognized tribe has its own set of criteria for tribal enrollment.

History of Black Native Americans

During the 1500s, Africans forcibly came to America during the prime of the slave trade. This is where our story begins: an era of shared slavery, where African and Indigenous slaves lived together and brought forth illegitimate families in the eyes of the land. Not only did they share the experience of slavery in this way, but later on, Native Americans owned African slaves as well. Babies were born, families continued, and blended communities grew.

But let’s fast-forward to 1830 when Whites forced Indigenous communities to march west during the mass removal of their kind. Along with the Natives came many of the same Africans that had integrated into their communities. Some came willingly, and others came as Black slaves of the Natives. And many of these individuals were Black Native Americans. 

Trail of Tears - Black Natives

The Trail of Tears is an epochal moment not just in Native American history, but also in Black history.

In 1865, Congress abolished slavery, allowing freed Black Natives to disconnect from their Indigenous heritage and communities if they wished. 

An article in the Smithsonian Magazine discusses the Freedmen who lived in Indian Territory at this time. They comprised freed African American slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations. Once slavery was abolished, only the Chickasaw tribe refused to grant citizenship to the Black Freedmen. 

In preparation for Oklahoma statehood, the U.S. Congress created the Dawes Commission, which was charged with dissolving collective tribal land ownership and allotting land to individual tribal members. Thousands of Freedmen came before the commission to prove their tribal membership and their right to a share of land.

Moving along through history, Black Indigenous people haven’t come too far in their fight for citizenship, representation, and identity. The past continues to influence the present, as the Dawes Act of 1887 plays a massive part in the current battle Black Native Americans continuously go through to attempt to gain tribal membership.  

Dawes Rolls - Seminole Rolls

Seminole Nation Dawes Rolls

In an NPR interview with Tiya Miles, professor and chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department, she explains the problematic issues with the Dawes Rolls and their effect on Freedmen. 

That list [Dawes Roll] was a segregated list. It was a segregated census that divided people based upon their racial ancestry. So, the Dawes Roll was organized by Cherokees by blood and to married wives and also Freedmen. And these lists were incomprehensive to begin with. A number of people who were descended from slaves owned by Cherokees didn't even get to make the list, because they weren't there.

While some modern-day tribes gladly welcome Black Natives, others continue to proliferate segregation based on Dawes Rolls that were forced upon them by the U.S. government almost 150 years ago. Professor Miles notes the irony in this situation. 

Currently, many descendants of the Freedmen strive to earn the fundamental rights and tribal benefits that Native Americans enjoy. Only time will tell if Black Indians will win their current lawsuits in federal and tribal courts.

Here's more about Black Native Americans' fight to regain their status:

Books about Black Native Americans

If you're interested in learning more about the topic of Black Native Americans, there's a lot to dig into. The following books are all excellent resources for deepening your knowledge base on Afro-Indigenous peoples:

We Refuse To Forget: Black Creek Native Americans

“We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power” by Caleb Gayle 

Journalist Caleb Gayle tells the story of one Native tribe that enslaved Africans and accepted Black people as full citizens. Thanks mainly due Cow Tom, a Black Creek, who ascended through Creek leadership and became Chief in 1866 after filing for US citizenship rights on behalf of his people –– many others followed suit, creating what is now known as “Black Creeks.” We Refuse to Forget paints an inspiring picture of a part of American history everyone needs to know. 

We Are Not JUST Africans - Black Native Americans

“We Are Not JUST Africans: The Black Native Americans” by Dr. Clyde Winters

This beautifully illustrated and well-researched text will make learning about the Black Indigenous culture engaging and awe-inspiring. Winters steps back into time, detailing Black Native American history from 12,000 B.C. to the present. With almost a 5-star rating, its readers are excited by how Winters reveals the history of Black Natives through the precise facts presented and the colorful stories throughout the pages. It is obvious We Are Not JUST Africans has profoundly affected many readers.

Black Indian - Black Natives

“Black Indian” by Shonda Buchanan

Black Indian, searing and raw, is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Alice Walker's The Color Purple meets Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. Only, this isn't fiction.” – Amazon 

This memoir dives into Shonda Buchanan’s journey of uncovering and understanding her roots as a Black Native American, and it’s not always peaceful. She explores the consequences of her dual inheritance and what makes her who she is. This book takes readers on a journey through one family's history and explores the complex relationships that can arise when cultures come together.

Black Indians - Afro Indigenous Peoples

“Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage” by William Loren Katz

This book, with over 1,400 5-star ratings on Amazon, is one to read to understand how Black individuals came to be a part of Native communities. The offspring of these unions “helped shape the early days of the fur trade, added a new dimension to frontier diplomacy, and made a daring contribution to the fight for American liberty.” You can’t find the exact details of Black Indians in traditional textbooks in America, but fortunately, you can read well-researched facts within this book’s text. 

That The BLood Stays Pure - Black Indians

“That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia” by Arica Coleman

“That the Blood Stay Pure” is a fascinating look at how Virginia tried to preserve racial purity and its repercussions on African Native Americans and their separate groups. The author tells this story from an original perspective – those who were banned from their communities due to the color of their skin or physical attributes, as they were related to their African ancestry. This book is yet another that dives into America’s battle with identity and race, yet it does so from a unique perspective and fresh look.

Africans and Native Americans

“Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples” by Jack Forbes 

Jack Forbes presents strong evidence that Native American and African contacts began in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean and that Native Americans may have crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus. His text will change the way we look at modern populations by providing a new view on their evolution, providing an objective analysis of what it was like for European colonialists who settled here; exploring key issues relating to race terms while also examining how these different concepts evolved based off both physical appearance or culture – something that has significant consequences when misapplied. 

Conclusion

Black Native Americans are underrepresented, and their history has nearly been wiped clean from textbooks and the media. Not only did their people (both Native Americans and enslaved Africans) endure centuries of turmoil, war, segregation, and racism, they continue to be left out of the conversation. Black Indians have a story to tell, and they deserve to be heard as they continue to fight for their voice. We all have the responsibility to learn about their history and what they’re going through today so that we can stand in solidarity with them and help amplify their voices.

Featured Image Credit: Rhonda Grayson


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Avian Dalton

Thank you!!

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