Shades of Difference: Alastair Bonnett Investigates the Intriguing and Often Controversial History of African Native Americans-Black Indians-In the Light of Present-Day Concerns about Citizenship

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A genealogical cottage industry has sprung up in the United States offering to help 'African ancestored Indians' locate and reclaim their Indian roots. The hunger to add 'a bit of Indian' to one's individual racial heritage is widespread among whites as well as blacks, but it is one that complicates and compromises the picture of twenty-first-century black Indians--the descendants of freed African slaves belonging to native tribes.

At the root of this story lies the history of two diverse communities with a shared experience of racial violence. Many historians continue to treat white, black and indigenous people (still commonly referred to simply as 'Indians') as mutually exclusive categories. Yet consider the following notice from 1747 about a runaway slave:

   Runaway on the 20th of September ... a very
   lusty Negro fellow ... aged about 53 years,
   and had some Indian blood in him ... he had
   with him a boy about 12 or 13 years of age ...
   born of an Indian woman, and looks like an
   Indian ... they both talk Indian very well, and
   it is likely they have dressed themselves in
   the Indian dress and gone to Carolina.

Another fragment of evidence comes from 1812, when white Virginians wanted to gain ownership of the Gingaskin Indian Reservation. The petition to end the reserve stated 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.

These concerns had the desired effect. The reservation was divided up and soon whites had bought up most of the land.

Such glimpses into a once forgotten history suggest quite extensive relations between Indians and African Americans, at least at certain times and in certain places. Yet the overall scale of the interchange between the two groups remains hard to calculate. One African American journalist recently estimated that 85 per cent of African Americans have native ancestry. Like so many other aspects of this story, this figure seems to be larded with wishful thinking.

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However, some concrete data can be found. One example comes from interviews undertaken as part of the New Deal funded Federal Writers' Project between 1935 and 1939. Transcripts of over 2,000 interviews with former slaves included twelve per cent making some reference to the interviewee being related to or descended from Native Americans. It might be thought that firmer evidence would come from the various census rolls of those living on Indian land, which from the late nineteenth century enumerated 'blood' Indians as well as freedmen. Many thousand such ex-slaves are listed, but the usefulness of the rolls is undermined by the fact that they often counted anyone with any African ancestry as non-native. Natives with European ancestry were deemed to be natives, but those with African heritage were excluded from 'blood' membership.

But what of the bonds of solidarity between natives and blacks? The notion that the two groups assisted each other is central to recent attempts to celebrate black Indian history. That they did sometimes act in unison is easily confirmed. For example, in 1836 General Sidney Jesup identified what he regarded as the dangerous alliance of blacks and Indians amongst the Seminoles of Florida, warning that:

   the two races are identified in interests and
   feelings ... Should the Indians remain in this
   territory the negroes among them will form a
   rallying point for runaway Negroes from adjacent
   states.

However, the Native American and black communities were mutually vulnerable. When, in the 1830s, the federal government decided to evict Native Americans living east of the Mississippi and columns of refugees journeyed 1,200 miles to the designated 'Indian Territory' (later the state of Oklahoma), these 'Trails of Tears' were miserable treks of the dispossessed. …