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Black Indians (Afro-Native Americans)

Introduction
In the 1780s, certain white Virginians began to agitate for the termination of the Gingaskin Indian Reservation in Northampton County... In 1812 it was argued 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].' The reserve was divided (allotted) in 1813 and by 1832 whites had acquired most of it.

Africans and Native Americans: The language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples

African and Native American interaction began even before Europeans brought African slaves to the Americas. Free Africans reached the shores of the American continent as traders and settlers long before Europeans arrived. In 1975, 2 Negroid skeletons were found in the U.S. Virgin Islands. One wore a pre-Columbian Indian wrist band. They were found in layers dated to about A.D. 1250. In 1974, Polish craniologists revealed that no fewer than 13.5% of the skeletons from the pre-Columbian Olmec cemetery of Tlatilco were Negroid.1

Later, when African slaves were brought to the Americas, they intermingled with indigenous peoples from North America to South America. In the early days of slavery, indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africans were enslaved together. Sometimes, African slaves escaped to Native American villages on various parts of the American continent, as described in the book "Africans and Native Americans : The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples".

United States

The frequency of intermarriage is alluded to in these 18th century advertisements for runaway slaves in New Jersey.

A 1747 ad reads:

Runaway on the 20th of September last... 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, only his hair... they both talk Indian very well, and it is likely they have dressed themselves in the Indian dress and gone to Carolina.2

A 1778 ad reads:

Was stolen from her mother, a negro girl, about 9 or 10 years of age, named Dianah, her mother's name is Cash, was married to an Indian named Lewis Wollis, near 6 feet high, about 35 years of age. They have a male child with them, between 3 and 4 years of age. Any person who takes up the said negroes and Indian... shall have the above reward."3

18th century British colonies in the Southern US encouraged the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles to own black slaves. 4 Some of these nations, notably the Seminoles, also took in escaped slaves and refused to give them up when whites came demanding the return of fugitive slaves. In 1750, slavehunters were sent to retrieve a slave living in the Creek Nation. A Creek chief stood between them and the black man, cut their rope and threw it in the fire. The posse returned empty-handed. 5

In 1770, a white observer reported that the Creeks allow slaves their freedom when they marry, which "is permitted and encouraged" and their children were considered free.6 Contemporary Euro-American records revealed a European fear for black/Indian mixing, for there were instances of Africans and Indians joining together in armed resistance against Europeans. A British officer had warned, "Their mixing is to be prevented as much as possible."7 In 1751, South Carolina law stated: "The carrying of Negroes among the Indians has all along been thought detrimental, as an intimacy ought to be avoided."8 A 16th century French colonial dispatch also stated "Between the races we cannot dig too deep a gulf".9

In the 19th century, a number of high ranking Seminoles married black wives - Chief Osceola was one of them. It was said that 52 of his 55 body guards were black. Seminole King Philip too had a black son John Philip, half brother to Chief Wild Cat. King Philip, Chief Osceola and Wild Cat were key figures in the 2nd Seminole war between the US and the Seminole Nation.10 The US General Sidney Jesup apparently saw the mixing of blacks and Indians in the Seminole Nation as a threat: "... the 2 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 negreos from adjacent states."11

Africana.com article Indian in the Family explores the topic of black/Indian mixing in the US. Today, there are large numbers of black Americans of Native American ancestry.

A historically prominent North American of black and native ancestry was the Mohawk chief Atiatoharongwen, also known as Colonel Louis, or Louis Cook. Atiatoharongwen was not born a Mohawk - his native mother was Abenaki and his father was black.12 During Atiatoharongwen's childhood, he and his parents were captured in a French and Indian raid in New York.13 Atiatoharongwen's father was taken into servitude, and young Atiatoharongwen would have become the 'possession' of a French officer if not for the intervention of the Mohawk warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy.14 In response to pleas from Atiatoharongwen's mother, the Mohawks from Caughnawaga demanded that Atiatoharongwen's French captor hand the child over as one of their own people.15 Atiatoharongwen eventually rose to prominence in Mohawk politics and became a warrior, a chief, and a staunch US ally.16

South and Central America

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the percentage of Afro-Native Americans is projected to be much higher than in the United States. Since the earliest days of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africans have formed alliances with indigenous peoples in South and Central America. By 1502, runaway Africans had joined native communities in Haiti. In the 16th century, Brazilian Amerindians captured a Portuguese slave ship and helped the Africans escape.17

Vicente Guerrero, the second president of Mexico, was of African, native and Spanish ancestry.18 It was during his presidency that slavery in Mexico finally came to an end. Although the Constitution abolishing slavery was established earlier in 1824, it was not until 1829 that the last slaves received their freedom.19

For more on Afro-Mexicano unity against Europeans, see For the Love of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero and his Black Indian Family.

Black Indians in Fiction

The character Dr Joshua Sweet in the Disney Cartoon Atlantis: The Lost Empire is of Afro-Native American descent. He educates the white protagonist on the history of black Indians, showing a photograph of himself with his African American father and Native American mother.

In Jeremy Love's graphic novel Bayou, the character Bedford is of Choctaw and African American descent. Bedford is the uncle of the protagonist Lee (her mother's sister's husband). When Lee resolves to make the dangerous trip to rescue her father, Bedford gives her the axe that had been handed down in his family. He tells her of its history, starting with his great-grandfather: born from the marriage of a runaway slave and a Choctaw warrior.

The early 20th century musical The Red Moon by J. Rosamond Johnson and Joe Jordan tells the story of the romance between a black man and a black-Indian woman whose Indian father took her back to his tribe.20

The children's book Seminole Diary tells the story of two African American sisters adopted into the Seminole Nation.

Black Indian Links

Notes
  1. Richard Poe, Black Spark White Fire, p.260
  2. Jack D. Forbes, Africans and Native Americans, p.87
  3. Jack D. Forbes, Africans and Native Americans, p.87
  4. William Katz, Black Indians, p.107
  5. William Katz, Black Indians, p.109
  6. William Katz, Black Indians, p.108
  7. William Katz, Black Indians, p.109
  8. William Katz, Black Indians, p.105
  9. William Katz, Black Indians, p.35
  10. William Katz, Black Indians, pp. 59-64
  11. William Katz, Black Indians, p.61
  12. Jack D. Forbes, Africans and Native Americans, pp. 16-17
  13. Theodore G. Vincent, The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero, Mexico's First Black Indian President
  14. Shep Lenchek, Slavery in Mexico
  15. Bernard L. Peterson, Early Black American playwrights and dramatic writers, p.8