Maybe Your Great-Grandmother Really Was Cherokee

A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian traces black-Native American relations from the 1500s to the present.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Black folks who always heard that grandma was an Indian—Cherokee, you say?—will get a sense of affirmation from a museum exhibit that just opened at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Called “IndiVisible,” the exhibit was inspired by the Cherokees vote two years ago to exclude most members of African descent, a continuing controversy treated—quite fairly, I must say—in one of 20 panels of thoughtful text and telling photos.

Overall, African-Native American relations are cast in positive terms, a perspective that feels right. It’s certainly the view of most black folks, based on all those family stories, true or not. The Cherokees of today are out of step with the tolerant, humanist traditions of Native Americans who historically “adopted” people of other races and treated them as equals.

The exhibit traces the contacts between African Americans and Native Americans from the 1500s to the present, leading to the interracial unions that produced “Black Indians.” Some big-name people with that mixed heritage pop up: Crispus Attucks, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jimi Hendrix and John Hope Franklin.

On a broader scale, so much mixing of red and black occurred that the bloodlines of some tribes became racially “indivisible.” They include the Lumbee of North Carolina, the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut, the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, the Seminole of Florida and then Oklahoma. “Most Native peoples on the Atlantic seaboard,” the curators conclude, “have African-American and white ancestry.”