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.”
A visitor gets a clear sense that the leaders of the National Museum of the American Indian, which collaborated with the Museum of African American History and Culture, wanted to put the conflict over the tribal rights of Cherokee Freedmen into a broader perspective.
I think that’s a good thing, as I’m a descendant of Cherokee Freedmen, former slaves and free blacks who lived among the tribe. My mother’s ancestors had ties to the Cherokee from at least the early 1800s in Georgia and then in Indian Territory from the 1830s until Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
I grew up listening to my mother, grandmother and a grand-aunt talk about that side of the family having Cherokee blood and receiving land as citizens of the tribe. My research has documented what they said and uncovered what they didn’t—that some ancestors were enslaved, while others were free. As far as I’m concerned, Cherokee citizenship is a birthright my ancestors earned the hardest way.
However fabled, the Cherokee are only one tribe, so I appreciate the exhibit’s effort to examine red-black contacts over time and across all tribes. But what was the nature of most of those contacts? This is where the exhibit, however constructive its aims, falls short.
After all, the Cherokee weren’t the only tribe to own slaves. In their bad company were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole, the other southeastern tribes that federal troops forcibly uprooted and relocated in the 1830s to what became Oklahoma.
At the close of the Civil War, those tribes—known, who would have guessed, as the “civilized tribes’’—owned an estimated 10,000 slaves. That’s not counting the thousands who had died or been sold in the preceding decades, going back to a little before 1800.
The big question is whether those master-slave relations outnumber other historical contacts between Africans and Native Americans who were on an equal footing. It’s hard to know how many blacks married members of small northeastern tribes. Fewer were adopted into western tribes, as was the Buffalo Soldier who deserted and married into the Comanche, to cite an example from the exhibit.
Early in the colonial era, IndiVisible notes, Africans and Native Americans worked side-by-side as slaves and resisted their common bondage.
That was also a period when bloodlines blended because white masters favored African men over African women as slaves and found Native American women easier to capture than men, according to Tiya Miles, a professor at the University of Michigan. She says another scholar estimates British colonists enslaved at least 30,000 to 50,000 Native Americans. Those numbers would make for a lot of red-black contact.
But in the late 1700s, Native American treatment of African Americans took a harsh turn, with red people enslaving black people, Miles said with uncommon frankness during a symposium about the exhibit, which opened Nov. 10 and runs through May 31.
Though the Cherokee Nation wants to make the freedmen controversy about who has Cherokee blood, the issue is really slavery and a self-proclaimed sovereign nation’s commitment to wiping out its vestiges. An 1866 treaty, similar to the post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution, granted the freedmen “all the rights of native Cherokees.”
The IndiVisible exhibit commendably quotes that treaty provision. But the contorted history of the Cherokee and other slaveholding tribes violating or outright rejecting similar provisions deserved more attention.
It turns out red folks are no more eager to have an honest discussion about slavery and its implications than white folks or, for that matter, black folks.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.