*Editor’s note: A prior title of this piece included a playful reference to African Americans erroneously claiming to have ‘Indian in their family’. Many of our commenters rightfully found this title offensive and dismissive of the many African Americans who have Native American blood and show reverence for their Native American culture. We apologize and have changed the title to be reflective of the piece’s intent — shining a spotlight on a cultural subset that is often overlooked.*

afro native american cherokee girl

Throughout the years many black people have laid claim to Native American heritage. Interestingly, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates’ research claims that the average African American actually has very little Native American blood — less than 1%. However, behind the talk of ‘high cheekbones’ and ‘red skin tone’ there actually is a fascinating history of African American and Native cultures combining.

Although there are over 500 federally recognized Native American tribes, only 5 were considered to be “civil” during the colonial period. These 5 tribes which consisted of  Cheek, Chocktaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole had adopted colonial practices such as Christianity, written constitutions and plantation slavery. Yes, native Americans were coerced into owning black slaves under the direction of British colonists, in efforts to secure the Transatlantic Slave trade. The colonists felt native Americans who accepted slavery would not harbor fleeing runaway slaves.

Five-Civilized-Tribes-Portraits

Slavery within the Native American Nations

The only tribe that rejected bondage slavery was the Seminole “in favor of a system of friendship and alliance with their black members.”

Like European slaveowners, Native americans adopted Slave Codes to control their black population by hindering runaways and preventing them from learning how to read and write. It was required for members of the nation to catch runaway slaves.

However, the concept of slavery varied tremendously from what was seen in white-owned plantations. Because bondage was seen as a violation of the human spirit and will to be free, many observers noticed the chains were placed loosely upon slaves which upset white slaveowners. Only the Chickasaw upheld the reputation of treating slaves as poorly as white slaveowners.

Former Cherokee slaves detailed their experiences in interviews in William Katz’s book, “Black Indians”:

Johnson Thompson, eighty, and a former Cherokee slave, said: “The master never punish anybody, and I never see anybody whipped, and only one slave sold. Lots of slave children didn’t ever learn to read.”

Some even have stories of slaves who were able to earn money to purchase their freedom:

Rochelle Ward, ninety-one, remembere: “Some of the slaves work around and get money and pay this money to their master for freedom, so there was some freed before the close of the war.

British colonies posed many treaties with the Native American nations for the return of fugitive slaves. However, because of the adoption system which existed among the nations new members were welcomed and offered full protection.

“When whites argued about the right of private property in owning people and insisted Africans were inferior beings, the Indians shrugged, “no.”

Notable Black Native Americans

Picture 215
Wildfire Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis who previously went by her Chippewa name of Wildfire was a prominent artist of the 19th century.

black native americans
Diana Fletcher

Diana Fletcher was a member of the Seminole nation but was later adopted into Kiowa. She was said to be a school teacher at the schools built for black native Americans.

Black Native Americans Today

In 2007, the Cherokee nation Supreme Court ruled black members who were brought into the tribe by Native American slave owners or freedmen, before were no longer to be considered members of the tribe. This decision means black members would no longer be eligible for free healthcare and education benefits.

Similarly in 2000, after receiving $56 million in reparations from the U.S. government for land taken in Florida, the Seminole nation restricted its membership to those who could only prove their lineage via the Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Rolls authorized by the U.S. congress as a requirement to negotiate with the Five Civilized Tribes to convince them to agree to an allotment plan and dissolution of the reservation system. Citizens of the tribe fell under several categories: by blood, marriage, freedmen(formerly enslaved by Native Americans) and Delaware/Lenape.

Despite the adversity, black native Americans have continued to foster a community to preserve their culture. These photos were taken at the first annual Mountain Eagle Place Inter-Tribal Pow Wow in Virginia.

black natve americans mountain eagle place4
Nataska Humminbird
black native americans mountain eagle place2
Maimouna Youssef, Navasha Daya, Nataska Humminbrd
black native americans mountain eagle place3
Maimouna Youssef

black native americans mountain eagle place

What is your knowledge behind the Black Native American population?

Sources: Black Indians by William Loren Katz

Rinny

Texan by birth, Los Angeleno by situation. Lover of Tame Impala and Shoegaze music. Comedian by trade. Macaroni and Cheese connoisseur by appetite.

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109 Comments on "The Real History of Black Native Americans"

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Neickha

There is a documentary on YouTube about black natives which I watched a few years back it was very informative and interesting.

Aerielle Harris

Yeah in my family my great grandmother on my fathers side was seminole and my mothers father was seminole. I really liked this article though 🙂

Melani
“African-American” people are going through the same identity crisis of the “colored” people of South Africa. Everyone who was not 100% black, white or Indian were just chucked into the same bucket of “coloured”. This left our people with no roots whatsoever – never white enough, never black enough. Just hanging somewhere. I can personally claim to be indigenous black, Khoisan, white (English great grandmother, German paternal grandfather) and Indian (maternal grandfather). My husband is Belgain (mother) and French (father) with some Egyptian (maternal grandfather’s forefathers). My kids have 3 nationalities (passports): South African, French and Belgian. I laugh at… Read more »
Black Jew
Why don’t you just stay out of their land and so what if you have children that are “MUTTS”. You “WHITE PEOPLE” need to leave these “AFRICANS” alone haven’t you caused them enough “TROUBLE” and yes, I agree that you “WHITE PEOPLE” need to go back to your land and I’m not talking about the “AMERICAS” but the “CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS” where it’s cold and dark. You, “WHITE ASS BITCH” talk about “NARROW-MINDED” you stupid “NEANDERTHAL” with the DNA of “DEMONS and BEAST” and you want to call someone “NARROW-MINDED”, LOL. You need to realize these “BLACK” people are the “ONLY… Read more »
Lauren Kirk

I found this article somewhat interesting…In my case, I have on both sides of my family a strong native american gene. My great grandmother was black-cherokee , and on the other side some of my 4x’s great grandparents were natives as well. I’ve got the high cheekbones, the long nose, and the red undertones in my skin.

maralondon

Those features you mentioned are native to Africans too. It is said that the Moors from Africa settled in the Americas before any native Indian. The so called natives are the result of mixing just like the Indians in Asia and the Chinese in China for example.

Montgomery Martin

Yes. Except the kushites were here before the end moors (same thing goes for Europe ).

ThatsRight
I wish people did not believe hype like this! Africa was not the only place in the entire world that had melanin rich people with wooly hair. America is the birth place of our ancestors. The people that runs the 5 nations today are not Indigenous to America. The so called Native Americans that owned slaves were basically white. It’s a lot of confusion. When they say that NA went through genocide, it was through paperwork, and renaming us something else to cut us off on our lineage. For you to be native to a country, all you have to… Read more »
DLB

Very true. Very true. On RT TV, they are running a documentary of the freedmen of the cherokee nation. They stated the cherokees owning slaves were the white ones & it is these same ones that pushed to get the Black freedmen from being members of the nation. It’s funny, they say the freedmen aren’t cherokees by blood, but if these white ones were to be dna tested, they would fail. Actually, the Black freedmen were put on the freedmen rolls because they looked Black…at least that is what the documentary stated.

GumboGodess

Very true. My fam is from Natchitoches, LA, and that is a special city that keeps up with facts. I’m Cad do Indian, French, Afric an, and a little porteguese. But to the world I’m just another little blaqq girl.

GumboGodess

Very true. My fam is from Natchitoches, LA, and that is a special city that keeps up with facts. I’m Caddo Indian, French, African, and a little porteguese. But to the world I’m just another little blaqq girl.

GumboGodess

Very true. My fam is from Natchitoches, LA, and that is a special city that keeps up with facts. I’m Caddo Indian, French, African, and a little porteguese. But to the world I’m just another little black girl.

FreeTea

And what of those of us that DO have documentation and genetic tests to show NA ancestry? How much do we have to have to claim it? What if we don’t know what tribe it’s from and/or we weren’t raised in the culture?

I just don’t understand why any White person can say “Oh yes, I’m part Irish,” without any one questioning the claim, but any time a Black person lays claim to a non-Black line of heritage, we need papers, certificates, and photos to show that it’s real. Why can’t we be Black but also know that we’re Other?

shantel

White people go through the same problem when they claim their native blood in this day and age …get mocked and made to look like fools. The hypocracy coming from all sides is ridiculous there are plenty euro natives and afro natives. People do have the paper work to prove it to. My best friends father is 100% native lineage on both sides and she is half and has a people giving her hell all the time about it. …her mother is white and Chinese.

euda

I realize this is an old comment but it is interesting to me…perhaps the white person claiming to be “part Irish” is not asking for anything – is it possible that the documentation required is because the USA give monetary “apologies” to NA?

Kupkake

This is so true. My Grandmother (my mother’s mom) is a Full bred Cherokee, and so was her mother. Her Father was a Black American. My Grandfather ( Mother’s dad) was a Black/NATIVE American.

MY FATHER(mom) was Native.. not sure what tribe but his father was a Black Englishman. So what am I then America.

Like it was mentioned White people say they have Multiple races and it’s no question..Not fair. They hate for us to be proud of our Heritage. I love me some me!! I’m very proud of my Cultural Background!
Be Bless

Eddie Kopitzke

It comes down to money. First Nation peoples get a multitude of benefits for basically giving up their right to sue the government. It’s more or less a way of making sure that the so-called undeserving don’t get said benefits. That’s really the long and short of it.

Cosita
I appreciate the historical information and the photos. However, I think the title of ‘you probably don’t have indian in your family’ to suggests that we black people are all either ignorant of or just guessing at our native ancestry. I think you should have noted that the type of DNA test Dr. Gates uses will only look at your direct maternal or paternal line depending on if you are male or female. In one episode I watched he couldn’t tell his black woman guest what African tribe she was connected to because she had a direct link to a… Read more »
Valk

I totally agree with you . I ceased from watching Dr. Gates many moons ago.

GumboGodess

Caddo Indian here.

Cosita

Thanks BGLH. Other than that one issue I thought it was a good article.

Camille

I have wondered how they test for blood from tribes who are supposedly extinct. Do they even bother having it on file?

Cosita
They don’t have DNA on all groups of people. For one thing not all groups will agree to submit it and secondly places like the US which is a melting pot it would be hard to find people who are not so genetically mixed that they can isolate what that NA gene is. For example if they wanted to trace your African DNA they would compare it to people living in dif areas of Africa now.They can’t compare to dead people. If they don’t know what gene they are looking at I think they make it up. Everyone freaking knows… Read more »
Dee wat

I have to completely agree! I do not understand this movement to try and discredit those who have Native ancestry. The story is much more complicated then presented here. Literally hundreds of Natives were labeled Black by the stroke of a pen. Some as a survival technique, an others by state decree. But claiming Native heritage should not be cause for ridicule. The history of Africans and Natives actually show more alliances against Euros then not. But Mr. Gates seems to have overlooked that history completely.

Dee Hines
It’s sad how much history we’ve been denied. If people read usurps from some of the first journals of ”the new world” they would know that there were black inhabitants along with natives that intermarried. But it’s odd that most people aren’t taught that most Native tribes also had slaves and also raped or had black slaves as mistresses. I read an old letter to one native man, demanding that he stop producing children with his black slave and that if any more were born he would be fined and all of his current children would loose their status as… Read more »
GumboGodess

That’s how it goes.

LBell

Not only do most black Americans claiming Native ancestry not have it, most white Americans claiming Native ancestry don’t have it either. Still waiting for Skip Gates to do a show on THAT…

firegirl05

This is so true. As a matter of fact there was a documentary discussing how whites paid …yes paid their way on the Dawes to have land. So they basically paid their way to be wrote down in the book as a native american. I honestly think that native american were copper toned(red skin)….not what we see today.

Tiffany Williams

The whites are called five dollar Indians because Native Americans had a lot of benefits whites wanted so they paid a white person in charge of handling Native American benefits five dollars and they were suddenly Native Americans.

Spirit

White people are the absolute worst about claiming “my grandma was half cherokee” and nobody questioning it. Prime example: the current chief of the Cherokee nation. He’s white. 1/32 Cherokee only. However they kick out black ppl with way more cherokee blood. This is what irks me about the issue. I have DNA, I have family records- even ancestors on the Dawes but I don’t claim it because quite frankly they have shown an open hostility to black while embracing and celebrating whites with even a drool on NDN blood.

Sharon Simmons

Was raised thinking I had Native American ancestry, so I did DNA testing and I learned I was 67% Sub-saharan African and 33% European- no Native American.

My family members have high-cheek bones…but so do many African tribes.

Gates has written an article about people claiming Native American ancestry. Most people do not and the ones who do have about 12%.

AMETHYST BUSH
“So when a DNA test comes back saying you are 28 percent Finnish, all it’s really saying is that of the DNA analyzed (most companies don’t analyze all of your DNA), 28 percent of it was most similar to that of a completely Finnish person.” http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/06/dna_testing_cannot_determine_ancestry_including_elizabeth_warren_s.html Sharon, you can translate that to say your DNA test does not prove you are not Native American. Don’t know if you did Ancestry.com, but I was told they only test about 2% of your DNA, which if true, would mean only 2% of your DNA is 67% African. In addition, what they are… Read more »
LBell

Like a lot of folks on my father’s side, I have dark skin, kinky hair, high cheekbones, and a relatively small and straight nose. For years I’ve heard strangers say about the last two “that’s the Indian in you.” Lately I’ve responded with, “How do you know that’s not the AFRICAN in me?” There’s more DNA diversity in Africa alone than there is in all the other continents combined…which makes sense when you consider where humans came from.

Camille

I also think a lot of white people claim native ancestry to cover/explain small amounts of black blood and the features that go with it. I think there was a LOT more passing than people think.

Lolalao

Totally!!!

Alexious Johnson

Was thinking the very same thing!!!

cnucmecnu

Most blacks claiming native American ancestory are ashamed to admit their white ancestory. Most whites claiming native American ancestory are looking to cash in on affirmative action and minority status for government loans to start a business.

Kupkake

True

Camille
I don’t like the tone of this article and others like it either (and there are a LOT of them). There is ALREADY enough out there trying to discourage black/native mixes from acknowledging all their ancestors, and a lot of it is for monetary reasons. I find it sad that when people google Black Native American or Black Indian, they are just as likely to find this type of article as an informative one. It almost seems like some sort of campaign! Saying that you personally don’t have Native blood is MUCH different than trying to tell other people what… Read more »
B. Lee

True, but I don’t think all of the black natives were “mixed”.

GumboGodess

Caddo here.

Cosita
ITA We shouldn’t be telling people what they are as if they can’t know their heritage. I also self identify as black so no distancing here. 9 times out of 10 if the subject of me being part native american comes up it’s because someone asked me about it based on my features. Or it’s because they see a photo of my great grandmother who looks straight native. My great grandmother said out of her mouth her father was half white half native. Her mom had white father and had a mom who was black and native. Btw I have… Read more »
Alexious Johnson

I have seen your profile pic on various other articles and I knew precisely who_what you were!!! Not something I consciously look for but my mind subconsiously(sp) registers familiar faces!! Everyone has the right to he proud of who the are…it doesnt mean distancing yourself from African roots, to me it means distancing yourself from the one drop rule meant to enslave those with even the slightest African ancestry and denying us the recognition of our entire being…

Camille
I know what you mean. My parents are both from mixed families (my dad’s side is Louisiana creole) and I’m very familiar with the look of both those groups and similar ones. I’m thankful that I never had any conflict about what I am because my mother always told us that we were black and indian. I tend to go by black the most because I live in Texas and most people who aren’t from North Carolina don’t know what a Lumbee Indian is. The common practice of Indian men purchasing the freedom of their black wives and children goes… Read more »
Chelsz

I agree.

EM

Exactly!

LittleBabyBug Jones
i gathered that the article is in reference to black people who claim that they have native somewhere back up in their family tree. these are usually people who are referencing a family member from slavery, whose name they don’t know; they usually don’t know the tribe or have pictures of the person- it’s simply from hearsay. when the vast majority of black people believe they have native american in their ancestry from about 4-6 generations ago, that’s when i become skeptical. but that’s what this article is about, not about people like yourself who are living with and surrounded… Read more »
Ty-Rhoanda
I see what you are saying, but I have to disagree. BOTH of my great-grand parents (paternal) are Siksika natives born in Montana. They moved to Ohio and had my grandmother, whom had my father and his siblings. I was born and raised in Michigan. You see? A lot of us “east coasters” claim our ancestry by right of bloodlines. Not by simply wishing to be something that we are not. I am black, but I am also Siksika or what some would call “BLACKFOOT”! Just like my grandmother, I never cared for tribal benefits. We only cared to keep… Read more »
Alexious Johnson

I understand what you are saying, and you are right…but part of my issue is the fact that in a generation or so, I am going g to be someone grandma and possibly great grandma, and in claiming g their ancestry they may be faced with similar attitudes…

bri
bglh, and most public Historians, when are y’all going to learn that five civilized tribes=/= all the tribes that people claim ancestry from. Also, you do realize that very FEW Native tribes have ever given their DNA for these tests right? So just because a test says no, doesn’t mean their family lied about native ancestry, it could simply mean they do not have any DNA samples available for the native tribe they do descend from. I don’t understand why people like gates will make such a statement when he can only base it on those that have been tested… Read more »
jazzythoughts
It seems to me in my research that the truth is yet to be recognized although it’s not due to lack of public record documents and photos-many drawings have been white washed and plenty of pictures show black natives in north and south of the Americas. These people were killed or enslaved so that history would not associate it seems any new incoming “cargo/stock” with the lands in question. Marrying into as well as the breeding out much like what was used in Brazil was used for the remaining natives with deeds to their land. This “land” issue was the… Read more »
jazzythoughts
It seems to me in my research that the truth is yet to be recognized although it’s not due to lack of public record documents and photos-many drawings have been white washed and plenty of pictures show black natives in north and south of the Americas. These people were killed or enslaved so that history would not associate it seems any new incoming “cargo/stock” with the lands in question. Marrying into as well as the breeding out much like what was used in Brazil was used for the remaining natives with deeds to their land. This “land” issue was the… Read more »
TWA4now

As a child, we use to “brag” about having Cherokee in our families. As time went on, I actually knew very little about it. I did know in 2007 they did “something” to eliminate blacks from the tribal roster. Thank you for a very enlightening article!

sanjidude

According to my older southern relatives, many wavy haired, light skinned blacks claimed they were part Native American rather than admit their family members were taken advantage of by white males in their communities in the early pre Civil Rights era. I believe them.

water7apple

Great (and needed) article!

Lullaby___Interrupted
Lullaby___Interrupted
This reminds me of being in elementary school in the south and having a teacher say that native Americans were extinct. Even though one had gottene ready for school that morning…. She also came to school withe the next day to have a conversation with said teacher….this article seems to be written from the same mind set, as if native Americans no longer exist…they do just more so west of the Rockies, which leads me to my next question; what is a “typical African-American??? Does that mean individuals who reside along the east coast and southern states and have been… Read more »
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