*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
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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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114 Comments on "The Real History of Black Native Americans"

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Hawa

AMER’ICAN, a. Pertaining to America.

AMER’ICAN, n. A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America.

Truman

I am Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma and just like my DD214 I can take my trib member ship card with $10.00 and get a glass of water almost any where

Ron Hooper

It’s hard to believe that the heritage has been discounted and rarely identified as Indians. Especially because of the shade of their skin. There is an excellent documentary explaining the similar paths that mixed each race. The documentary Black Indian, An American Story references it as a twin cultural heritage.

liz

this is simply appropriation of another culture. They need to build their own culture into something worthy to be proud of instead of trying to be someone else.

Jennifer Howard

I don’t understand why most don’t wanna be black anyway.

Dominique
Their were and still are “blacks”” native Americans”. How ever u must consider some black native tribes do not classify themselves as blacks… now, The notion that the natives were fairskinned is a mis representation of the facts ( or even Mongolian).. the 5 civilized so called Indian tribes) were all negroid and American history has been fabricated. The 1% native blood In black Americans (by gates also) refers to the mongolian natives that where in the land as well… their is plenty of historical artifacts and resources on this timeline of history … the true “black” natives of the… Read more »
Noel
For some reason, my previous comment wasn’t approved. Which I do not understand; it was absolutely respectful, just not what the majority of commentators thus far *want* to hear. My children are Mandinka (an ethnic affiliation from spanning west Africa; their father was born in Gambia and raised in Senegal before moving to the U.S.) so a lot of people label them “black”, because this is how racialized identities/communities work. My ex husband didn’t like to be defined by a color; in his culture they define themselves by familial/cultural/national/religious affiliations. So out of respect to him and his culture, I… Read more »
Bell
I think where a lot of blacks “miss the mark” with indigenous identity/ancestry is those who *think* they have indigenous ancestry assume this makes them “just like us”. Racialization is the main means of identity in the US so it only makes sense that those not raised in tribal cultures utterly fail to understand that even if great-grandma was indeed a Generokee Princess With High Cheekbones and Long Black Hair, that doesn’t make them Native or a representative of contemporary indigenous culture(s). My kids are half Mandinka. Racism in America labels them “black” because they have dark skin and Afro’s,… Read more »
John Doe

If you don’t own, fund and operate a DNA testing facility you must accept the results given. Dr. Bill Gates is not your friend he is deep in the establishment and will tell Black Americans what he is ordered. DNA samples return with different results depending on which lab performs the analysis and defines the results. The control of your perception of self is what matters most.

mel

One drop rule Certificate of Indian Blood (CDIB) card showing their degree of Indian blood, One drop rule One drop rule One drop rule

mel
The Five Civilized Tribes Cher, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole were slave owning Nations someone had the audacity to butter up the story and say that the indian owners we so different than the whites at that time SHUT THE—-UP (AN INDIAN ARAB AFRICAN or EUROPEAN A SLAVE OWNER IS A SLAVE OWNER PERIOD. I guess that made them civilized nations because they got on the colonialism bandwagon and bought in to the trade and we hold so dearly to a delusion of some of our so called indian ancestors. who were just as broke and disorganized then as now… Read more »
mel

we as blacks with indian and euro blood need to stop trying to be included and accepted into others circles we may be so called part this or that but netier as a whole just stay black none of them can take that from you
its our exclusive club

mel

5 civil tribes what were the rest called ?
they give money if they cane label u?
take that money and use it to litigate for all your land that was taken
get some real reparations and stop cutting native blacks out there plan
always was to separate and divide
as soon as cash came in look what happened

divided nation back to poverty by the next generation

Victoria

Sorry about all the mistakes im doing this on my phone

Victoria
If the writter of this article wants to do a history on2 refer blacks and Native american this histories and the tribes vary. You would have to cover more than the 5 civilized tribes to get a story it spans all across america from the past to the present day. “The real history of blacks and native americans” is such a blanket statment when your just cobering the five civilized tribes. I would have liked tp see more stories more cultural references fereces maybe someone with a respect for our culture and heritage should have tackled this subject. It reads… Read more »
mike
I to have a Cherokee great-grandmother on my copper-colored grandfather’s side. I always assumed like many of you that his father was African American. Now I know that to be highly unlikely. Even if I were to assume my grandfather were half African how would that make him any less Native American than any other so called American Indian? But without any proof he came from Africa that that would be a silly assumption even if he were descendant from a cotton pickin slave because we know there were native American slaves as well as African indentured servants. And keep… Read more »
joe dolphin

I Also have done some research on this subject in my own family. I was raised and taught my native American ancestry
through my mother. knowing this and can clearly see that my mother and all her siblings are of mixed black & indian breed with wavy black hair and all.but I researched some records and found my full blooded Cree grandmother listed as “negro” in the 1918 census LOL. this is strange. you can clearly see something is not adding up. my black grandfather was a farmer in Arkansas married to a cree Native.

Mike Richards
Joe, your experience of discovering your Cre grandmother listed as “Negro” is not uncommon. It happened quite often, because the census takers were not always trained to ask about race or ancestry. They often ASSUMED a person was of a particular race due to skin color. Many of the native Americans of previous generations were reddish brown, or black skin color due to genetics and/or climatical conditions. But they were incorrectly listed as Negro, colored, or mulatto. This would be humorous if it were not so serious. I have Cherokee on both my father’s and mother’s side. And there may… Read more »
Mike Richards
I have done extensive research within my own family tree for more than 25 years. My findings have been fascinating. I had often heard the older members of my family say that we are of native American ancestry . One thing I discovered is, not all native Americans were known to be native American. Some of them lived and died as “colored” or “mulatto” for safety reasons, as it was more popular to be “Negro”, “mulatto,” or “colored” than Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, etc. I discovered this by looking at the Indian Rolls, death certificates, etc. I found the names of… Read more »
Lydia

I totally agree with you. Our family has a passed down oral history of this. (My fathers side from Canada and my mothers side from the U.S.)
Because of the inequality of blacks, record keeping was of little importance and usually noted by the record keeper and not the individual.
Looking back over a few census records, I find many different racial categories for the same descendent (none completely match the oral history).

Victoria

you are right mike in looking at the work done by Walter Ashby Plecker miss documentation was used as a form of pencil genocide for the wiping out of tribes in VA. Making a paper trail damn near impossible. We cant be any one but who we are black and native

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[…] The Real History of Black Native Americans | Black Girl with Long Hair – 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… Read more »
Don'tBSoNosey
I agree with the majority of comments responding to this article. To every single Black American posting about Native American lineage, YOU. ARE. RIGHT! Our grandparents and great grandparents weren’t lying to us, nor stupid, to hide our shame of slave history, they were telling US THE TRUTH. No one can take that away from us, even those who share the same skin color, but different ethnic groups. My grandparents on both sides told me we were from Native America tribes, and my features are that of Native Americans. I don’t look west African at all, though my hair texture… Read more »
Vincent

I have never read so many historical inaccuracies in my entire life (I am referring to the commentary). It seems that if you don’t like how history reads, re-write it.

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