For African-Americans, Determining Native American Ancestry Often a Challenge

Category: American Indian Issues,Black Issues,Featured,News | 
by Kenneth J. Cooper

Morgan James Peters, or Mwalim, directs the African and African-American studies program at UMass Dartmouth.

Morgan James Peters wears dreadlocks and directs the African and African-American studies program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The single name he prefers to use, Mwalim, is similar to the Swahili word for teacher.

But Mwalim traces his ancestry not only to Africa, via Barbados, but also to North America — the first Native American tribe that encountered the Pilgrims in the 1600s. He says he embraces both parts of his racial-ethnic identity.

“My primary identity is I’m a Black Wampanoag,” Mwalim says. “It’s having a foot in both communities, being part of the Wampanoag community, being part of the Black community and recognizing that they’re not mutually exclusive.”

Many African-Americans claim some Native ancestry, often based on family oral history passed through the generations but frequently undocumented. Mwalim’s Native heritage is certain. He belongs to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts.

His lineage represents a major source of Native ancestry in African-Americans — the Eastern tribes, according to Dr. J. Cedric Woods, director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“Most of the tribes have some degree or another of African intermixture,” says Woods, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. “It may be a single family line. It may be multiple lines. It may be most of the lines in the tribe. It can run the entire spectrum.”

Like Mwalim, people with that ancestral mix have begun to assert their identity more openly. In July, more than 400 Black American Indians attended the inaugural meeting of the National Congress of Black American Indians in Washington, D.C.

The new organization does not require participants to prove their Native lineage. Other Native Americans accuse people who say they are Native without documentation, like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, of “ethnic identity fraud.”

Proving lineage

Tribes have various eligibility requirements, including the degree of Indian blood, to become a member or citizen of that Native nation.

“Tribes have all kinds of … ways to determine whether somebody meets particular criteria to be a citizen of a particular government,” Woods says. “You have some tribes who use blood quantum. You have some tribes that are still strictly matrilineal or patrilineal. You have some tribes who accept descendancy from either line. How much of that blood quantum is required is all across the map.”

The rights and benefits that come with tribal citizenship also vary, Native Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds struggle to ­and acceptance among tribes, Woods says, but generally include the right to vote in the tribe’s elections, hold office in its government and receive social benefits, such as health care and education. Some tribes that own casinos distribute equal payments to members; others do not.

Some African-Americans have been recognized as citizens of Native nations without necessarily having any Native blood. They are descendants of the slaves of five tribes originally from the Southeast — the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw.

Those tribes were called “civilized” after settling down to farm, with more prosperous members copying the Southern plantation model. They were nonetheless forced out of the South in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears, taking their slaves with them on the deadly, arduous journey to Indian Territory, now part of Oklahoma.

During the Civil War, those tribes supported the Confederacy. Afterwards, the federal government drafted similar treaties in 1866 requiring the tribes to free slaves and make them and their descendants tribal citizens.

Those Black people became known as the freedmen of each tribe. Despite the treaties, their citizenship rights have been repeatedly disputed in the courts.

Few people know about that unusual piece of Black-Native history, even in Oklahoma, says Hannibal Johnson, a Tulsa lawyer and author of the 2012 book, Apartheid in Indian Country?: Seeing Red over Black Disenfranchisement.

“They are still largely unaware of the present controversy over the status of the freedmen in the context of the five tribes,” Johnson says. “I would describe that status in all five tribes as tenuous at best.”

A small percentage of Cherokee Freedmen are tribal members, and a decision on the citizenship issue is pending from a federal judge in Washington, D.C. Seminole Freedmen have limited citizenship. Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Freedmen do not have tribal rights.

Johnson says people mistake the controversy as being about ethnicity. He and Woods note that being a member of a Native tribe, as far as the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs is concerned, is instead a matter of political affiliation.

Of the Cherokee Freedmen, Johnson says he hears people say, “‘They’re Black. They’re not Indian.’ That conversation is really about biology and culture, not really about politics. The freedmen debate is essentially about politics.”

The Cherokee Nation has tried to limit membership to people who have an ancestor with Cherokee blood on a census that a federal commission compiled a century ago. The commission followed the one-drop rule, so a blood quantum is generally not listed for freedmen.

That process “masks the fact that they have Indian blood coursing through their veins,” Johnson says, referring to some freedmen of the five tribes.

Tribes that have remained in the Southeast, Woods says, have members of African descent because Black people have lived nearby for so long — starting with the first slaves in the 1600s.

“Most of the African people were in the South, but there were also large concentrations in southern New England. I’d say those tribes that are in those areas have the highest probability of having African ancestry,” Woods says.

His tribe, the Lumbee of North Carolina, is an example. Woods says he had an ancestor, a former slave, who married a woman of the state’s Waccamaw Siouxan Tribe in the early 1800s.

His family later intermarried with the Lumbee and adopted that tribal identity.

Other Southeastern tribes with a similar racial mix, Woods says, include the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and Coharie in North Carolina and the tribes of Virginia.

In New England and other parts of the Northeast, Woods says, ports, maritime trade and whaling brought Natives and Africans together. Free or escaped slaves from the South who went north, he says, had “the shared experience of working on ships with Native men and finding their way back to those Native communities and intermarrying.”

Northeastern tribes that Woods identified as having members with African ancestry include the Wampanoag communities of Massachusetts, Pequot of Connecticut, Narragansett of Rhode Island and Shinnecock of Long Island, New York.

“Ports, plantations were two big important factors connecting indigenous and African communities,” Woods says.

Some Black families have oral histories about ancestors escaping slavery and finding refuge among Native Americans.

“It did happen occasionally, but it was fairly rare,” Woods says. “Probably the best-known situation where that occurred was with the Seminole of Florida.”

Runaway slaves from the American South fled to Florida when it was Spanish territory and blended into the Seminole. The African-descended members joined the blood Seminole in an ultimately unsuccessful defense against American soldiers.

Like the Seminole, many tribes historically adopted as members individuals from other tribes and people who were not Native, be they of European or African descent. White settlers later introduced the concepts of race and blood quantum.

“If you were of those people and you lived among that tribe long enough, you were eventually part of that tribe. And that’s how it was,” Mwalim says. “Then what happened was that Western concepts of lineage and line and pedigree and so forth were imposed. If you think about it, the only beings that are asked about blood quantum are Indians, dogs, horses or cats.”

Some St. Louis Teachers Address Ferguson With Lessons On Race


October 28, 2014 4:38 PM ET


Listen to the Story:
4 min 22 sec
Vincent Flewellen leads a lesson on Ferguson during his eighth-grade multicultural studies course at Ladue Middle School.

Vincent Flewellen leads a lesson on Ferguson during his eighth-grade multicultural studies course at Ladue Middle School.

Tim Lloyd/St. Louis Public Radio

This story is a consolidated version of a three-part series by St. Louis Public Radio that profiles how issues of race and class sparked by Ferguson are being discussed in St. Louis-area schools.

It was early September and Vincent Flewellen had just wrapped up his day teaching at Ladue Middle School, in an affluent suburb about 13 miles south of where protests erupted in Ferguson.

Flewellen was in a good mood, but he knew he could be in for a difficult night.

Less than four weeks had passed since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, sparking countless protests.

Students in Missouri were enjoying the last few days of summer vacation when the protests broke out. For some teachers around St. Louis, the events in Ferguson presented a chance to teach about race in a new, more meaningful way.

According to a report by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the St. Louis region is the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in the country.

Flewellen, an African-American in his early 40s, was on his way to an event for teachers at Saint Louis University “to learn more about how to teach Ferguson. How to teach this whole ideal of racial understanding and racial healing,” he says.

On his way to the event, Flewellen was waiting in traffic.

“A car pulls up next to me, driven by this middle-aged, older white man, who then takes his hand, his right hand, and reaches it across his passenger seat in the shape of a gun,” he says.

Flewellen says the man then aimed his index finger at him and cocked his thumb like the hammer of a pistol.

“Bang, bang,” Flewellen says. “He does that like seven times to me. I’m just looking at him like in complete disbelief.”

Frustration coursed through Flewellen’s body. He thought about calling it a night.

But he didn’t.

He went on with the evening as planned, spending his time with teachers who want to untangle complicated issues of race and class.

Four weeks later, Flewellen is standing in front of his multicultural studies class.

He turns to a whiteboard where the day’s topic is written in big, blue letters.

“Ferguson,” Flewellen tells the class, “we’re going to continue with our conversations about race and racism in Ferguson.”

He then asks students to pair up and talk to each other about how they think life experiences might differ between white and African-American residents.

Miriam Sokora and Alivia Brock are sitting next to each other.

“I’ve never thought that I would be walking down the street and get pulled over by police saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Sokora says.

“As for me, I have to look around the street all the time,” Brock replies. “Since I’m black, I have to walk around the street and look for police officers. Sometimes I even have to put my hands up a little bit just to show I have nothing.”

“I think that’s sad,” Sokora says.

Flewellen says facilitating this type of conversation between his students helps him make sense of his own wounds.

“I think you either become bitter or you’re determined to bring about change,” he says.

But not all teachers are ready to take on issues of race and class.

“These conversations will become uncomfortable,” says Brian Hutchison, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Bernice King speaks with students at Riverview Gardens High School about nonviolence.

Bernice King speaks with students at Riverview Gardens High School about nonviolence.

Tim Lloyd/St. Louis Public Radio

Hutchison has been helping area schools figure out what to do when students bring up Ferguson in class.

He says some teachers just want to change the subject.

“It’s a buffering mechanism, so that we don’t actually have to talk about something that’s difficult,” he says.

But the topic isn’t being ignored at Riverview Gardens High School, where about 60 teenagers took part in nonviolence training put together by the King Center.

Many students in this school live close to the shooting site.

As part of their final exercise, they formed small groups to talk about what could happen if a grand jury chooses not to charge the police officer involved.

Senior Elantra Jackson has a strong opinion.

“I’m not going to lie and say, ‘Everybody’s going to be like, oh, OK,’ ” she says. “There’s going to be some damage done to the city.”

To be clear, Jackson says she has no intention of taking part in any kind of violence.

But many students here think Wilson should be indicted, and facilitators ask them to plan a nonviolent response to whatever the grand jury decides.

Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, has visited the area four times since the shooting. She considers each of the students in this room an ambassador for nonviolence.

“My father was angry,” she says. “We call it righteous indignation. But he channeled that anger into something positive and constructive.”

And as the St. Louis region awaits the grand jury’s decision, administrators at the school hope that this training will help both students and the community handle whatever comes next.

How Ferguson exposed a civil rights generational divide


The racial crisis in Ferguson, Mo., has uncovered a divide within the Black community – one based on generation, class and the cloudy political vision offered by African-American politics in the Obama age.

When asked who is the leader of the ongoing protests since the killing of Michael Brown – protests that have triggered Missouri’s governor to declare a state of emergency and curfew – one young man from St. Louis answered, “Do we have a leader? No,” and he went on to suggest that the martyred Brown, himself, offered the best example of leadership for Ferguson’s angry and alienated young people.

Two tracks
Protests on the streets of that city operated on two separate tracks: Civil rights leaders organized effective nonviolent marches even as young protesters, and some would-be outlaws, descended into violence and looting in parts of the city. Leaders such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton visited Ferguson, but their pleas for calm were ineffective.

Ironically, the Black person who provided arguably the most visible leadership during the Ferguson events was Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, whose forceful yet compassionate presence and policing tactics helped to temporarily defuse the escalating crisis.

That young people in Ferguson refused to heed calls for nonviolence should come as no surprise. Demonstrations at the height of the civil rights era featured sporadic incidents of violence waged by angry Black Americans outraged at racism and poverty, but unwilling or unable to commit to the discipline of nonviolence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encountered these episodes in Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., and was famously heckled when he visited Watts in the aftermath of Los Angeles’ 1965 rebellion.

Can’t relate
What makes the current situation different from the 1960s is that we have no Stokely Carmichael or Black Panthers who can properly relate to the young people in and outside of Ferguson, who have used the language of violence to convey rage and disappointment.

Make no mistake. Brown’s killing is not the root cause of Ferguson’s violence. It’s merely the spark that triggered it.

Poverty, segregation, unemployment and a climate of anti-Black racism haunt tiny Ferguson and the wider St. Louis metropolitan area. Riots, Dr. King reminded us, are “the language of the unheard” and oppressed.

It’s no wonder, then, that local young Black men and women can’t identify a single Black leader or organization as the leader of the chaotic demonstrations in which they have participated.

National Black political leaders from the civil rights era have tried, through organizational outreach, speeches, media – both traditional and social – marches and demonstrations to reach out to and stay connected with a new generation of young people. But this effort bumps up against the limitations of resources and outreach.

No advocates
America’s racial underclass, the off-the-grid hustlers and entrepreneurs who many Black elites ignore or demonize, rarely sees political leaders of any color advocating for them. The divide, while generational on the surface, is also fueled by class, as young people with education, networks and access tend to view politics as a long-term process – one that comes with victories, but also compromise and setbacks.

Millions of young Blacks have no entrée to the nuances of American democracy and racial struggle. Their world is more painfully straightforward and wrenching – Black folks get shot in the streets with no hope of justice.

The ideal response to this tragedy, one that our national civil rights narrative promotes but, in fact, was never entirely true, is for the entire Black population of Ferguson to put on their best church clothes and nonviolently show the world what happened to Michael Brown. But in the age of Obama, these young people find the lessons of the civil rights era increasingly hard to comprehend.

What progress?
Certainly, the frequency of police killings of Black men, the Iraq War-styled police presence in Ferguson and the numbing persistence of racial segregation and violence makes talk of racial progress ring hollow.

That puts civil rights leaders in a tough spot. They’re wary of being too critical of President Obama’s track record on race and poverty, aware that Attorney General Eric Holder is his staunch ally and conservatives as “race hustlers have pilloried them” eager to arouse the rabble.

But perhaps most importantly, the very constituency they often claim to speak for – the voiceless Black youth who have come out in Ferguson over the past few weeks – find these leaders’ voices indistinguishable from the political ‘white noise’ that only unfettered violence seems capable of breaking through.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is the author of “Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America”, “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama”, and “Stokely: A Life.”