Re-published by permission of the author, William Loren Katz
Alex Haley’s successful tracking of Kunte Kinte gave the hunt for African ancestors a needed shove forward. But driven by their stubborn will and searching eye, as researchers fanned out in pursuit of African connections, another vision appeared. First as a recurring distraction, then a source of wonder, genealogical detectives stumbled on Native American ancestors. Alex Haley was hardly alone when he also discovered Native American roots to his family tree.
Though often unmentioned except in family circles, this biological legacy has been shared by such figures as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Alice Walker, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson and L.L. Cool J. Today virtually every African American family tree boasts an Indian branch.
This uniquely “only in America” relationship began with the earliest foreign landings in the New World. From Nova Scotia to Cape Horn, and along the jewel-like islands of the Caribbean, Europeans imposed a slave system first on Native Americans. Then, as millions of Indian fell victim to overwork, disease and brutality, kidnapped Africans began to take their places.
There in the misty dawn of the Americas two peoples of color began to meet in slave huts, on tobacco and cotton plantations, and as workers in dank mines. For two centuries Indians and Africans remained enslaved together, and Native Americans were not exempted from the system until after the Revolution. Scholar C. Vann Woodward has concluded “If the black-red inter-breeding was anywhere as extensive as suggested by the testi-mony of ex-slaves, then the monoracial concept of slavery in America requires revision.”
The African-Indian connection also adds a sharp new dimension to the issue of slave resistance. The first evidence of Native American and African unity appears in a l503 communication to Spain’s King Ferdinand from Viceroy Nicolas de Ovando of Spain’s headquarters on Hispaniola, now Haiti. Ovando complained that his enslaved Africans “fled among the Indians and taught them bad customs and never could be captured.” In the last four words the governor is describing more than a problem with untrustworthy servants or the difficulties of retrieving runaways in a rainforest. From his thin line of white colonies, he sees Europeans confront-ing a new bi-racial enemy that has a base of support in the in-terior. The budding coalition has new recruits joining each week.
In Suriname, on the northern coast of South America U.S. anthropologist Richard Price lived among and recorded the origins of the Saramaka nation. Beginning in the 1680s Saramakas combined Indians and Africans enslaved by Europeans. Sacred Saramaka legends explained: “The Indians escaped first and then, since they knew the forest, they came back and liberated the Africans.” This red hand of friendship extended to people of African descent is an American tradition as deep and meaningful as the first Thanksgiving. From Canada to Cape Horn, two peoples fled bondage, united as husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and child, and formed a military alliance.
Centuries before the Declaration of Independence talked of natural rights and sanctioned rebellion against tyranny, African-Indian alliances acted on these concepts as they pursued their American dream in the mountains beyond the white settlements dotting the coastline. In 1537 Viceroy Mendoza of Mexico, lamenting an insurrection by Africans, admitted “the Indians are with them.” As slave revolts rocked the new European outposts in the Americas, they also enjoyed Native American support.
In hard-to-reach backwaters of the Americas, two people of color people began to build their own “maroon” colonies. Some were outlaw bands, raiders who preyed on whites, slaves and Indians alike, and lived a short, brutish life. But other maroons depended on family farming and herding and built peaceful relations and trade with Indian villages, slaves, and former masters.
European officials judged maroons, in the words of a French historian, “the gangrene of colonial society.” Their success as independent economic societies refuted white claims of African inferiority. Each day Maroons proved once slaves wrenched free they could govern themselves and prosper. Further, maroon encampments served as beacons for discontented slaves in a radius of a hundred miles, and stood as a clear and present danger to the European conquest. Some whites saw maroons as a knife pressed against the thin line of their rule, and they had a point.
In a clock-work of military and legal reflexes, European authorities sought to eradicate Black Indian contacts and pit Red against Black. In l523 a Royal Order to Hernando Cortez banned Africans from Indian villages. “Division of the races is an indispensable [control] element” said a Spanish officer. “Between the races we cannot dig too deep a gulf,” announced a French official.
Well-trained European armies ordered to crush maroon col-onies met their match in distant mountains and jungles. “[Maroon] self-respect grows because of the fear whites have of them,” a white Brazilian wrote to King Joao of Portugal in l719. Maroon songs resonated with victorious pride:
Black man rejoice, White man won’t come here.
And if he does, the Devil will take him off.
White commanders in resplendent uniforms met defeat and chose retirement in distant European capitals.
Foreign soldiers had little stomach for warfare in the wilderness against Black Indians, so Europeans hired or conscripted Indians. These were experts in frontier warfare, but their loyalty was questionable. In 1732 Spanish officials in Venezuela threw 150 conscripted Indians and Africans, and 100 white soldiers against Juan Andresote, a Black Indian, whom the Spanish Crown saw as a business rival. When Adresote’s guerrilla fighters surrounded the invaders, their soldiers of color defected. Then, the musket fire of Andresote’s men finished the work, killing or wounding more than half of the whites, as the rest scurried home.
Most maroon leaders were African-born, but after 1700 leadership increasingly fell to those born to Black Indian marriages, people familiar with European negotiations. Black women, in short supply, sometimes played crucial roles in village life. In Amazonia, Brazil, Filippa Maria Aranha, who ruled a thriving colony, so adroitly maneuvered her armed forces against the Portuguese, there was no defeating her and Portugal granted her people freedom, independence and sovereignty.
The largest American maroon settlement was the Republic of Palmares, a three-walled city of 11,000 in northeastern Brazil. For almost the entire l7th century Palmares’ armies hurled back repeated Dutch and Portuguese military expeditions. Finally, in 1794 Palmares was overrun, and according to legend, its war-riors, threw themselves over a cliff rather than surrender.
In 1920 Carter G. Woodson, the father of modern Black history, wrote that in North America entire libraries were devoted to studies of the relationship between Africans and Europeans and the relationship between Native Americans and Europeans. But, said Dr. Woodson, the third part of the American triangle remained unexplored. “One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians.” Woodson thought slaves “found among the Indians one of their means of escape.”
The very notion of “Black Indians” still has most whites shaking their heads in disbelief or smiling at what appears to be a joke, an unlikely play on words. No one remembers any such per-son in a school text, western novel or Hollywood movie. None ever appeared. Even in African American families Indian connections were occasionally mentioned, but not as part of an historic process. Despite the vital role of remembrance for people of color, a gallant heritage remained hidden.
As researchers traced African roots Indian connections could no longer be ignored. In the 1920s Columbia University anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, renowned for documentation of African survivals in American life, conducted interviews in New York, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. which determined that a fourth to a third of African Americans had Indian ancestors. Today in North American families the figure is closer to 95%.
Scholars have uncovered fascinating glimpses of the historic legacy. In 1622 the colony of Jamestown, Virginia was attacked by Native Americans but Africans were spared. In 1763 during Pontiac’s Indian uprising a Detriot resident reported that Native Americans killed whites but were “saving and caressing all the Negroes they take.” He worried lest this might “produce an insurrection.” Chief Joseph Brant’s Mohawks in New York welcomed runaway slaves and encouraged intermarriage. Native American adoption systems knew no color line and accepted the breathless fugitives as sisters and brothers. Woodson’s notion of an escape hatch notion proved correct: Indian villages welcomed fugitives, and served as stations on the underground railroad.
Native Americans were proud people, but without prejudice, and lacked an investment in slavery. Enslaved Africans near New Orleans fled to nearby Natchez villages, and by 1723 a free Black man commanded Natchez expeditions against the French. One Black Indian village, Natanapalle, claimed 15 residents with 11 muskets and ammunition, and another band camped across Lake Pontchartrain.
British racial policy relied on divide and rule. In 1721 most English settlements denied entrance to Indians and ten years later whites in Carolina who brought Blacks to frontier lands faced fines of 100 pounds. Louisiana Governor Etienne de Perier, whose African slaves escaped and united with Natchez Indians and in one raid destroy a French colony and left 200 whites dead, warned this “union between the Indian nations and the black slaves” could lead to “total loss” for his colony.
In British North America each treaty with Native Americans provided for the return of runaways. In 1721 the Governor of Virginia made the Five Nations promise to return all fugitives; in l726 the Governor of New York had the Iroquois Confederacy promise; in l746 the Hurons promised and the next year the Delawares promised. Compliance was another matter. According to scholar Kenneth W. Porter none of these nations returned a slave. British officials also offered staggering rewards to Indians who would hunt fugitives. In Virginia price was 35 deerskins, and in the Carolinas it was three blankets and a musket.
To finally seal off Native American villages and make Indians partners, British merchants introduced Africans as slaves to the Five Nations.
Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles. Though less than 3% of Indian people owned slaves, bondage created destructive cleavages in their villages and promoted a class hierarchy based on “white blood.” Indians of mixed white blood stood at the top, “pure” Indians next, and people mixed with of African descent were at the bottom. In 1860 Indian populations figures over a 30-year period showed a de-cline ranging from 20% to 40%, but the numbers of slaves had increased to 2,5ll for the Cherokees, 2,344 for the Choctaws 1,532 for the Creeks and 975 for the Chickasaws. Slavery had become a major economic factor in each nation.
Indian masters, however, rejected the worst features of southern white bondage. Travelers reported enslaved Africans “in as good circumstances as their masters.” A white Indian Agent, Douglas Cooper, upset by the Native American failure to practice a brutal form of bondage, insisted that Indians invite white men live in their villages and “control matters.”
Force, division and law threatened but failed to end Black- Indian friendships. Thomas Jefferson discovered among the Mattaponies of Virginia “more negro than Indian blood.” The city of Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by forty-four people of whom all but two were African, Indian or a mixture of the two peoples. In the 1830s frontier artist George Catlin described “Negro and North American Indian, mixed, of equal blood” as “the finest built and most powerful men I have ever yet seen.”
Prominent whites, including Governor Perrier of Louisiana, claimed Indians had “a great aversion” to Africans. But this was wishful thinking. In 1730 his Choctaw allies, captured dozens of Black runaways who had served as military allies of the Natchez nation, but then refused to surrender them. When the Africans were finally returned after 18 months, they boasted of their freedom with the Natchez and the Choctaw. An angry Perrier reported the returnees had a new “spirit of laziness, independence and insolence.”
The greatest flowering and most militant expression of the Black-Indian alliance took place in Florida. Enslaved Africans fled bondage in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas to make a new life on the penninsula claimed by Spain. Around the time of the American Revolution, Africans welcomed the Seminoles, a break-away segment of the Creek nation, to the penninsula and taught them rice cultivation methods they had learned in Sierra Leone and Senegambia. On this basis the two peoples formed an agricultural and military alliance that defeated repeated invasions by U.S. slaveholding posses.
Finally, in 1819, to end a perceived threat by U.S. slave-holders, the United States purchased Florida. By this time African-run plantations stretched for fifty miles along Florida’s fertile Appalachicola river valley, and included herds of cattle and horses. In Florida the Red and Black Seminoles fought the United States Army, Navy and Marines to a standstill for four decades, and some Seminoles never surrendered. In three Seminole Wars the United States armed forces lost more than 1500 U.S. soldiers, spent more than $40,000,000 and at times Seminole armed forces tied up half of the U.S. Army on the peninsula. “This, you may be assured,” said U.S. General Thomas Jesup in l837, “is a Negro, not an Indian war.” It was both.
Once away from European rule, African and Native American men and women found they had more in common than a foe weilding muskets and whips. Scholar Claude Levi-Strauss found both peoples had “precise knowledge” and “extreme familiarity with their biological environment,” and gave it “passionate attention.” Dr. Theda Perdue’s study of the Cherokee nation found that red and black people saw the spiritual and environmental as one, and common activities such as rising in the morning, hunting and curing illness as imbued with religious significance. Mountains and hills represented divinities; people, animals and plants carried life’s messages; religion was not reserved for Sundays, but a matter of daily reflection.
Indians and Africans both sought to live harmoniously with nature, cherished kinship, stressed cooperation and created economies based on subsistence agriculture. Both peoples rejected pursuit of worldly treasures, and allowed kinship rather than ownership to dictate economic, social and judicial decisions and marital customs. Individual roles were subservient to and flowed from transcendent community duties.
Analysis of faunal materials from a Black 18th century colony at Fort Mose, Florida, by Dr. Jane Landers reveals that in their eating habits “Indian and black villages resembled each other in many respects.” Cherokee and other Native American rulers, not-ed Perdue, governed not by obtuse legal doctrines, but by an overarching, “friendly compact” members were born into and agreed to follow. These societies contrasted with European models that slashed the narrow ribbon of peace to pursue individual wealth and regretted nothing but defeat.
By l860 African Americans has so thoroughly mixed with Native Americans throughout the Atlantic seaboard, that white legislators wanted to revoke their tax exemptions. In the Oklahoma Indian Territory 18% of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Creeks were of African descent.
No less than in the North and South, the Civil War tore Indian nations apart. Surrounded by Confederate troops and influenced by Confederate Indian agents, most Native Americans in Oklahoma felt they had little choice but follow the Confederacy. How-ever, in November 1861 hundreds of black and red Indians led by Creek Chief Opothle Yahola, fought three pitched battles against Confederate whites and Indians to reach Union lines in Kansas, and offer their services. With the defeat of the Confederacy and its Indian allies, northerners sought revenge and the U.S. scrapped existing treaties with Native American nations.
The Seminole nation made the most rapid adjustment to emancipation, electing six Black members to its first post-war governing Council. Black Seminoles began to build homes, churches, schools and businesses. Cherokees and Creeks moved to-ward equality somewhat slower and Choctaws and Chickasaws slower yet.
Whatever unfairness African Americans felt living among Indians, they knew did not compare with what they could expect from southern whites. “The opportunities for our people in that [Indian] country far surpassed any of the kind possessed by our people in the U.S., ” wrote editor O.S. Fox of the Cherokee Afro-American Advocate . His people knew that they lived among Indian men and women who would never brutalize or lynch their sons and daughters.
At the famous Congress of Angostura in l8l9, liberator Simon Bolivar was elected President of Venezuela and planned a military course that would eventually free the Americas of foreign rule. But he also took time to talk of our racial history:
It is impossible to say to which human family we belong. The larger part of the native population has disappeared, Europeans have mixed with Indians and the Negroes, and the Negroes have mixed with the Indians. We are all born of one mother America, though our fathers had different origins. This dissimilarity is of the greatest significance.
Many people of African descent found escape and some located their American dream among Native Americans. Together two peoples of color became the first freedom-fighters of the Americas. Their courageous contribution to our legacy of resistance to tyranny deserves greater recognition.
© Copyright 2001, William Loren Katz
Mr. Katz has written a number of books on African American/Native history.
- Black Women of the Old West, Hard Cover. (Atheneum)
- Breaking the Chains: African American Slave Resistance, 1990, Hard Cover. (Atheneum)
- A History of Multicultural America, 8 volumes (Raintree, Steck-Vaughn)