Black Indians are people of mixed Native American and African American heritage, who have strong ties to Native American culture. Many Indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, such as the Narragansett, Pequot, Wampanoag, Shinnecock, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Cherokee, have a significant degree of African ancestry.
Historically, certain Native American tribes have had close relations with African Americans, especially in regions where slavery was prevalent, or where free people of color have historically resided. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes also participated in enslaving Africans, and some Africans migrated with them to the West on the Trail of Tears in 1830 and later. In peace treaties with the US after the American Civil War, the slaveholding tribes, which had sided with the Confederacy, were required to emancipate slaves and give them full citizenship rights in their nations. The Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole have created controversy in recent decades as they tightened rules for membership in their nations and excluded Freedmen who did not have at least one Native American ancestor on the early 20th-century Dawes Rolls, but the exclusion was later appealed in the courts. The Chickasaw Nation never extended citizenship to Chickasaw Freedmen.
|True population unknown, 269,421 identified as ethnically African and Native American on 2010 census|
|Regions with significant populations|
|United States (especially the Southern United States or in locations populated by Southern descendants), Oklahoma, New York, and Massachusetts).|
|Related ethnic groups|
Until recently, historic relations between Native Americans and African Americans were relatively neglected in mainstream United States history studies. At various times, Africans had varying degrees of contact with Native Americans, although they did not live together in as great number as with Europeans. African slaves brought to the United States and their descendants have had a history of cultural exchange and intermarriage with Native Americans, as well as with other enslaved people who possessed Native American and European ancestry. Most interaction took place in the Southern United States, where the largest number of people were enslaved. A significant number of African Americans thus have some Native American ancestry, although not all have current social, cultural or linguistic ties to Native peoples.
Relationships among different Native Americans, Africans, and African Americans have been varied and complex. Some groups were more accepting of Africans than others and welcomed them as full members of their respective cultures and communities. Native peoples often disagreed about the role of ethnic African people in their communities. Other Native Americans saw uses for slavery and did not oppose it for others.
After the American Civil War some African Americans became members of the US Army and fought against the Native Americans, especially in the Western frontier states. Their military units became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Black Seminole in particular were recruited and worked as Native American scouts for the Army. On the other hand, other Native Americans and people of African descent fought alongside one another in armed struggles of resistance against U.S. expansion into Native territories, as in the Seminole Wars in Florida.
Records of contacts between Africans and Native Americans date back to April 1502, when the first enslaved African arrived in Hispaniola. Some Africans escaped inland from the colony of Santo Domingo; those who survived and joined with the natives became the first circle of Black Indians. In the lands which later became part of the United States of America, the first recorded example of an African slave escaping from European colonists and being absorbed by Native Americans dates to 1526. In June of that year, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón established a Spanish colony near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in present-day South Carolina. The Spanish settlement was named San Miguel de Guadalupe; its inhabitants included 100 enslaved Africans. In 1526 the first enslaved African fled the colony and took refuge with local Native Americans.
Pueblo peoples had contact with the Moroccan slave Esteban de Dorantes in 1534 before any European contact. As part of the Spanish Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, Esteban traveled from Florida in 1528 to what is now New Mexico in 1539, when he is thought have been killed by Zunis.
Intermarriage between enslaved African and Native Americans began in the early 17th century in the coastal settlements. In 1622 Native Americans attempted to overrun the European colony of Jamestown. They killed the Europeans but brought the African slaves as captives back to their own communities, gradually integrating them. Interracial relationships occurred between African Americans and members of other tribes in the coastal states. Several colonial advertisements for runaway slaves made direct reference to the connections which Africans had in Native American communities. "Reward notices in colonial newspapers now told of African slaves who 'ran off with his Indian wife' or 'had kin among the Indians' or is 'part-Indian and speaks their language good'."
Colonists in South Carolina felt so concerned about the possible threat posed by the mixed African and Native American population (arising due to runaways) that they passed a new law in 1725. This law stipulated a fine of 200 pounds for persons bringing a slave to the frontier regions. In 1751 South Carolina passed a law against holding Africans in proximity to Native Americans, which was deemed detrimental to the security of the colony. South Carolina under Governor James Glen (in office 1743–1756) promoted an official policy that aimed to create in Native Americans an "aversion" to African Americans in an attempt to thwart possible alliances between them.
In 1726 the British governor of colonial New York exacted a promise from the Iroquois Confederacy to return all runaway slaves. He required the same from the Huron tribe in 1764 and from the Delaware tribe in 1765. Despite their agreements, the tribes never returned any escaped slaves - they continued to provide a safe refuge for escapees. In 1763, during Pontiac's War, a Detroit 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 Mohawk in New York welcomed runaway slaves and encouraged adoption of them into the tribe and intermarriage. The Native American adoption systems knew no color line. Carter G. Woodson's notion of an escape hatch from slavery proved correct: Native American villages welcomed fugitive slaves and some served as stations on the Underground Railroad.
During the transitional period of Africans' becoming the primary race enslaved, Native Americans were sometimes enslaved at the same time. Africans and Native Americans worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, and shared herbal remedies, myths and legends. Some intermarried and had mixed-race children. Ads asked for the return of both African American and Native American slaves. Some Native Americans resented the presence of Africans. In one account, the "Catawaba tribe in 1752 showed great anger and bitter resentment when an African American came among them as a trader."
Europeans and European-Americans actively tried to divide Native Americans and African Americans against each other. "Whites sought to convince Native Americans that African Americans worked against their best interests." Europeans considered both races inferior and made efforts to make Native Americans and Africans enemies. Native Americans received rewards if they returned escaped slaves, and African Americans received rewards for fighting in Indian Wars. European colonists told the Cherokee that the smallpox epidemic of 1739 was due to disease brought by African slaves, to create tension between the groups. The British tried to restrict contact between Africans and Native Americans. They feared Native Americans taking enslaved Africans as spouses and tried to discourage trade between the groups. The British also passed laws prohibiting the carrying of slaves into the frontier of the Cherokee Nation's territory to restrict interactions between the two groups. Some tribes encouraged marriage between the two groups, to create stronger children from the unions.
Among the Cherokee, interracial marriages increased as the number of slaves held by the tribe increased. The Cherokee had a reputation for having slaves work side by side with their owners. Resisting the Euro-American system of chattel slavery created tensions between the Cherokee and European Americans. The Cherokee tribe began to become divided; as intermarriage between white men and native women increased and there was increased adoption of European culture, so did racial discrimination against those of African-Cherokee blood and against African slaves. Cultural assimilation among the tribes, particularly the Cherokee, created pressure to be accepted by European Americans.
In 1758 the governor of South Carolina James Glen stated:
It has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them Indians to Negroes.
In the 18th century, some Native American women turned to freed or runaway African men due to a major decline in the male population in Native American villages. At the same time, the early enslaved African population was disproportionately male. Records show that some Native American women bought African men as slaves. Unknown to European sellers, the women freed and married the men into their tribe. Some African men chose Native American women as their partners because their children would be free, as the child's status followed that of the mother. The men could marry into some of the matrilineal tribes and become accepted, as their children were considered to belong to the mother's people. As European expansion increased in the Southeast, African and Native American marriages became more numerous.
In the early 19th century, the US government believed that some tribes had become extinct, especially on the East Coast and those without reservations. It did not have a separate census designation for Native Americans. Those who remained among the European-American communities were frequently listed as mulatto, a term applied to Native American-white, Native American-African, and African-white mixed-race people, as well as tri-racial people.
The Seminole people of Florida formed in the 18th century, in what is called ethnogenesis, from Muscogee (Creek) and Florida tribes. They incorporated some Africans who had escaped from slavery. Other maroons formed separate communities near the Seminole, and were allied with them in military actions. Much intermarriage took place. African Americans living near the Seminole were called Black Seminoles. Several hundred people of African descent traveled with the Seminole when they were removed to Indian Territory. Others stayed with a few hundred Seminole in Florida.
By contrast, an 1835 census of the Cherokee showed that 10% were of African descent. In those years, censuses of the tribes classified people of mixed Native American and African descent as "Native American". By contrast, during the registration for the Dawes Rolls, generally Cherokee Freedmen were classified separately on a Freedmen roll, even if individuals had Cherokee ancestry and qualified as "Cherokee by blood." This has caused problems for their descendants in the late 20th and 21st-century, as the Nation has passed legislation and a constitutional amendment to make membership more restrictive, open only to those with certificates of blood ancestry (CDIB). Western frontier artist George Catlin described "Negro and North American Indian, mixed, of equal blood" and stated they were "the finest built and most powerful men I have ever yet seen." By 1922 John Swanton's survey of the Five Civilized Tribes noted that half the Cherokee Nation were Freedmen and their descendants.
Former slaves and Native Americans intermarried in northern states as well. Massachusetts Vital Records prior to 1850 included notes of "Marriages of 'negroes' to Indians". By 1860 in some areas of the South, Native Americans were believed to have intermarried with African Americans to such an extent that white legislators thought the Native Americans no longer qualified as "Native American," as they were not paying attention to culture but only race. Legislators wanted to revoke their tax exemptions.
Freed African Americans, Black Indians, and some Native Americans fought in the American Civil War against the Confederate Army. During November 1861, the Muscogee Creek and Black Indians, led by Creek Chief Opothleyahola, fought three pitched battles against Confederate whites and allied Native Americans to reach Union lines in Kansas and offer their services. Some Black Indians served in colored regiments with other African American soldiers.
Black Indians were documented in the following regiments: The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, the Kansas Colored at Honey Springs, the 79th US Colored Infantry, and the 83rd US Colored Infantry, along with other colored regiments that included men listed as Negro. Civil War battles occurred in Indian Territory. The first battle in Indian Territory took place July 1 and 2 in 1863, and involved the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. The first battle against the Confederacy outside Indian Territory occurred at Horse Head Creek, Arkansas on February 17, 1864. The 79th US Colored Infantry participated.
Many Black Indians returned to Indian Territory once the Civil War had been won by the Union. When the Confederacy and its Native American allies were defeated, the US required new peace treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes, including provisions to emancipate slaves and make them full citizens of their nations, with equal rights in annuities and land allotments. The former slaves were called "Freedmen," as in Cherokee Freedmen, Chickasaw Freedmen, Choctaw Freedmen, Creek Freedmen and Seminole Freedmen. The pro-Union Cherokee government had freed their slaves in 1863, before the end of the war, but the pro-Confederacy Cherokee kept hold of the slaves until later.
Slavery existed among Native Americans before it was introduced by the Europeans, although it was unlike chattel slavery where slaves become the personal property of a master. In oral tradition, for instance, Cherokees recounted people being enslaved as the result of failure in warfare, and as a temporary status pending adoption or release. As the United States Constitution and the laws of several states permitted slavery, Native Americans were legally allowed to own slaves, including those brought from Africa by Europeans. Benjamin Hawkins was the federal agent assigned to the southeastern tribes in the 1790s and advised the tribes to take up slaveholding. The Cherokee tribe had the most members who held black slaves, more than any other Native American nation.
In colonial North America, the first exposure that Africans and Native Americans had to each other came from Africans being imported as laborers, both indentured servants and as slaves. Records from the slavery period show several cases of brutal Native American treatment of black slaves. However, most Native American masters rejected the worst features of Southern practices. Federal Agent Hawkins considered the form of slavery the tribes were practicing to be inefficient because the majority didn't practice chattel slavery. 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 more severe rules, insisted that Native Americans invite white men to live in their villages and "control matters". Though less than 3% of Native Americans owned slaves, racial bondage and pressure from European-American culture created destructive cleavages in their villages. Many had a class hierarchy based on "white blood." Native Americans of mixed white blood stood at the top, pure Native Americans next, and people of African descent were at the bottom. As among mixed-race African Americans, some of the status of white descent may also have been related to the economic and social capital passed on by white relations.
Numerous people of African descent were held as slaves by members of Native groups up until the Civil War. Some later recounted their lives for a WPA oral history project during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
After the Civil War in 1866, the United States government required new treaties with the Five Civilized Tribes, who each had factions allied with the Confederacy. They were required to emancipate their slaves and grant them citizenship and membership in the respective tribes, as the United States freed slaves and granted them citizenship by amendments to the US Constitution. These people were known as "Freedmen," for instance, Muscogee or Cherokee Freedmen. Similarly, the Cherokee were required to reinstate membership for the Delaware, who had earlier been given land on their reservation, but fought for the Union during the war. Many of the Freedmen played active political roles in their tribal nations over the ensuing decades, including roles as interpreters and negotiators with the federal government. African Muscogee men, such as Harry Island and Silas Jefferson, helped secure land for their people when the government decided to make individual allotments to tribal members under the Dawes Act.
Some Maroon communities allied with the Seminole in Florida and intermarried. The Black Seminole included those with and without Native American ancestry.
When the Cherokee Nation drafted its constitution in 1975, enrollment was limited to descendents of people listed on the Dawes "Cherokee By Blood" rolls. On the Dawes Rolls, US government agents had classified people as Cherokee by blood, intermarried whites, and Cherokee Freedmen, regardless of whether the latter had Cherokee ancestry qualifying them as Cherokee by blood. The Shawnee and Delaware gained their own federal recognition as the Delaware Tribe of Indians and the Shawnee Tribe. A political struggle over this issue has ensued since the 1970s. Cherokee Freedmen have taken cases to the Cherokee Supreme Court. The Cherokee later reinstated the rights of Delaware to be considered members of the Cherokee, but opposed their bid for independent federal recognition.
The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled on March 2006 that Cherokee Freedmen were eligible for tribal enrollment. In 2007, leaders of the Cherokee Nation held a special election to amend their constitution to restrict requirements for citizenship in the tribe. The referendum established direct Cherokee ancestry as a requirement. The measure passed in March 2007, thereby forcing out Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants unless they also had documented, direct "Cherokee by blood" ancestry. This has caused much controversy. The tribe has determined to limit membership only to those who can demonstrate Native American descent based on listing on the Dawes Rolls.
Similarly, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma moved to exclude Seminole Freedmen from membership. In 1990 it received $56 million from the US government as reparations for lands taken in Florida. Because the judgment trust was based on tribal membership as of 1823, it excluded Seminole Freedmen, as well as Black Seminoles who held land next to Seminole communities. In 2000 the Seminole chief moved to formally exclude Black Seminoles unless they could prove descent from a Native American ancestor on the Dawes Rolls. 2,000 Black Seminoles were excluded from the nation. Descendants of Freedmen and Black Seminoles are working to secure their rights.
"There's never been any stigma about intermarriage", says Stu Phillips, editor of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper in central Oklahoma. "You've got Indians marrying whites, Indians marrying blacks. It was never a problem until they got some money."
An advocacy group representing descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes claims that members are entitled to be citizens in both the Seminole and Cherokee Nations, as many are indeed part Native American by blood, with records to prove it. Because of racial discrimination, their ancestors were classified and listed incorrectly, under only the category of Freedmen, at the time of the Dawes Rolls. In addition, the group notes that post-Civil War treaties of these tribes with the US government required they give African Americans full citizenship upon emancipation, regardless of blood quantum. In many cases, Native American descent has been difficult for people to trace from historical records. Over 25,000 Freedmen descendants of the Five Civilized Tribes may be affected by the legal controversies.
The Dawes Commission enrollment records, intended to establish rolls of tribal members for land allocation purposes, were done under rushed conditions by a variety of recorders. Many tended to exclude Freedmen from Cherokee rolls and enter them separately, even when they claimed Cherokee descent, had records of it, and had Cherokee physical features. Descendants of Freedmen see the tribe's contemporary reliance on the Dawes Rolls as a racially based way to exclude them from citizenship.
Before the Dawes Commission was established,
"(t)he majority of the people with African blood living in the Cherokee nation prior to the Civil war lived there as slaves of Cherokee citizens or as free black non-citizens, usually the descendants of Cherokee men and women with African blood ... In 1863, the Cherokee government outlawed slavery through acts of the tribal council. In 1866, a treaty was signed with the US government in which the Cherokee government agreed to give citizenship to those people with African blood living in the Cherokee nations who were not already citizens. African Cherokee people participated as full citizens of that nation, holding office, voting, running businesses, etc."
After the Dawes Commission established tribal rolls, in some cases Freedmen of the Cherokee and the other Five Civilized Tribes were treated more harshly. Degrees of continued acceptance into tribal structures were low during the ensuing decades. Some tribes restricted membership to those with a documented Native ancestor on the Dawes Commission listings, and many restricted officeholders to those of direct Native American ancestry. In the later 20th century, it was difficult for Black Native Americans to establish official ties with Native groups to which they genetically belonged. Many Freedmen descendants believe that their exclusion from tribal membership, and the resistance to their efforts to gain recognition, are racially motivated and based on the tribe's wanting to preserve the new gambling revenues for fewer people.
Tracing the genealogy of African Americans and Native Americans is a difficult process. Enslaved Africans were renamed by slaveholders and surnames were infrequently used until after the war. Historical records, such as censuses, did not record the names of enslaved blacks before the American Civil War. Some major slaveholders kept extensive records which historians and genealogists have used to create family trees, but generally researchers find it difficult to trace families before the Civil War. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. A majority of Native Americans did not speak English, let alone read or write it.
In some cases elder family members may withhold information about Native American heritage. However, knowing the family's geographic origins is a key factor in helping individuals unravel Native American ancestry. Many modern African Americans have taken an interest in genealogy and are learning about Native American heritage within their individual families. Some African Americans may work from oral history of the family and try to confirm stories of Native ancestry through genealogical research and DNA testing. Because of such findings, some have petitioned to be registered as members of Native American tribes. Each tribe establishes its own criteria for membership. Most do not accept DNA tests as proof, especially since these cannot distinguish among the tribes.
DNA testing and research has provided more facts about the extent of Native American ancestry among African Americans, which varies in the general population. Based on the work of geneticists, a PBS series on African Americans explained that while most African Americans are racially mixed, it is relatively rare that they have Native American ancestry. According to the PBS series, the most common "non-black" mix is English and Scots-Irish. (Some critics thought the PBS series did not sufficiently explain the limitations of DNA testing for assessment of heritage.)
Another study suggests that relatively few Native Americans have African-American heritage. A study reported in The American Journal of Human Genetics stated, "We analyzed the European genetic contribution to 10 populations of African descent in the United States (Maywood, Illinois; Detroit; New York; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans; and Houston) ... mtDNA haplogroups analysis shows no evidence of a significant maternal Amerindian contribution to any of the 10 populations." Despite this, a few writers persist in the myth that most African Americans have Native American heritage.
"Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent. Those 'high cheek bones' and 'straight black hair' your relatives brag about at every family reunion and holiday meal since you were 2 years old? Where did they come from? To paraphrase a well-known French saying, 'Seek the white man.'
African Americans, just like our first lady, are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (again, the equivalent of that one great-grandparent).
 In contradiction to Gates statement The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB) notes that:
"Native American markers" are not found solely among Native Americans. While they occur more frequently among Native Americans they are also found in people in other parts of the world.
Geneticists also state:
not all Native Americans have been tested especially with the large number of deaths due to disease such as small pox, it is unlikely that Native Americans only have the genetic markers they have identified, even when their maternal or paternal bloodline does not include a non-Native American.
Most statisticians would not necessarily view the IPCB and Geneticists remarks directly above as preventing a sound analysis of genomic contributions from various continents to the make-up of an admixed individual. In general, these analyses are not based on the presence of markers, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), that the sophisticated analyst would describe as African, Asian, European, or Amerind. Peeking under the hood, one would see that autosomal analysis, as opposed to mtDNA and Y-chromosome analysis discussed below, is based on the relative distribution of the SNPs in these populations coupled with their distribution in the genome being analyzed. Techniques such as maximum likelihood estimation and Bayesian re-estimation provide instruments for assessing ancestry, which also assign a level of confidence to the estimate. Relatively small segments of the genome can be analyzed with these techniques, which are well established, having been applied with great effect in many other areas.
The two common types of tests used are Y-chromosome and mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) testing. The tests processes for direct-line male and female ancestors. Each follows only one line among many ancestors and thus can fail to identify others. Some critics thought the PBS series did not sufficiently explain the limitations of DNA testing for assessment of heritage. In addition, while full testing may tell an individual if he or she has some Native American ancestry, it cannot distinguish among separate Native American tribes. African Americans are using DNA testing to find out more about all their ancestry. Native American identity has historically been based on culture, not just biology.
Autosomal DNA tests survey all the DNA that has been inherited from the parents of an individual. Autosomal tests focus on SNPs, which might of course be found in Africans, Asians, and people from every other part of the world. DNA testing will not determine an individual's full ancestry with absolute certitude.
Black Indians: An American Story (as seen on ABC) brings to light a forgotten part of Americans past – the cultural and racial fusion of Native and African Americans. Narrated by James Earl Jones, Black Indians: An American Story explores what brought the two groups together, what drove them apart and the challenges they face today.