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Buchanan: Being a black Indian at a Chickahominy pow wow

I knew as the sweat rolled down my face that I was being watched.

“This is how tribal wars get started,” I said to my friend, Jane.

“Huh?” She said. I shook my head, not wanting to implicate her. Not yet. Besides, she “looked Indian.” I did not. As we exited, three men accosted me.

“So, you didn’t hear what I said to you last time?” The man said gruffly. “Excuse me,” I laughed. He furrowed his brows.

“Did you hear what I told you before?” He was brown-skinned, sporting a moustache, about my height, and muscular.

“Brotha,” I touched his shoulder, “let’s talk over here.” People moved aside cautiously: What did she do wrong? Their curiosity buzzed above our heads in the coolness of the Sunday afternoon. She’s dressed like an Indian. What did she do?

I knew exactly what I had done.

Danced without a tribal card at a Native American pow wow that forbid it. On Chickahominy tribal grounds.

This is what my mother would call “the sh-t hitting the fan.”

I felt my heart moving up into my mouth, swallowing the feeling that women from the tribe should have approached me, not men.

I had registered maybe once in the last five years of dancing at pow wows. Getting a tribal card to prove your Indian blood is, to me, a result of Manifest Destiny, when Indigenous Americans were moved off their lands and relocated or dumped into Oklahoma territory, and because this displacement caused confusion for the government, an enrollment process was instituted. This process excluded the tribal members who left the reservation in search of jobs or new prospects, tired of the poverty and misery. Those who left became mulattos or colored, fading into the seams of America. Those who married another race left, becoming exiles, and their children mixed bloods.

So, when the emcee announced four intertribal dances, I thought I could dance with my friends, even though they wore blue jeans, shorts and sandals. They simply wrapped shawls around their street clothes.

But the angry man, and the other two flanking me, one in regalia with patient, sad eyes, and the other in street clothes, yellowish skin and dark sunglasses, made me suddenly realize that this was an Indian shake down.

“Didn’t you see our signs?”

“Where I come from,” I touched my heart in earnest, “everyone can dance during intertribal.”

“No,” he said. “You cannot.”

“Who are your council people?” I said. I could feel my chest tightening, and the tears came. “What are your names?” They said their names but in the heat and frustration, their names fell away.

“We are the council,” Tall Dark Sunglasses Yellow Skin said. “He’s on the council. I’m on the council. These are just our rules.”

“But those rules were set up by a white government that wanted to count and classify Indians. You’re holding me to the same standard?”

“This is what we do because the government tells us to,” Dark Sunglasses said.

“Wait.” I said. “You’re saying the government is here counting the Indians dancing in that circle?”

“Look,” Mr. Gruff Brown Skin said. “Everyone in that circle has registered and has their cards.”

None of my friends had tribal enrollment cards either. Were these Virginia Indians racist? Was I carded because I was the most visibly black, despite being adorned in a buckskin dress?

I felt my heart moving up into my mouth, swallowing the feeling that women from the tribe should have approached me, not men. Yet to be fair, I saw these council members’ point. I understand how this could be as frustrating for them as it was for me, an unknown woman who didn’t register as a dancer in their circle. Their fight to maintain their Indianness, to them, is on one level a way of protecting their heritage and culture, but on another level, it is highly exclusionary of those who are Indian without cards: black, white, Mexican.

These three men in front of me were a phalanx, they thought, for their culture, but to me, at that moment, they were no better than the white patrols that made Indians show their cards to get blankets and rations in South Dakota, in Montana, in the Plains while pillaging Indian lands. Erasing tribal lines with strokes of pens, shiny trinkets, quick brushes of thumbs against white sheets of paper.

For the last 12 years, I have been on what we call the Red Road, and embraced what was in my family a quiet-as-kept secret – being Indian. “You got some Indian, some French and German, and an itty, little bit of black,” my mother intoned when I was growing up. My people migrated to Michigan in the 1850s, and for the longest time – because one of my great-great uncles was adopted and trained by Ottawa healers, earning him the name Indian doctor – I thought we were Ottawa too. But after years of research, I have found all but one ancestor that lands us in Sample County, Clinton, N.C.

A missing ancestor. This is the ultimate dilemma and frustration of every African American who has done their research, who makes their own regalia, who participates in the Native American ceremonies, who, like me, dances without cards where they let us. And sometimes when they don’t.

To argue with my uncles felt like a burden had been lifted.

I simply wanted them to see me. Recognize me. Because maybe I will never have “proof.”

Maybe nothing, even a DNA test, will ever prove I am the child of Indians as well as Africans. But I know I am the daughter of Velma Stafford-Cloud, daughter of Clifford Stafford and Dorothy Manual, of the North Carolina tribes; daughter of John Buchanan, of the Okolona, Mississippi Choctaw Buchanans. There is no evidence of direct descent yet. No evidence except my heart. Beating in that circle. For card carrying and non-card carrying Indians alike, beating for us all. Aho.

Shonda Buchanan is assistant professor in the Department of English at Hampton University. Of North Carolina and Mississippi Choctaw Indian ancestry, Buchanan is a board member of the Weyanoke Association, which educates the public on the shared heritage of African Americans and Indigenous Americans.