Skip to main content

Considering the "IndiVisible" History of African Americans and American Indians

An exhibition looks at the cultural, historical and familial links between African American and Native American peoples.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

African Americans and American Indians can both tell tales of historical injustice—but to what extent do those tales overlap? Often quite a bit, as demonstrated by IndiVisible, a traveling exhibit created by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

IndiVisible looks at the multi-dimensional relationship of the two groups. While the exhibit emphasizes the ways in which African Americans and Indians have common cause -- with such apt exhibit sub-headings as "Stolen People on Stolen Land" and "United in Common Struggle" -- it is also unafraid to deal with points of contention. The exhibit discusses intermarriage, blood quantum, the notion of "passing" as another race, and the ongoing drama surrounding the Cherokee Freedmen.

On a day when America celebrates the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., it's apt to consider the commonalities in the parallel quests for Native and civil rights during the 1960s and 1970s. The page "Civil Rights, Sovereign Rights," on the exhibit's website offers simple and insightful analysis:

The civil rights and Native rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s changed America. Both campaigns were driven by a thirst for justice, freedom, and respect. But the two had different philosophies. The civil rights movement had the goal of full inclusion of African American citizens as self-sufficient, self-sustaining members of American society. The Native rights movement had a dual goal—achieving the civil rights of Native peoples as American citizens, and the sovereign rights of Native nations. Native activists fought against dispossession, racism, poverty, and violence, but they also focused on protecting treaty rights and keeping Native tribes distinct. African-Native American people bridged the gaps between these two movements, bringing people from both movements together and showing that they were all part of the same struggle.

IndiVisible is showing at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, through March 18; on February 9, it will begin a six-month run at the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. For a schedule of future stops, consult the website's Tour Schedule.