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Dialogue opens on Black Indians in Indian country

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - The dialogue over African American-Indians is on the table.

At the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians, the discussion of black Indians drew a large crowd with diverse opinions.

On the one hand African American-Indians complained about the Seminole of Oklahoma position of removing freedmen from the tribal rolls and denying a right to discover who they are. Tribes in areas where African Americans were very few argued that feeling like an American Indian spiritually is not enough.

The arguments strike the center of tribal adoption, enrollment and growing up with the culture.

Parallels in the two cultures can be drawn as a comparison of cultural commonplace. Yet, the American Indian argument goes to the heart of Indian country, sovereignty.

During the NCAI panel discussion it was pointed out that African Americans "do not, have not had nor will have sovereignty or land base as an argument for tribal membership.

"Two-thirds or three-fourths of blacks have some ties to the Indian community. The Freedman rolls are important and I'm disturbed by the Seminole move to deny the freedmen enrollment," said Dr. Willard R. Johnson, Oklahoma professor.

Dr. Robert Wilkins, Lumbee and a professor at the University of Minnesota, said the reason some tribes cannot be federally recognized is because of the perception a large number of non-Indians are part of the tribe. There is no research to identify the black-Indian population.

"In the Southwest with the Navajo, there is a tri-racial group - Spanish, Navajo and white - and in the Great Lakes region it is also tri-racial, French, tribal and white," Wilkins said.

Patrick Minge, member of the panel and researcher of African American-Indian cultures, said both groups were victims of assimilation and colonialization. "Both were called savages. Each had strong oral traditions with powerful cultural traditions, and they had a similar way of dealing with life and death with shamans' healing powers."

Similarities in music and drums bring the two cultures together and each brought about healing with earthly medicines. Other arguments for similarities address the fact both cultures viewed warfare as a noble pursuit. The two often were educated together and worked to preserve the cultures.

Danny Glover, well-known actor, told the delegates the relationship between African Americans and American Indians in the past has been a partnership at times and adversarial at times.

He said the one thing both cultures share is the determination to care for the children. "All of us talk about our youth. We need to share the vision of the youth, support the growth and integrity of their vision. We must listen to them," Glover said.

"They will be on this dais tomorrow."

Glover just finished a movie on the Buffalo Soldiers. He said he wanted to tell the story and it gave him an opportunity to film and explore the relationship between the African Americans and the American Indian.

"Statistics are very glaring in both our communities - the highest rate of imprisonment, heart disease and high blood pressure. And so we both share a place where we know there is so much work to do in our communities.

"My being here is to find ways we can share our respective wisdoms, find the common ground which we can talk about, what that future could possibly be."

The melding of cultures, panelists agreed, came as the slaves from Africa attempted to escape and were sheltered by the tribes of the eastern coastal region. These slaves were adopted into the tribes because some married tribal members and, for the most part, acted as tribal members, the historians said.

The panelists agree it was difficult for African Americans to do family genealogy unless they can search tribal rolls. "When blacks are connected to the Native American community, they are more complete," Dr. Johnson said.

Young African Americans come from a different perspective. Sovereignty is not understood in the African American community, but the young American Indian learns to preserve the culture, language and thus the sovereignty, panelists said.

Enrollment in today's tribes involve blood quantum, but the question is how to return to the traditional method of adoption as a practice, Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and panel facilitator, said.

Federally recognized tribes are not associations, they are nations, and therefore creating members who believe they are spiritually connected because it is their heart is not an option in all tribes, audience participants said. Today there are more African Americans coming out to pow wows and looking for the spiritual piece that was missing in their lives, another said. Some people are part black and part American Indian and, in some cases, they are alienated in both cultures, an audience member said.

"It's staggering what goes on in Indian country that gets ignored. I've never found a need to search for my white roots. Some people are looking for spirituality and some say, 'It's in my heart.' No it isn't," Wilkins said. "That's what's going on in Seminole.

African Americans will continue to find their roots within the American Indian community regardless of the Seminole decision to deny the freedmen rights as tribal members. It is the right of each tribe to define membership, according to their constitutions, as accepted by the BIA.

There is no doubt the African American community made a connection with American Indians and changed the makeup of some tribes.

Historically African Americans came to Indian country as slaves, soldiers and missionaries. They learned the English language well and became ministers in the Christian faith. Since American Indians had little trust for white America, the African American missionaries were sent into Indian country to convert tribal members to Christianity, panel historians said.

The dialogue between the two cultures is under way and the NCAI will continue to place that issue on its agenda, officials said.

For interesting reading, oral accounts of former slaves can be found on the Internet at http://www.columbia.edu/~pm47/afram/.