LOS ANGELES - Some authorities say 60 to 80 percent of African Americans have American Indian ancestry somewhere in their past. A journey exploring these Native roots is poignantly reflected in Valena Broussard Dismukes' photographic collection, "Native Americans: The Red Black Connection," on exhibit at the Southwest Museum here through April 29.
"Our people came together in all kinds of ways, good, bad - the whole gamut," Dismukes, Choctaw/African American, says. "When I started this project, I was struck by the commonality between peoples. We were both oppressed, both enslaved, which is the crazy thing about this.
"At one point enslaved Indian women married black men because they were the only ones around - all the Indian men had been killed off. And then how did that transmute to the point where they all became black?
She said that when she started going to pow wows in California, she "saw dark-skin people that looked like they could be African Americans. I began asking, 'Who are they and how did they come to claim this in such an open way?'
"So I started taking photographs. My goal ... is not to solve or build a bridge, I just want African-Americans to be able to say, 'I understand where I come from.'
"If we can get that connection happening and get that spark lit in the next five years, then that's cool!"
Some of her subjects talk of mixed ancestry with a sense of pride, see themselves as "universal or international." Others reveal the struggle to find acceptance in either community, expressing "cultureless" and "incompleteness," a search of belonging.
Bureaucratic red tape and lack of family documentation add to the frustration of finding one's ancestors says Robert Collins, who spoke at opening of the exhibit.
"Retracing one's ancestry is a difficult process since much of the time there are no birth and death certificates. Names were changed. For a lot of people, they come up against a wall," explains Collins, Choctaw/African American, an anthropologist with extensive research in the subject.
He said quite a few people say they're Zuni or Cherokee or Chickasaw. "That may not always be exactly what they are, but that is the nation their family got absorbed into" either through migrating or labeling.
Collins said tribal-specific information is often problematic because of circumstances. He found "a lot of African Americans retain their Native culture without knowing it." They refer to grandparents "without acknowledging that a grandparent is actually Choctaw" or use Choctaw phases as slang, "fragments they've picked it up" without realizing they are using actual Choctaw words.
He said a lot of half-black people raised on tribal lands lack "any avenue for hearing about themselves because they are encouraged to forget about that part of their ancestry. They want to feel like they belong to their extended family. Their parents tell them they do, but there's no support from the community."
Collins said he found these people aren't looking for overall acceptance but rather an "understanding from everyone that it's not their fault for being who they are." He added he thinks people speak out" because they are trying to get rid of that pain that is inside. They want to be able to be who they are.
He pointed to a big problem of Indian country today - "the intolerance of each other that exists. It's not just limited to the larger society. We've convinced ourselves that we can identify everyone based on appearances. This isn't about African Americans trying to falsely claim Indian heritage," even though some do. "Those cases are the minority."
Dismukes agrees lack of knowledge surrounding American history and misplaced perceptions further complicate an emotionally charged issue of identity.
"We need to come into this century and begin to heal, connect with people who share a link. It's not about looking for money or spirituality, but to be able to claim that which is rightfully theirs.
She said America has had a tendency of expropriating other cultures. "And as African Americans, we have certainly been victim to that so I can understand the Native community wanting to protect and making sure that culture is not misused ... at the same time you have to acknowledge the reality there are people who share that Native bloodline.
Dismukes said if there is a lesson "in all of this, it is one of a community learning all their history and hopefully developing a sense of pan-Indian history. Know your own history before you start criticizing and labeling others."
Both communities fall into the trap of believing there is only one black or one Indian experience, she said. "You've got 2 million Indian people, you've got 2 million experiences. ... I hear derogatory comments coming from both sides - African Americans saying it's about trying to claim remote ancestors, as if seven generations was remote. Seven generations ago my family was in slavery and I know who they were!
"The basic thread in this exhibition is to let people know that black Indians have existed and we continue to exist. There has been a lot more acceptance of European-Indians, because at the bottom of the scale remains the color black."
Dismukes is one of those rare photographers whose lens goes well beyond the image. She exposes America's history in juxtaposing portraits where more than one community is a casualty of colonization - the individuals who find themselves caught in the crossfire in the political and emotional battle over a government's imposition of defining "identity."
Perhaps the "Red Black Connection" is best captured by Valerie Nichols, Choctaw/Cherokee, whose face and words spill over the borders of her sepia photograph.
"When asked what my ethnicity is, I usually reply, 'I was here, came here and I was brought here."