It ain’t easy being Native on stolen land. And being Black in America has its own set of challenges. Sharing both identities can bring a list of obstacles few others face.
What does it mean to be a Black Native or Afro-Indigenous in 2020?
For some, it’s a complicated answer that’s steeped in a dark history, past and current prejudices and acceptance and pride through connection.
Also factor in systemic racism, racial profiling, that Native people and Black people are most likely to be killed by law enforcement, and underlying health conditions making Native and Black people more susceptible to COVID-19.
Approximately 270,000 people in the country identified as Black and Native in the last U.S. census.
Here, several Black Natives share their stories:
Ivy Vainio, 51, remembers a time when she didn’t see herself as Black or Native. She grew up in rural Minnesota and attended school where no one looked like her. She didn’t want to be Black and knew little about her Grand Portage Ojibwe people.
“I remember coming home from track practice one day after school, running into the bathroom and looking into the mirror. What I wanted so badly was to see a White face looking back at me,” she recalled. “I will always remember that moment.”
It took time, but Vainio learned more about her Ojibwe roots thanks to her mom and grandma. When Vainio was 17, her mom took Native college courses and was involved in the college Anishinaabe club. Vainio wanted to do the same and immersed herself in the Ojibwe culture. She graduated from college with a minor in American Indian studies.
Still, she felt a disconnect. She didn’t grow up with her Black father, who passed away in the late 1970s, and it wasn’t until 1999 when she traveled to Tampa, Florida, that she met his family. Vainio met her brother and one of her sisters and developed a relationship that continues today. Nearly every Thanksgiving, Vainio and her family travel to Tampa to visit.
“When we go, we are immersed in Black culture and surrounded by the Black community,” she said. “Finding them made me find myself as a Black woman, and it made me proud to be a Black woman.”
Duluth, Minnesota, is home for Vainio. She works at the American Indian Community Housing Organization, and she’s a board member of the Duluth branch of NAACP. She’s also a photographer and often documents community cultural events. She said she feels accepted as a Black and Ojibwe woman.
Blood quantum restrictions are another story, but Vainio knows who she is. Being enrolled would be only a formality. Vainio is married to a Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe citizen, and their son is enrolled in Mille Lacs.
“I find it interesting that other people can dictate how I get to identify myself as, and yet, I also understand the complexities that come with and are earned by being an enrolled tribal member,” she said.
With Duluth being only a few hours drive from Minneapolis, Vainio has kept a close eye on the city since the death of George Floyd in May. She said she loves the solidarity by Native people in protesting police brutality and protecting buildings against attacks and fires.
“As we know, both communities have been oppressed by systemic racism on so many levels, and both communities have the highest rates of being killed by police and law enforcement,” she said. “An injustice to one community affects everyone. We are all connected.”
Kyrie Irving is on the short list for the most talented Native to dribble a basketball. At age 28, he’s already a basketball legend after making one of the biggest shots in NBA history when he helped lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 title.
Irving, Standing Rock Sioux, has used his massive platform beyond basketball. He has discussed social issues and has demanded change. On June 2, Irving called for people of color and supporters to unite. “They can’t stop us when we are together and truly understand power as a collective,” he wrote to his 14 million followers on Instagram.
“Our Native Indigenous Black spirits, our Native Indigenous Black mind, our Native Indigenous Black bodies deserve to be treated with more respect, understanding and love,” he said.
He said white supremacy and corporations use “Native Indigenous Black folk” only when it’s beneficial.
“How are we gonna break these generational curses that have been put on us purposefully to kill us and our families? Taking our land and culture back! Our ancestors are watching and protecting us now more than ever!”
Irving, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist, plays for the Brooklyn Nets. Irving has a Nike contract and has released signature shoes that pay homage to Standing Rock. He has a tattoo of the tribe’s logo on his neck and has supported the tribe’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In early May, Irving donated 17 pallets of food and 3,000 N95 masks to the tribe. In 2018, Irving visited his homelands for the first time and was welcomed along with his sister, Asia Irving, by hundreds of people for a naming ceremony. Their mother, the late Elizabeth Larson, is from Standing Rock. She died when Kyrie Irving was 4.
Irving spoke briefly at the ceremony and said he was thankful for finally meeting his mother’s side of the family.
“Now, I am with you guys forever,” Irving said.
April Ford grew up thinking she was too dark-skinned to be Native. It didn’t help that she received mixed messages at home about who she was. Words hurt Ford, especially from her family. She grew up going to the annual Narragansett powwow in Rhode Island and learned about her Narragansett people from her grandmother.
Still, she questioned it — until, as an adult, she took a genetic test that revealed her Native lineage.
But that wasn’t enough for some. They said Ford was Black. Yet, being a Black woman in the northeastern part of the country can bring its own hateful rhetoric.
“I have pride to be Native American despite it all,” Ford said. “I love the powwows, I love my people, and I don’t think skin color or the type of hair I have should matter whatsoever.”
Ford lives in a town coincidentally called Narragansett along the coast, about 14 miles from the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Charlestown, Rhode Island, home to one of the longest-running annual powwows.
Ford said she visits the community regularly and looks forward each August to the powwow. She used to attend council meetings. She said she feels welcomed when she visits.
“My experiences as a Black person is more difficult than my experiences as a Native American, as I’ve been called every racial slur you can think of in my lifetime,” Ford said.
Ford has promoted Black Lives Matter on her social media and has been called racist names from people she considered friends. She unfriended around 30 people recently.
It can get worse when she’s out and about. “Sometimes, I wear a dashiki, and that really sets people off.”
Ford wants to do her part to empower the Black community. She’s part of an online group encouraging a local Blackout Day event on July 7 as part of a national campaign to not buy from any business for a full day and bring attention to issues affecting the Black community.
“We want to show the government that Black people can make a difference if we all work together,” Ford said.
Ean McCants is a proud Chickasaw Freedmen.
His ancestors were enslaved by the Chickasaw before and after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. His ancestors were also Chickasaw.
It’s an intricate history that often goes untold or is simply glossed over in the history books.
McCants wants to change that. He studies anthropology at Morehouse College in Atlanta and has traced his roots to the early 19th century, including a document that says his ancestor was Chickasaw.
The Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — once dismissed as the “Five Civilized Tribes” — were forced from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern part of the country to Indian Territory as part of the Indian Removal Act. The brutal act included thousands of Native people and enslaved Black people. Some didn’t survive the march, and those who did were pushed to what is known today as Oklahoma.
The Chickasaw Nation never granted citizenship to the Chickasaw Freedmen even after emancipation. McCants said his ancestors are listed on the Chickasaw Freedmen rolls, including a female ancestor who listed her father as Chickasaw. But because she is on the Chickasaw Freedmen roll, not the Chickasaw Nation roll, she wasn't allowed to enroll, McCants said.
McCants grew up in Oklahoma City. He first learned about his freedmen heritage from his grandmother and started to dig into the history. It led him to finding relatives in Oklahoma whom he didn’t know about and has since become close with. He learned he is a descendant of the founders of an all-Black town called Tatums in Indian Territory. The town was around for more than a decade before Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
“That’s something I wouldn't have gotten or been able to acknowledge if I didn't acknowledge the fact that I’m a freedmen,” he said. “The whole history of Black people in Oklahoma doesn’t make sense if you don’t acknowledge freedmen identity.”
Shonda Buchanan uses words and her creativity to show the world who she is.
Buchanan, 51, is an award-winning poet, published author and educator. Her memoir “Black Indian” was published in 2019.
Buchanan said society labels her Black or “mixed.” She has Coharie Indian Tribe, Eastern Band of Cherokee and Mississippi Choctaw ancestry. She grew up in Michigan knowing little about her Native roots. As she got older, she started looking into her ancestry. She started writing poetry about what she found. “Research became part of my identity,” she said.
“In 2020, I feel like if we do not know our history, and if we do not know our heritage, we are doing such a great disservice to our ancestors, a great disservice to our people, to those who survived,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan dances at powwows in her traditional-style regalia. She participates in traditional ceremonies. She felt obligated to take a DNA test in case anyone questioned her Native identity.
Still, it’s not enough for some. She’s been confronted at powwows because of her skin color, she said, accused of being a “hobbyist'' of Native identity.
“I’m doing the best I can to represent what it means to be someone who identifies as Black Indian and who has a stake in what happens in both of our communities in regards to these current travesties that are happening,” she said.
Buchanan said she feels obligated to balance her social media posts with what’s happening in Indian Country and in Black communities to inform and educate her supporters.
“It could have been me, I think every time I hear (about) another Black woman’s death due to police brutality, domestic abuse, domestic violence,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post.
To listen to some of Buchanan’s poetry, click here.
Azie Dungey is known for her storytelling talent. She’s a writer for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a popular Netflix sitcom and her satirical two-season web series, “Ask A Slave.”
Dungey also wants to make sure people know she's Black and Native. “It’s hard as hell, but I will fight both battles, and I refuse to pull punches,” she said on Twitter.
Her ancestors are of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, descendants of Chief Powhatan. The tribe has lived in central and eastern Virginia for centuries and were finally federally recognized in 2016.
The Pamunkey have a complex history that includes old laws that mirrored the state's effort to suppress Black people, according to a Richmond Free Press report.
“The tribe did it to fend off efforts from hostile white neighbors to push them off their 1,200-acre reservation …,” the report said.
Dungey is familiar with that history. The “one drop” rule was also a factor. It asserted people with any Black ancestry should be considered Black. She said colonizers were also strategic with Black and Native people by building resentment between them. It happened through education and boarding schools in Virginia, Dungey said.
“Someone convinced that the real threat was each other, and it’s never been,” she said.
Those lasting effects continue to this day, and it impacts Dungey and her relatives who look like her, especially those seeking tribal enrollment. For a long time, it was difficult for Dungey to claim her Native identity, especially when family asked her why she’d fight so hard to be part of a community that didn’t want her.
“Reading and learning about my individual ancestors and my family, with my life I wanted to honor all of them,” she said. “When I see their stories, I see a tremendous amount of resilience, perseverance, fight, strength and love.”
Amber Starks thought she needed permission to be Native American.
Grandma G showed her that she didn’t.
“Grandma G” is what Amber calls her 82-year-old Muscogee (Creek) grandmother, who still lives on her family allotment in Oklahoma. Starks lives in Portland, Oregon, and visits her grandmother at least once a year. She is Starks’ last direct Native connection to her family’s history left ever since her dad died a few years ago. The two call and text each other often, emojis in all.
Through her grandmother, Starks learned that she is Creek but also had Shawnee, Yuchi ancestry, and through her research, Starks found out that her great-grandmother was Quapaw.
“We’ve bonded over this in so many ways,” Starks said. “She told me that she was so proud I was proud to be Native. She thought I just identified as a Black woman.”
Starks is part of a Black Native network on Instagram called Blindian Country that’s “normalizing Black and Native identity.”
Starks often uses her own social media platform to educate others on the importance of uniting Black and Native people on issues that affect both communities.
“Relatives, it is completely possible to root for Black liberation while fighting for Indigenous sovereignty. The two movements aren’t mutually exclusive, they are complementary,” Starks said in a tweet on June 10.
Starks’ Twitter handle is Melanin Mvskoke, a tribute to who she is.
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker
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