Phyllis Kimber Wilcox |
Discussions related to the status of Black Indigenous people in relation to the broader Indigenous community received little focus in November, Native American Heritage Month.
Negotiating an Afro-Indigenous identity can be difficult when the way you look doesn’t meet expectations or popular media depictions of Indigenous communities.
In discussing the way people’s perceptions of what it is to be Indigenous and the conflict with appearance in the documentary, Black Indians An American Story, a woman spoke about comments others make regarding the way she looks, “[Y]ou don’t look like a native American,” she’s often told.
Not appearing Indigenous is just one of the challenges they face from colorism within tribal groups, to recognition of their contributions.
Black and Indigenous people have been in contact since the beginning of the nation’s history. People of African ancestry came with the first explorers and through that contact new identities were created–from Crispus Attucks to Frederick Douglass, and Paul Cufee, to name a few.
To be Black and Indigenous has been a little-known part of American history.
The Afro Indigenous would help explore the continent, become interpreters, fur trappers, fisherman, and soldiers. They would travel with Spanish missionaries to help found missions in southern California.
The contributions of many Black artists have been made by the Afro Indigenous, including Jimi Hendrix the guitarist whose music is renowned, Tina Turner whose soulful voice spans many eras and genres of music, to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the hardest working man in show business, James Brown.
These artists, as well as others, have helped define their eras and have been the soundtrack during the most important moments in many people’s lives.
Today, those who are Black and Indigenous are negotiating challenges and bringing a new perspective to what it means to be a nexus of more than one cultural identity. Some have used the courts to retain association to tribes, while others have sought recognition.
In the documentary We Still Live Here: Black Indians of the Wampanoag Tribe, one young girl of the Muscogee Wampanoag tribe discusses how her identity is perceived by others. “They don’t really think of us as native Americans,” she says.
A Wampanoag woman stated, “A lot of the reflection I get from this world is that the Wampanoag people don’t exist… for the most part people say that because they’ve never known a Wampanoag person.” The Wampanoags married and produced children with those of differing ancestry. According to historians the definition of tribe for the Wampanoag is community and shared cultural traditions.
The Wampanoags were the tribe whose ancestors met the Massachusetts colonists when they first landed on the shores of what would later become America.
The Experience of Being Black and Indigenous
The Black Voice News spoke to Kyle Mays, Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at UCLA about the experience of being both Black and Indigenous. According to Mays, there are numerous tribes but recognition has been an issue. Many are not recognized by either the state, at the national level or by local governments. When discussing the Afro Indigenous there are no organizations which keep track of the numbers.
“I don’t think there’s an answer to that,” he stated “I don’t even know if there’s any census data whether by the tribes or the U.S. government that specifically counts Afro Indigenous peoples and I’m unaware of any numbers which specifically highlight people who identify as Afro Indigenous.”
When asked about his own unique background Mays shared, “I’m from Michigan originally and my family, we are Saginaw Chippewa. My great grandmother came from the Saginaw Chippewa reservation to Detroit in 1940.” Mays arrived in Los Angeles, California in 2017.
Discussing whether he had problems with his cultural identity and how he dealt with not resembling media depictions of the indigenous, Mays, who identifies as Afro Indigenous explained, “Not really within my family growing up because everyone was either Black or Afro Indigenous or cousins who knew where we were from. I will say as an adult, certainly whether you go to a Pow Wow or you’re wearing certain sorts of earrings, you might get strange looks. I don’t wear earrings much these days. I used to get asked why are you wearing those earrings? Are you ashamed of being Black? Because I also identify as being a native person… I just shrug it off, I just brush it off to being ignorant.”
“I think a major misconception about native peoples even today, is that the majority live in cities–whether that’s Los Angeles which I believe has the largest per capita, I haven’t seen the latest census data– not on reservations. On the one hand they’re living like everyday urban residents,” explained Mays in response to a question about how cultural identity is expressed among the Indigenous. “And there isn’t enough social science data really to tell stories in particular about the experiences of urban Indigenous populations.”
“My family has been in Detroit since the 1940s. My great-grandmother co-founded what was called Detroit’s Indian Education and Cultural Center in 1975. My aunt Judy Mays founded Medicine Bear American Indian Academy with the assistance of Black politicians related to the Afrocentric schools movement of the late 1980s. They vacillated between living in all Black Detroit identifying as Black also working on behalf of Indigenous youth and still remained respected.“
According to Mays, the school founded by his family was closed because of limited resources and funding issues that began in the late 1990s
Noting the lack of Afro Indigenous portrayals in the Mays commented, “To begin, I don’t think there are many portrayals of native people in the media. And, why there aren’t many portrayals of Indigenous and Afro Indigenous people in the media… depends on whose writing, who are the producers and what they value.“
He expounded, “Some people see it as a zero sum game. And that is we only have such limited resources and opportunities to represent what it means to be Indigenous. Therefore, we should reproduce the typical, so-called standard view of what native people are supposed to look like. I think until there are perhaps more Indigenous people who are allowed to tell their own stories in a variety of media, Reservation Dogs, the series on Hulu, is a good example [things will be slow to change].
“Many Afro Indigenous people were upset because there weren’t many portrayals of [them] in Oklahoma, in that particular area. We’ll see what they do in season two. I’m sure they’ll have more representation very likely.”Speaking about his work and whether there was much interest in the courses he teaches at UCLA, according to Mays his classes remain full and he continues to write about both the Black and Indigenous experiences. May’s newest book, City of Dispossessions: Business People, African Americans and the of Modern Detroit, is a continuation of that work.