Maybe Your Great-Grandmother Really Was Cherokee

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian traces black-Native American relations from the 1500s to the present.

Black folks who always heard that grandma was an Indian—Cherokee, you say?—will get a sense of affirmation from a museum exhibit that just opened at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Called “IndiVisible,” the exhibit was inspired by the Cherokees vote two years ago to exclude most members of African descent, a continuing controversy treated—quite fairly, I must say—in one of 20 panels of thoughtful text and telling photos.

Overall, African-Native American relations are cast in positive terms, a perspective that feels right. It’s certainly the view of most black folks, based on all those family stories, true or not. The Cherokees of today are out of step with the tolerant, humanist traditions of Native Americans who historically “adopted” people of other races and treated them as equals.

The exhibit traces the contacts between African Americans and Native Americans from the 1500s to the present, leading to the interracial unions that produced “Black Indians.” Some big-name people with that mixed heritage pop up: Crispus Attucks, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jimi Hendrix and John Hope Franklin.

On a broader scale, so much mixing of red and black occurred that the bloodlines of some tribes became racially “indivisible.” They include the Lumbee of North Carolina, the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut, the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, the Seminole of Florida and then Oklahoma. “Most Native peoples on the Atlantic seaboard,” the curators conclude, “have African-American and white ancestry.”

A visitor gets a clear sense that the leaders of the National Museum of the American Indian, which collaborated with the Museum of African American History and Culture, wanted to put the conflict over the tribal rights of Cherokee Freedmen into a broader perspective.

I think that’s a good thing, as I’m a descendant of Cherokee Freedmen, former slaves and free blacks who lived among the tribe. My mother’s ancestors had ties to the Cherokee from at least the early 1800s in Georgia and then in Indian Territory from the 1830s until Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

I grew up listening to my mother, grandmother and a grand-aunt talk about that side of the family having Cherokee blood and receiving land as citizens of the tribe. My research has documented what they said and uncovered what they didn’t—that some ancestors were enslaved, while others were free. As far as I’m concerned, Cherokee citizenship is a birthright my ancestors earned the hardest way.

However fabled, the Cherokee are only one tribe, so I appreciate the exhibit’s effort to examine red-black contacts over time and across all tribes. But what was the nature of most of those contacts? This is where the exhibit, however constructive its aims, falls short...

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