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Thu Oct 10, 2013, 02:08 PM

Native American roots in Black America run deep

o you have Indian in your family? That’s a common question asked in the black community. Many African-Americans lay claim to Native American ancestry, and yet very few blacks have taken the steps to research this part of their history, to learn about their Native American roots and embrace the culture.

Thanksgiving is known as a time for American families to reunite, partake in feast and be grateful. And yet for Native Americans it is a time for mourning, a reflection on the arrival of European settlers that ultimately led to their displacement and elimination by the millions. Blacks in America are intertwined with that history, and yet the evidence they possess is mostly anecdotal, such as the grandmother who had long, straight black hair, high cheekbones or a red tint to her skin.

While most African-Americans would likely say they have Indian blood flowing in their veins, DNA testing suggests that fewer than 10 percent of black people are of Native American ancestry. To be exact, 5 percent of African-Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, meaning at least one great-grand parent. In contrast, 58 percent of black Americans have at least 12.5 percent white ancestry.

Many of the notable African Americans who participated in the PBS documentary miniseries African American Lives, including Oprah Winfrey, believed they were part Native American until the facts proved them wrong. The program, hosted by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, used DNA testing and genealogical and historical research to help blacks connect with their previously unknown ancestors.

Meanwhile, actor Don Cheadle learned his ancestors were enslaved by the Chickasaw Nation.

Nevertheless, Black Indians—a longstanding topic of black oral history—are real. As a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution reveals, the two cultures have blended since the arrival of Columbus. The exhibition—IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas— tells the story of two groups united by enslavement, genocide and a legacy of being uprooted from the land of their ancestors.

It is a complicated history filled with the good and the unpleasant. African slaves were known to escape from the plantations and find refuge among Indian tribes. Native people were involved in the Underground Railroad, and Indian trails provided a pathway to freedom for runaway slaves. They fought together in uprisings against their oppressive conditions and the white man’s incursion, and they married and had children.


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