EXHIBITION: Story of Americans with Native and black ancestry stirs deep emotions

Posted on October 17th, 2009 by americanindiannews in People

An exhibition opening this fall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian explores the identity of people whose ancestry is both African American and Native American.

Courtesy of Sam Devenney A Comanche family in the early 1900s. The elder man is Ta-Ten-e-quer and his wife is Ta-Tat-ty. Their niece, center, is Wife-per, also known as Frances E. Wright. Her father was a Buffalo Soldier, an African American cavalryman, who deserted and married into the Comanches. Henry, center left, and Lorenzano, center right, are her sons. Click photo for full resolution version.

Courtesy of Sam Devenney A Comanche family in the early 1900s. The elder man is Ta-Ten-e-quer and his wife is Ta-Tat-ty. Their niece, center, is Wife-per, also known as Frances E. Wright. Her father was a Buffalo Soldier, an African American cavalryman, who deserted and married into the Comanches. Henry, center left, and Lorenzano, center right, are her sons. Click photo for full resolution version.

“IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas” is an exhibition of 20 banners bearing photographs and text. It will be shown at the museum in Washington from Nov. 10 through May 31, 2010. A symposium on the topic of the exhibition will be held at 3 p.m. on Nov.13 at the museum.

Guest curator Thunder Williams, a Washington, D.C., radio talk show host, is Carib Indian, African and European. “The exhibition touches a deep interest in African American communities because of their links with Native America,” he said. Published accounts estimate that 60 percent of African Americans may share Native American ancestry, he said.

“People in the U.S. tend to be black or white, linear thinkers,” Williams said. “We have been indoctrinated by a race-centered system where vestiges of the ‘one-drop’ of black blood rule persist. When I acknowledge my Carib Indian and European ancestors, it is not a disclaimer of my African heritage. I am all of them, my blood is indivisible.”

The exhibition takes the long view of history, traveling in a few short panels that illustrate the 1600s, when intermarriage and slavery brought Native peoples and African slaves together, to present-day families for whom this dual identity is indivisible.

“It’s a very provocative topic,” said curator Gabrielle Tayac, who is Piscataway. “The huge back story is that it all has to do with interactions brought about by the European, with practices of slavery on the continent.”

Many panels, which feature contemporary and historic photos, touch core issues of identity for people of racially mixed heritage. The discussion is emotionally charged, Tayac said.

“In many Native communities on the Atlantic seaboard, African American mixing has had consequences historically,” Tayac said. “It may have them be erroneously viewed as less Indian, and it plays out in acknowledgement and enrollment. In African American communities, there is a controversy of whether people should identify as mixed race.”

Courtesy Jessie Little Doe A family from the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the 2000s. Relatives and friends celebrate the wedding of Jessie Little Doe. At Mashpee, age-old family ties determine tribal identity, which transcends all skin colors.  Click photo for full resolution version.

Foxx Family (Mashpee Wampanoag), 2008. From left: Anne, Monet, Majai, Aisha, and Maurice Foxx. Photo by Kevin Cartwright. Courtesy NMAI. Click photo for full resolution version.

Ideas about the identities of mixed-heritage people grow out of colonial policies, which viewed black and Native people as dangerous.

“In colonial Mexico (the word) lobo, the wolf is the blend of Indian and black,” Tayac said. “The combination was thought to be dangerous, that you could have two colonized and enslaved people, if they come together it could be dangerous. How much did we absorb those ideas?”

The emotions stirred by the exhibition are so close to the surface that even staff at the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture sometimes felt uncomfortable.

“Though sometimes there were things that were uncomfortable, we decided to keep it in the exhibition,” Tayac said. “There are difficult stories; the Cherokee Freedmen on one side, the Buffalo Soldiers on the other. What’s been interesting is people keep coming to us saying, ‘I have a story to tell you about this.’ ”

Guest curator Penny Gamble-Williams, a spiritual leader of the Chappaquiddick Band of the Wampanoag Nation, knows people who denied their Indian heritage and others who would not talk about it. Some embraced their Native roots later in life.

She remembers some tearfully approaching her to ask how they could get information about the Blackfeet or Cherokee tribes, to which people from the South may have heard their family elders say they had blood ties. Many are eager, she said, “to find the missing pieces of their identity, to fill the void of belonging.”

In the end, such questions need to be answered with genealogical research, Gamble-Williams said. Or, perhaps acceptance, Tayac said, if a family story doesn’t check out.

IndiVisible doesn’t try to provide all the answers, Tayac observed. The exhibition often turns the question back to viewers.

And many will get the chance to reflect on them in the coming year. African American museums and schools across the U.S. have already scheduled the traveling version of the IndiVisible exhibition, which will visit Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Rome, Ga.; Aurora, Ill.; and Los Angeles, among other cities through 2011.

– By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

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