By Erin Aley
For my first quarter of college I decided to take classes in the American Ethnic Studies program, and in one of my other classes, Survey of American Indian Studies class I began noticing some interesting correlations between the two subjects. It was because of this that I decided to look for a cultural artifact which displayed the relationship between American Indian tribes and African American slaves. While searching for artifacts, I came across a very interesting image of a Comanche family with obvious African American Heritage. The photo depicts the interracial mixing which occurred between the two groups, who both received such horrendous treatment at the hands of the whites. Native Americans and African Americans have a long and varied relationship between them ever since African peoples began arriving in North America. The ways they interacted has changed throughout the years, however their shared past of oppression has intertwined them in America’s past.
The photo was taken by Sam DeVenney in the early 1990s and depicts five members, and three generations of a Comanche family. On the right, in traditional dress, is Ta-Ten-e-quer who is joined by his wife Ta-Tat-ty (left), their niece Wife-per, and Wife-per’s two sons, Henry and Lorenzano. Wife-per, also known as Frances Wright, was the daughter of a black cavalry fighter who deserted and married a Comanche woman. Frances married an African American man and had her two sons, Henry and Lorenzano, who were raised in the Comanche tradition. The photo appears on the cover of the book IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, which was edited by Gabrielle Tayac, and contains twenty-seven essays exploring the lives of people with dual African and Native American heritage (Introduction). People like Wife-per and her family were not uncommon among American Indians, In fact, the population of biracial members made up more than half the total population in some tribes (Logan 728). Much of the mixing of these two groups occurred during America’s slavery era.
Before the popularity of using Africans as slaves in the Americas, the Native peoples were being enslaved and forced to labor for those who encroached on their lands. However, for many reasons including their knowledge of the lands, Native Americans were seen as less enslavable than the foreign Africans that were brought over (Kitano 107). Despite this, for many years both Native Americans and Africans worked together as slaves for the white man. Yet as the 1700s went on the slave population became overwhelmingly African. Both groups were familiar with slavery and practiced it in their homelands, for them it was not a permanent, hereditary, or racial practice. White Americans saw the growing fellowship between Indigenous peoples and African slaves as dangerous and attempted create rivalries between them. Africans were told stories of the Natives savagery by their owners and fought the Indians when they approached white land. Native Americans were paid by white slave owners to return escaped slaves (Weaver 115-118). Yet, despite the manipulation of whites, Native Americans and African slaves still formed bonds with one another which were both positive and negative for both groups.
As in the uncertain century, African slaves could hold many positions within Native American society. The uncertain century is an era in African American history between the 1560s and 1660s, wherein the status of Africans being brought over was uncertain. Some Africans were enslaved once they arrived and remained slaves their whole lives. Others were treated like indentured servants and worked for many years until they were freed. Some were manumitted by their masters and owned their own lands and even their own slaves. The luckiest ones, however, were those who received their freedom shortly after their arrival to the Americas (Kelley 58-63). Amongst the so called Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokees, Muskogees or Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chickasaws), African Americans could also hold many different positions. Native Americans also had black slaves, like their white oppressors, although the treatment of slaves in Native community allowed them much more freedoms. Many slaves fled white owners and went to live among the American Indians. Those who did were known as freedmen and were regarded with varying degrees of tolerance depending on the tribe they lived amongst (May 3-4). Many Africans also became bilingual and their ability to speak English and Natives tongues made them valuable members of the tribe (Weaver 118). Asking as translators, many former slaves moved their way up in tribal ranks, becoming chiefs, council members, judges, and policemen (May 3). Blacks had fewer rights in some tribes, however intermarriage between the two groups was a fairly common practice (Bonnett 41). The treatment of black slaves was entirely dependent on the tribe of American Indians they lived amongst. Some were barred from being full members of the tribe, while others were fully accepted and gained respect in the nation. In exceptional cases, slaves escaped and joined the Seminole tribe, a tribe comprised of refugees from decimated tribes and those castaway by their own peoples. However, it is inarguable that the treatment of black peoples amongst tribal nations was far superior to what they faced at the hands of the whites.
Despite the commonality of their shared oppression under the control of white men, this did not mean that there was not turmoil between the two groups. African Americans living in Indian Territory often faced difficulty in securing legal, political, and social status amongst the tribes they lived with. Many tribes limited the acceptance of African Americans on their tribal roles, because those on the roll received part of the benefits given to them by the American government. In 1866 the U.S. negiotiated a treaty with the Five Civilized Tribes which incorporated former slaves as full members of the tribes. This treaty meant freedom for the African Americans, but it also threatened the sovereignty of the Native nations, which caused distrust between the two (Weaver 120). In the early 1900s, the time that the photo was taken, blacks that were living off the reservations were facing an environment increasingly focused on the concept of race. Segregation and racism were completely entrenched in every aspect of American society at the time. It was difficult to make a decent living because jobs that were willing to hire blacks paid very little and the rent for black housing cost more than that of a white person in a nicer neighborhood (Pittman). The issues both African Americans and American Indians faced in the early 1900s were still major problems when the Civil Rights era began gaining steam.
Starting in the 1950s, groups of minorities all over the nation fought to have equal rights in comparison to the white man. By banning together and supporting each other these minority groups showed solidarity and benefitted from the others. It was at this time that Native Americans and African Americans put aside their complicated differences and worked with one another to gain the rights they deserved. The Black Power movement was much larger than the Red Power movement of the American Indians, and the black people saw connections between their own treatment and the oppression of the Indians. In fact according to Janet McCloud, co-founder and the first director of SAIA (the Survival of the American Indian Society), “the American Negro’s revolution has necessitated a change in the white man’s mental picture of the colored people of the world” (Smith 24), thus helping the Native peoples cause. African American civil rights groups such as the Black Panthers were often seen at American Indian protests and fish-ins, as could Natives be seen at Black events. A sense of shared suffering at the hands of the white man united these peoples and gave them the strength to fight against oppression (Smith 21-26).
Initially when I began my research of the subject I believed it would be a fairly straightforward history: both groups are oppressed, slaves seek refuge with natives, they help each other during the Civil Rights era. However, it became very apparent me that was not how it happened. The relationship between the two groups is a complicated one, it has been for hundreds of years and it continues to be. In my AIS class we discussed how in the past decade some tribal nations have moved to exclude ancestors of freedmen from tribal registries, stripping families not only of financial aid but also of their heritage (Kene). There has been much controversy over this decision, and those who lost membership are fighting to be reinstated amongst their tribes. One important message I have learned from my research is that the relationship between African Americans and Native Americans has been complicated, and sometimes ugly, but they did not treat each other as less than human, and when they fought for equality they counted on each other.
Bonnett, Alastair. “Shades Of Difference.” History Today 58.12 (2008): 40-42. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
DeVenney, Sam. Comanche Family, Early 1900s. N.d. IndiVisible. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Introduction.” IndiVisible – African-Native American Lives in the Americas. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis. “The Uncertain Century.” To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 58-63. Print.
Kene, David. “Cherokees Vote to Stampede Blacks out of Tribe.” New York Amsterdam News (05 Apr. 2007): n. pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Kitano, Harry H. L. Race Relations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985. Print.
Logan, Michael. “American Indians With African Ancestry: Differential Fertility And The Complexities Of Social Identity.” Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal 39.6 (2011): 727-42. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
May, Katja. African Americans and Native Americans in the Creek and Cherokee Nations, 1830s to 1920s: Collision and Collusion. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. Print.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. Web.
Smith, Sherry L. Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
Weaver, Hilary N. “A Boiling Pot Of Animosity Or An Alliance Of Kindred Spirits? Exploring Connections Between Native Americans And African Americans.” Journal Of Sociology & Social Welfare 35.4 (2008): 115-32. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.