I once was a black girl. Culturally, spiritually, politically, most definitely economically, I was African in America, a sistah, and a sister, too. As black as fried chicken and watermelon – and Jack and Jill. As black as a soul clap in a dark nightclub – and a Sunday morning praise song. As black as SNCC, the Panthers, campus BSUs, and PE – as black as SCLC, CORE and the NAACP. I mean Obama black. I was black as food stamps – and a Black Man’s Whip. (Ya’ll know that’s a BMW, right?)
When anyone asked, “What are you?” I didn’t mind. I laughed and told them, “I am a black girl.” When they persisted and asked, “No, where are you from?” I’d laugh again and say, “The East Coast, baby!” If they gave me a look, I’d smile and tell them this:
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
“I’m part Bermudian, Bajan, Jamaican, English, French, German, Scotch-Irish, Native American and, obviously I’m African. But of course we don’t know from where. Some people have mad loot. I have mad DNA.” Depending on the asker, I would add, “But really I’m just a light-skinned black girl.”
And I was. Really, I was. As black as can be, and free to be me. I once was a real black girl. Until a few months ago…
Into the Rabbit Hole
Until a few months ago, I walked this world knowing myself. Problem is, we walk this world knowing only the words our elders tell. My family always said we descended on my mother’s father’s side from Edwin Prudin Astwood, who sailed from England, and Frederika Sayers Coffin, a woman from Virginia who was part Cherokee.
I identified with Frederika’s Cherokee background, claiming a heritage that rooted me in a shared experience of persecution and, ultimately, survival, among African and native people in this country. I identified with drums, ancestor reverence and appreciation for the delicate balance of the natural realm. I identified with love. So I couldn’t believe it when I heard that the Cherokee Nation had disenrolled thousands of black Indians, and those descendants of Freedmen were fighting for recognition within a community they’d always claimed as their own.
Didn’t we share a history of dispossession, of forced displacement from land our ancestors walked on, lived on, loved on through the ages, through time stretching back to antiquity? Weren’t our great nations in Africa and North America assaulted by the same colonialist forces? Wasn’t the activism of both Black Power and AIM sparked by the same revolutionary spirit, the same fire of resistance and rebellion? Had we African and indigenous peoples been divided and conquered so effectively that our native brothers, those who survived the erasure of mass genocide, our own kin, had pencil-erased us?
I felt a surge of activism. I wanted justice for the people, my people, who were displaced from the tribe. Suddenly, being part Cherokee wasn’t something to believe because my mother told me to. Suddenly, being part Cherokee was something to know. I decided I would determine, scientifically, that my foremother belonged. To resist the erasure of women and men like her, I decided to get a DNA test to uncover my genetic identity – and thus prove hers. Despite the fact that several scholarly articles have cautioned that genetic testing is flawed with regard to determining Native American ancestry, I was feeling confident. I figured a DNA test would be much faster, easier and far more elegant than digging through dusty census records. Little did I know that when I swabbed my cheeks and mailed microscopic bits of my biological material to a DNA testing company, I was taking a running leap and diving into a rabbit hole. Br’er Rabbit would have nothing but tricks for me once I landed underground, where he lives. I had no idea how deep this warm hole to my genetic past would be. But within weeks, I would find out.
She Had a Little Indian in Her
While I waited for my results, I began to think that “having a little Indian in you” must have at some point in the 19th century been more ubiquitous than the lowercase I in front of everything today. Imagine an i-universe of folks claiming “I’m Indian!” After all, more African-Americans than anyone could ever count claim to have an ancestor with “a little Indian in them” – and that’s just mad funny. I’ve begun to imagine a little Indian, one actual, very tiny Indian, complete in stereotypical feathered headdress and face paint, stoic and steady inside two of every three black people. Picture him somewhere in the chest cavity. Who was this little Indian we all have inside us like the Indian in the cupboard? Like a little light of mine. Like a hope, a wish, or a little prayer.
Given the impact of white supremacy on generations of African-descended peoples, claiming that little Indian had to, for at least some of us, been about something much less important than shared culture and mutually expressed affection. For some of us, claiming that little Indian had to have been about hoping for “good hair,” wishing for whiter skin, even praying for features that could pass for White.
Maybe this is why some of our fore-parents were so insistent, so passionate, about the little Indian they claimed was in them. Investing in a personal narrative with indigenous origins at its core would pay off with the benefits of light-skinned privilege.
And light skinned privilege is real. Denial of African ancestry to claim “I’m Indian” is a truth that has spread lies about personal identity across North America, South America and throughout the Caribbean for hundreds and hundreds of years. Brown people throughout the Diaspora have claimed to be Indian rather than African to gain socio-economic advantage in their communities.
Of course, for black Indians claiming their right to Cherokee enrollment, this madness has nothing to do with their struggle to assert a collective self that honors the experiences of their forebears. And yet, somehow, this madness is inescapable, even for them.
Because of white supremacy, people of black and native background face crazy questions about identity from both communities. According to Tiya A. Miles, chair of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan and 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant winner for her scholarly work on the complex relationships between African and native people in colonial America, when a Native American meets a black Indian they often ask questions that challenge the African-descended person’s assertion of a native background. They ask questions like “Are you enrolled?” as if a list on a computer in a Bureau of Indian Affairs office has more validity than the voice of the person looking them in the eye and offering them a kind of kinship.
African-Americans, Miles says, often judge black Indians with a dismissive, “They just don’t want to be black,” as if claiming a diverse and quintessentially American experience renders the speaker a sellout. Miles blames internalized racism for this phenomenon of distrust and division, and she urges all black people to “embrace our diversity as a people, which includes black Indian, or Afro-Native, people.”
Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past
After speaking to Miles, my arms were wide open and ready to embrace the indigenous forebears that I just knew loved the Africans that made me. Family Tree DNA emails a link to view results online. Mine arrived exactly one week before Thanksgiving. I shook off the irony, flexed my fingers, and clicked.
I blinked at the screen and felt like a sucker lured onto a really bad talk show with the promise of a makeover, only to be told a deep, awful secret.
Host – The envelope, please. (A hush falls over the studio audience.) In the case of Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Eisa, you are NOT Native American! (Picture me, running backstage. … )
I quickly recovered and remembered there was more to see. In addition to my own results, I had access to my maternal grandfather’s and paternal uncle’s results, too. Because I was searching for something specific, a Native American ancestry, Bennett Greenspan, founder and CEO of Family Tree DNA, suggested I test the oldest living relatives on each side of my tree. I clicked around to read their results. And then, I swear, I heard an eerie “hee hee hee” that just about made the hair on my arms stand on end. I looked up, and it was like a whole posse of Pilgrims rose out of their graves just to point and laugh at me.
As far as the science can tell, the stories of that little Indian are just tales my great-great-great-grandmamma told.
Yet I know in the middle of every lie there is some truth. And the truth, according to Miles, is that Frederika Sayers Coffin may still have been part Cherokee, just not in a way science can measure. “Certainly, DNA tests cannot describe relationships of familial adoption and cultural incorporation,” Miles tells me. “Freedpeople of the Cherokees and other southern Indian nations developed deep cultural ties with members of those tribes over decades of living in close proximity and engaging in personal interactions. Links do not have to be genetic in order to be real, felt and enduring.”
The sense of self that black people who claim native blood have need not be negated by DNA markers and bar graphs. Miles says, “Black slaves in this country, and their African-American descendants, were displaced from their African homelands. They, we, were a homeless people in the Americas. We had to create new homes and spaces of belonging, and this is a project – cultural, relational, spiritual – that we are still engaged in. To me, it makes perfect sense that this yearning for belonging in a new land would be expressed through affirming stories of connection with the indigenous peoples of that land. This does not mean that all stories about native kinship are fantasies. … There are several recorded examples of black individuals seeking and finding freedom and respect in Indian communities, being adopted by Indian clans, and marrying into native families. There are also examples – and the Seminole Wars are a dramatic case in point – of blacks and Indians working together for a jointly held goal of freedom from slavery and freedom from U.S. colonialism.”
The desire to claim roots to this land, this land that is not my people’s original homeland is, Miles said, “about belonging. Take the word ‘belonging,’ ” she urges, as she emphasizes the “longing.” “It captures something about the African-American experience that goes deep. We are so changed as a people. In this land that is familiar to us, but new when one thinks about an ancient timeline. … Looking to local people, indigenous people, is a way to belong.”
With the data gathered from my grandfather’s and uncle’s DNA as well as my own, I can see the ancient migrations of my ancestors through the millennia. Arrows shooting across Africa prove that the continent is, indeed, my literal motherland. My mother’s grandmother’s story had, for us, always begun in Jamaica. Suddenly, I know that Nana’s ancestor was stolen from Upper Guinea. That was our home. I know that now. I feel my heart beat strong, like the sound of my son’s hand on the goatskin of his djembe drum.
Now I know this, too: Both my father’s father’s father and my maternal grandfather’s father’s father were white. Scotch-Irish on my mother’s father’s side, which we knew, and Irish on my father’s father’s side, which we didn’t know. I click on a bar graph that organizes what is called my “biogeographical ancestry” into clear percentages, and this reveals something completely new.
According to Greenspan, “the typical African American is 65% to 80% African and 20% to 35% European.” My bar graph tells me that I am 49% European and only 42% African. (The other 9% is Middle Eastern, a wild streak of DNA I got from my grandfather’s side. Just like college basketball in March, it’s maaaaadness. And I dig it.)
Does all this mean my Black Nation identification card should be revoked? Although the results took me deep into Wonderland, I think I can still tell the inquisitive that I’m a light-skinned black girl from around the way. Because I am. And because Wonderland, it turns out, is my home, this wacky wild-land called America where no bloodline is unmixed, no story untrue. Bunk the percentages. I am African-American, and I have the memories to prove it. I have the stories that I know are my truth, stories of an authentic black life that I will tell my son, and tell him to tell his children, mouth to ear. And in the telling, we descendants of Frederika Sayers Coffin honor an oral tradition passed down to us. Whispers of who we are. Magic and life-sustaining tales to trust and believe and share through the generations.
“You have your history written into your cells. … “
Family Tree CEO Bennett Greenspan
Want to test the truth in the tales your family tells? Ready to trace an ancestral line beyond the Middle Passage? Go to FamilyTreeDNA.com, click “order your test now,” and wait for the kit to arrive in the mail. Swab your cheeks, send the kit back to the company, and, in a few weeks, receive a kit number and password via email. With that, you can log onto the site and discover the geographic areas from which your ancestors came and get a list of complete strangers who are actually family and share your DNA.
But you have to choose the right test:
Family Finder DNA – A test for men and women to go back 5 generations across the male and female lines and determine your ethnic percentages.
Y-DNA – For men only, this test traces non-coding DNA along your father’s father’s father’s line and can expand your search 500 to 1,000 years based on clusters of similar Y-DNA coding in specific geographic areas around the world.
mtDNA – For men and women, this test uncovers your deep ancestral origins along your mother’s mother’s mother’s line. Find genetic cousins. Know your Haplogroup, your place on the maternal genetic tree of humankind, and the migrations your Haplogroup made out of, or around, the continent of Africa.
My husband wants to take the tests but has expressed some concern that The Man might use the DNA he swabs and sends. I understand his concern. He’s a black man in America, with cultural memories of the brothers victimized by the 1932-72 Tuskegee Experiment as fresh as if it was yesterday.
But, I told him, think about all the blood you’ve had drawn at the doctor’s office over your lifetime. If The Man wanted to snatch your chromosomes, he could. So just do it, I urge him. After all, I add only half-jokingly, The Man you keep on talking about just might turn out to be you.
“The truth is that the practice of slavery will forever cast a shadow on the great Cherokee Nation.”
late Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller
Many African Americans don’t know that members of The Five Civilized Tribes owned African-American slaves in the South and in Indian country. And it is likely that fewer still know that some Cherokee plantation owners forced their black slaves to fight in the Civil War – against the North. “Numbers are difficult to pin down,” Miles said. “But census records indicate that approximately 4,000 blacks were held as slaves by Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws at around 1800. Those numbers increased by the time of Indian removal. By 1860, black slaves made up 14 percent of the population of the Five Tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles).”
Along the Trail of Tears from 1838 to 1839, black slaves of Cherokee families “performed essential tasks such as clearing roads and cooking meals,” Miles said. “Most of the black people who went west during Cherokee removal were slaves of the Cherokees who were being expelled from their homeland. A smaller number of the people of African descent who walked the trail were free, mixed-race members of Cherokee families.”
An 1866 treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the United States at the end of the Civil War determined that “all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of Native Cherokees.”
More than 100 years after the signing of that treaty, the dice started to roll in much of Indian country. Division of casino money has led 40 to 50 tribes to begin a process of disenrollment of members, sometimes by using the science of DNA to test parentage and disprove a former member’s Indian identity.
For the Cherokee Freedmen, Professor Miles says, “Those people enrolled in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma ‘by blood,’ who reject freedpeople descendants’ claim to citizenship have argued that their rejection is not based on race but, rather, on family lineage (or blood lines). This is a point for debate because the language of ‘blood quantum’ slides into racial categorization and interpretation historically. In many ways, blood quantum can be seen as a racial measure.” Blood quantum, or Indian blood laws, sought to officially determine ethnicity by degree of ancestry within a specific tribe or racial group.
In 2007, a Cherokee Nation constitutional amendment required each citizen to have at least one ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, a list of names ordered by the United States Congress in 1893 to assign land allotments and equitably divide money offered to The Five Civilized Tribes to dissolve the reservation system. On August 22, 2011, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court upheld the 2007 decision, revoking the citizenship of 2,800 descendants of those Freedmen.
“When it comes to the intermingling of peoples in the history of the eastern United States,
almost anything is possible.”
University of Michigan professor Tiya A. Miles
Black Indians have turned to DNA testing to prove they belong to the Cherokee Nation, but the results have largely been similar to my own. Dr. Rick Kittles, a biologist and scientific director of African Ancestry, a genealogy company based in Washington, DC, provided genomic testing for the Freedmen. Kittles noted that, despite the negative results of the tests, the significantly higher degree of European ancestry markers in the Freedmen closely matches the higher degree of European ancestry among Eastern Seaboard tribes like the Cherokee and may offer hope that a genetic link between the Freedmen and other Cherokee people might be valid, but currently impossible to prove.
When I ask Miles to help me make sense of the disconnect between my family oral testimony and the DNA results I received, she said, “Even though DNA ‘evidence’ was not supportive, these stories that were handed down in your family may well contain nuggets of truth. In my research, I have noticed that sometimes when stories about ancestry are handed down, the details shift or become fuzzy. It is not uncommon for elders in black families to remember a tribal linkage from the past but forget the name of the tribe or assume that the tribe was Cherokee (perhaps because Cherokees are a large and well-known nation). Slippages like this do not necessarily discount the whole story. There are reasons why it may have been difficult for people to hang onto precise details about complex family ties. They were often dealing with harrowing contexts of slavery, removal and separation from family members. In addition, the official record keepers of the day (such as US Indian agents who took censuses of tribes) were not interested in recording dual black and American Indian ancestry. This process that led to the gradual disappearance of mixed-race Afro-Native people in historical documentation has been aptly described as ‘pencil genocide.’ “
The history of the state where my self-proclaimed Cherokee foremother was born and raised offers a glimpse into the conscious, explicit attempt to erase women and men like her from the public record.
From 1912-46, Walter Plecker served the state of Virginia as registrar in the Bureau of Vital Statistics – and as the state’s unofficial race purifier. Plecker slashed through entire nations of original people and, with the stroke of his pen, literally crossed out the Indian identity that persisted through the generations. Back in 1813, the Gingashins, an eastern tribe that ardently maintained traditional practices and freely and unashamedly intermarried with African-Americans, became the very first US tribe to be terminated. Plecker picked up this task of whole-group erasure a century later. With the power to grant birth, death, and marriage certificates, he victimized people whose forebears were Indian and black and silenced the truth of their native ancestry. Plecker simply changed individual racial designations from Indian to African-American by writing in the now much-reviled terms, “colored” or “mulatto.”
Bolstered by the support of groups like the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, Plecker’s work led to the Virginia Racial Integrity Law of 1924, a piece of virile legislation that reduced the state population to just two racial categories. This is also the law that criminalized inter-racial marriage in the state and was not overturned until the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving vs. The State of Virginia determined that people did, in fact, have the right to love across racial lines. By effectively erasing any Native American presence from the official record, Plecker wiped the state’s original inhabitants and their descendants off the books.
Were my great great-great-grandmother’s people, her family members who remained in Virginia, the victims of Plecker’s campaign? If so, how can I hope to match oral testimony that persisted through the generations against official state records that Plecker destroyed with a kind of sick, obsessive-compulsive madness? The kin descendants of Frederica Sayers Coffin might be listed on Virginia’s rather extensive record-keeping from the colonial period onward that included manumission records, population records and Free Negro records that (I hope) remain accessible and intact. Unless my people tried to survive off the grid, I might be able to dig them up there. But the digging will have to reach deep.
During Plecker’s reign, the state’s Amherst Indians refused to attend Jim Crow schools in Virginia, cut ties with the black community and often remained poor and undereducated as a result. A rebirth into the government system occurred for the Amherst in the 1980s, however, when they regained tribal recognition. Significantly, the Buffalo Ridge Cherokee, a group that proudly asserted their African, native and European ancestry, did not. To this day, living descendants of the Buffalo Ridge Cherokee are organized and openly celebrate their culture; but, at least officially through the state of Virginia and the United States government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, this tribe, many of whom look African-American, simply no longer exists.