Published: February 15, 2021

The Relevance of Native America to Black History

Alert

Acknowledging and exploring a hidden history of interaction.

A primary focus of Black History Month is on individuals of African descent, but as African American physical anthropologist C. Montague Cobb (1939) reminds us, African Americans descend from Native Americans as well.

The authors of this post are involved in creating the future Native North America Hall at the Field Museum. Robert Keith Collins, PhD, is a member of the Native Hall Advisory committee. Monica Rickert-Bolter is a visual artist whose work will be part of the exhibition. Here, they write about shared African American and Native American history.

You can also hear more from the authors on an episode of the Exhibiting Kinship podcast with Felicia Garcia and Meranda Roberts. 

Kitihawa Dreaming (2018) by Monica Rickert-Bolter.

An illustration of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable in the 1884 book History of Chicago, Alfred Theodore Andreas.

Wikipedia

In the late 1700s, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable made his way from the American South to the Great Lakes region. He applied his education, acquired reasoning skills, and charm to the fur trading business. His savvy led to friendly relations with the Potawatomi people and consequential marriage to Kitihawa (Catherine).

Together, this husband-and-wife team created a bakehouse, dairy farm, smokehouse, poultry house, and mill. Their dreams, facilitation of intertribal and international trade in the area, resourcefulness, and determination would ultimately lead to the City of Chicago. 

The origins of shared kinship between Africans and Native Americans—both legitimate and illegitimate—lie in their alliances and allegiances formed during slavery and as fellow citizens in self-determination within tribal nations within the present-day boundaries of the United States. 

Shared slavery 

In shared slavery, enslaved Africans and enslaved Native Americans intermarried with one another. Because their marriages were usually not considered legitimate by law, their children were slaves like their parents and considered illegitimate. Among the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, et al., Africans were enslaved by Native Americans. Children of enslaved African women and Native American slave owners were also considered illegitimate.

Native Americans, particularly those of blended African ancestry, occasionally found themselves kidnapped into slavery. Early colonists, like later citizens of the United States, enslaved Africans and Native people as maids, butlers, blacksmiths, field hands, etc., for the homes and plantations of English, French, and Spanish colonists. From these contacts, love and marriages frequently formed.

Illustration of Tituba performing a dance or ritual as four children watch on.

An illustration titled “Tituba and the Children” by Alfred Fredericks in W.C. Bryant's A Popular History of the United States (1878).  

Tituba

The most notable marriage between an enslaved African and enslaved Native American from early US history was between John Indian and his wife Tituba. Little is known about John Indian except that he was a “Spanish Indian.”

The Salem Witch Trials made Tituba famous. Called the “Black Witch of Salem,” Tituba was the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Speculations about her ancestry have ranged from half African and half Native American from the US, to Carib Native American from Barbados. She is recognized in Witchcraft Trial documents as an “Indian Woman, servant”. 

Black and white photograph of Spence Johnson, wearing a dress shirt and suit jacket.

Portrait of Spence Johnson, taken 1936–38 as part of the WPA Slave Narrative project.

Library of Congress

Spence Johnson 

It is important to remember that enslaved Africans and enslaved Native Americans remembered their lived experiences and how it impacted their families. Mr. Spence Johnson recalled his experiences of slavery. In 1937, he told the following to Works Progress Association (WPA) field worker Miss Ada Davis: 

“… Stealers done stole me and my mammy out’n de Choctaw Nation, up in de Indian Territory, when I was ‘bout three years old…Down in Louisiana, us was put on what dey call de block and sol’ to de highes’ bidder. My mammy and her three chillum brung $3,000 flat. De step chillum was sol’ to somebody else, but us was bought by Marse Riley Surratt…Mammy cooked for ‘em. When Marse Riley bought her, she couldn’ speak nothin’ but de Choctaw words. I was a baby when us lef’ de Choctaw country. My sister looked like a full-blooded Choctaw Indian and she could pass for a real full-blooded Indian. Mammy’s folks was all Choctaw Indians. Her sister was Polly Hogan and Sookey Hogan, and she had a brudder, Helen Tubby. Dey was all known in de Territory in de ole days…I mus’ of been born 1859, up in de Territory…We never go anywhere. Mammy always and ‘fraid of bein’ stole again (Minges 2004: 159-160).”

Shared citizenship 

Contact between Africans and Native Americans was not limited to shared slavery. Friendship and trust also formed between African Americans and citizens of sovereign Native American nations, resulting in intermarriage and children.  

A painting of Paul Cuffee wearing what looks like a nautical jacket.

Captain Paul Cuffee painted by Chester Harding.

Blackpast.org

Paul Cuffee, Jr.

Born in Westport, Massachusetts, Paul Cuffee, Jr. (1759–1817), was the son of African American father Paul Cuffee, Sr. and Wampanoag mother Ruth Moses. Like his father, he contributed greatly to US seafaring and whaling.

George Bonga wearing a suit and top hat, seated in a chair.

George Bonga

George Bonga

George Bonga (1802–1880), the son of Pierre Bonga and an Ojibwa mother, studied in Montreal. As a pioneer and trader, he learned French, English, and other Native American languages. He is known for his close relationship with his mother’s people and assistance in negotiating the Ojibwa Treaty at Fort Snelling.    

“My suggestions are perhaps premature but as no one…that you will pitch right into to him and Governor Ramsey and have… this rascal thrown out of the Indian country, for it is a disgrace to the Government to have such an Agent.” -George Bonga 

Shared creativity 

It is important to know that these interactions, the contributions of descendants, and the relevance of Native Americans to Black History continues! 

As of the 2010 Census, there were 182,494 individuals of African American and Native American/Alaska Native descent and 112,207 individuals of African American, Native American/Alaska Native, and White descent.

Formed in 1995, musical group Pamyua’s sound was born out of a fusion of harmonies between the African American gospel found in Phillip Blanchett and Stephen Blanchett’s (Afro-Yupik) father’s church in Wasilla and traditional Inuit song expressions learned from their mother, their “tribal funk” continues to inspire listeners.

Black and white photo of the four members of the band Pamyua.

Stephen Qacung Blanchett, Phillip Aassanaaq Kairaiuak, Phillip Kilirnguq Blanchett, and Karina Moeller.

Loren Holmes

The relevance of Native America to Black History can be seen in the shared kinship created from shared lived experiences with slavery and citizenship within sovereign Native American nations. As you continue exploring this exciting history in the suggested readings, it is hoped that you will also keep an eye out for the new Native American Hall at the Field.

Authors

Robert Keith Collins, PhD, a four-field trained anthropologist, is Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. Dr. Collins also holds an MA and PhD in Anthropology from UCLA. Using a person-centered ethnographic approach, his research explores American Indian cultural changes and African and Native American interactions in North, Central, and South America. He is of African American and Choctaw descent.

Monica Rickert-Bolter is a Chicago-based visual artist, copyeditor, and journalist. She is Potawatomi, African American, and German. Her artwork combines traditional techniques with digital coloring to create expressive characters and tell their diverse stories. Passionate about storytelling through art and writing, she advocates for cultural representation in any project she undertakes. Rickert-Bolter has been writing for online publications related to Native American issues and tribally-owned businesses, under the pen name “Whitepigeon,” her family name. Recently, she finished illustrating and designing children’s books for Culture Story and Smyles Creative, LLC. 

Robert Keith Collins, PhD

Monica Rickert-Bolter

References and suggested reading

  • Abel, Annie Heloise. 2014. The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

  • Brinton, Daniel G. 1887. “On Certain Supposed Nanticoke Words, Shown To Be of African Origin.” American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal IX, no. 6 (January): 350-4.

  • Chamberlain, Alexander Francis. 1891. “African and American: The Contact of Negro and Indian,” Science 17, no. 419 (February 13): 85–90.

  • Chamberlain, Alexander Francis. 1903. “The Contribution of the American Indian to Civilization.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 16 (October): 91–126.

  • Cobb, W. Montague. 1939. “The Negro as a Biological Element in the American Population.” The Journal of Negro Education 8, no. 3 (July): 336–48.

  • Collins, Robert Keith. 2009. “What Is a Black Indian? Misplaced Expectations and Lived Realities.” In IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, edited by Gabriella Tayac. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 183–196.

  • Forbes, Jack D. 1983. “Mustees, Half-Breeds and Zambos in Anglo North America: Aspects of Black-Indian Relations.” American Indian Quarterly 7, no. 1: 57–83.

  • Foster, Laurence. 1976. Negro-Indian Relations in the Southeast. New York: AMS Press. Inc.

  • Bonga, George. "Letters of George Bonga." The Journal of Negro History 12.1 (1927): 41-54.

  • Hallowell, A. Irving. 1963. “Papers in Honor of Melville J. Herskovits: American Indians, White and Black: The Phenomenon of Transculturalization,” Current Anthropology 4, no. 5 (December): 519–31.

  • Katz, William. 2012. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Atheneum.

  • Littlefield, Daniel. 1978. The Cherokee Freedmen: From Emancipation to American Citizenship. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 1-5.

  • Littlefield, Daniel. 1979. Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 1-10.

  • Mingest, Patrick. 2004. Black Indian Slave Narratives. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair Publisher.

  • Norris, Tina, Paula L. Vines, and Elizabeth M. Hoeffel. 2012. The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

  • Porter, Kenneth W. 1932. “Association as Fellow Slaves.” Journal of Negro History 17, no. 3 (July): 294–7.

  • Speck, Frank. 1908. “The Negroes and the Creek nation.” Southern Workman 37, no. 1, 106-110.

  • Sturm, Circe. 2002. Blood Politics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Woodson, C.G. 1920. “The Relations of Negroes and Indians in Massachusetts.” Journal of Negro History 5, no. 1 

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