Afro-Indigenous Intersections in the USA
Expansion of the United States and the generation of capital for the new nation took place on stolen Native lands with the extraction of labor from oppressed peoples, primarily African slaves and people of color.
Between 1778 and 1871 the United States government made over 300 treaties with Native American nations. All of them were broken. The Indigenous Digital Archive Treaties Explorer provides access to hundreds of these treaties for further research, and the National Archives Exhibit ‘Rights of Native Americans’ provides a visual timeline.
African Americans’ struggle to acquire land juxtaposed with Native American nations’ struggle to retain land and sovereignty produces a zone of contestation that is navigated in a variety of ways by different nations, individuals, and alliances. The following resources explore these intersections.
Carstarphen, M. (2009). Black lines, white spaces: Towards decoding a rhetoric of Indian identity. Proceedings of the Eighth Native American Symposium. Southeastern Oklahoma State University. https://bit.ly/LWL-Carstarphen
Carstarphen rhetorically analyzes the contents of a pre-statehood Oklahoma newspaper, The Indian Chieftain, which was written by and for Indigenous people. Late nineteenth-century issues of this newspaper show that it provided a means of asserting Indian identity. In the early nineteenth century, the Indian Removal relocated the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) to what is now Oklahoma; these tribes brought along enslaved people of African descent. The Indian Chieftain’s references to the region’s transitions from tribal nation-space to statehood and its mentions of African-descended persons suggest that Indigenous identity in this area was defined against the aggression of white people and through the marginalization of Black people.
Dark Laboratory, LLC. Dark laboratory: Black x Indigenous media ecologies. https://bit.ly/LWL-DarkLab
The Dark Laboratory is a collective project focused on race, ecology, and technology from the perspective of the intersections of the Indigenous Americas and the African diaspora. Founded by scholar Tao Leigh Goffe, the Laboratory uses digital storytelling and brings together technologists, artists, and scholars “to contend with the entanglement of stolen life (racial slavery) and stolen land (Native dispossession).” The Dark Laboratory promotes the sharing of knowledge and resources between local communities and institutions of higher education.
Friefeld, J.K., Eckstrom, M.B., & Edwards, R. (2019). African American homesteader “colonies” in the settling of the Great Plains. Great Plains Quarterly 39(1), 11-37. https://bit.ly/LWL-homestead
Friefeld et al. examine Black people’s establishment of homesteading communities in several Great Plains states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an important but overlooked part of Great Plains history. After the Civil War, many recently freed Black people migrated to the Great Plains, viewing the available land as a chance to start over, own land, and build a future. Education and shared cultural activities were especially important for the members of these communities. Although many of these communities no longer exist today (due to the Great Depression, drought, and other factors), Friefeld et al. emphasize that the present-day success of many of these communities’ descendants represent fulfillment of their ancestors’ dreams.
Hawkes, D. D. (2021). “My uncle’s cousin’s great-grandma were a Cherokee” and I am descended from an Ashanti king: The American blood idiom in the Simple Stories. The Langston Hughes Review, 27(1), 29–46. https://bit.ly/LWL-Hawkes
Hawkes looks at the poetry and short stories of Langston Hughes, analyzing how Hughes’s references to so-called “blood mixing” between races critique and challenge dominant American ideologies of “racial purity.” In focusing on references to Black and Indigenous racial intermixing in Hughes’s Simple stories, Hawkes shows how Hughes complicates American ideas of race as a black/white color line and expands notions of American Black identity. In this way, Hughes’s work “acknowledges the separate yet intertwined histories of African Americans and Native Americans with racism and colonization in the United States” (p. 44).
Mays, K.T. (2021). An Afro-Indigenous history of the United States. Beacon Press. https://bit.ly/LWL-Mays
This book, by an Afro-Indigenous scholar, is the first intersectional history of Black and Indigenous people in the United States. Mays shows how antiblack racism and settler colonialism have been integral to the United States’s development and history. Black and Indigenous people have struggled for freedom and sovereignty both together and apart. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Power and Red Power movements brought these peoples together in protest and solidarity, which continues today in the Black Lives Matter and Native Lives Matter movements.
Miles, T. (2009). Taking leave, making lives: Creative quests for freedom in early Black and Native America. In G. Tayac (Ed.), IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas (pp. 139-149). Smithsonian Institution. https://bit.ly/LWL-Miles
Miles shows that the common narrative of enslavement in the United States as an institution that solely affected people of African descent needs to be revised to account for the enslavement of Indigenous people in the earliest days of European colonization in North America and the Caribbean. Although the enslavement of Indigenous people became less common after the eighteenth century, people of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry were still categorized as Black and “naturalized into the slavery system” (p. 142). When African and Indigenous people were enslaved together, they “forge[d] relationships and share[d] cultural ways” (p. 142); this resulted in new cultural expressions, including food, folklore, and pottery. Miles highlights that African and Indigenous enslaved people also joined forces in resistance and rebellion.
Stern, A.E. (2021, June 1). The Reconstruction origins of Black Wall Street. Black Perspectives, AAIHS. https://bit.ly/LWL-Stern
Stern situates Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre within the complex racial, political, and economic history of Oklahoma. During the Civil War, some of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” in the Oklahoma territory fought for the Confederacy because they owned enslaved people. Although other members of these tribes fought for the Union, the US government used Reconstruction as an opportunity to force the cession of Tribal land. The government required that the Tribes sign the Reconstruction Treaty in 1866 and give freedpeople tribal lands. In response, some of the Tribes contested Black people’s citizenship and land rights. In the 1890s, the government’s land allotment divided up tribal lands into private property, much of which went to Black people. This land allotment enabled more Black land ownership and wealth building, making possible the development of the prosperous Greenwood District (i.e., Black Wall Street) in Tulsa. Within this context, “Black Americans came to see Indian Territory, just like White Americans, as a new promised land of opportunity” (Stern).
Sturm, C. (2014). Race, sovereignty, and civil rights: Understanding the Cherokee Freedmen controversy. Cultural Anthropology 29(3), 575-598. https://bit.ly/LWL-Sturm
Sturm examines how the Cherokee Freedmen controversy illustrates the contestations between claims to tribal rights (i.e., land sovereignty and nationhood), civil rights (i.e., equality and anti-discrimination), and ideas of blood-based racial identity in the context of US Afro-Indigenous relations. The Cherokee Freedmen are the descendants of Black people enslaved by the Cherokee and of unions between Cherokee and Black people. In an 1866 treaty between Cherokee Nation and the US government, the Freedmen were granted tribal membership, but in 2007, the tribe voted to deny them membership based on the idea that they lack “Indian blood.” Sturm argues that the difficult questions raised by this case suggest that notions of sovereignty, civil rights, and race can conflict with each other and that analytics of settler colonialism must account for the unique history of Black people, as they did not “settle” US land in the same way as people of European descent.