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a History of Red-Black Solidarity:
Reflection on William Loren Katz's BLACK INDIANS: A HIDDEN HERITAGE (New York: Atheneum, 1986)

by Theodore Walker, Jr.

William Loren Katz's BLACK INDIANS: A HIDDEN HERITAGE (New York: Atheneum, 1986) is a historical survey of relations between African-Americans and Native Americans with particular attention to the history of "Black Indians."

Katz uses the term "Black Indians" to indicate persons with African-American and Native American parentage who live among Indians and who live as Indians live, or persons of African ancestry who marry into or are adopted into Indian families and tribes (p. 7).

Katz finds that during the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War "Black Indian societies" were reported in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida (p. 129).
Katz identifies a significant Black Indian presence among the following tribes and nations:
in Massachusetts--"Hassanamisco, Middleborough, Chappequiddick, Christiantown, Gay Head, Marshpee, Herring Pond, Fall River, and Dudley," circa 1861, and Massasoit (p. 130);
Southhampton and Montauk Indians of New York, circa 1850 (p. 130); the Narragansetts and other Indians in and around Rhode Island, Long Island, and New Jersy (pp. 129-130);
the Nanticoke Nation of Maryland's eastern shore, circa 1750 (p. 109);
the Pamunkey Indians of Virginia, circa 1843 (p. 127);
the Mattaponies of Virginia; and the Melungeon Indians of Tennessee and North Carolina, circa 1855 (p. 129).
Also, Katz identifies Shoshone, Cherokee, Ute, Chippewa, Kiowa, Chickasaw, and Seminoles as among the Native American nations where black people were frequently adopted into Native American tribes and families.

Concerning Black Indians in the eastern United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Katz says:

"Despite every European effort to keep one dark people from assisting the other, the two races began to blend on a vast scale. Black Indians were apparent everwhere if one bothered to look. Thomas Jefferson, for example, found among the Mattaponies of his Virginia, "more negro than Indian blood in them." Another eyewitness reported Virginia's Gingaskin reservation had become "largely African." Peter Kalm, whose famous diary described a visit to the British colonies in 1750, took note of many Africans living with Indians, with marriage and children the normal result." (pp. 108-109)

Katz concludes that by the 1800s "Native Americans east of the Mississippi had become a biracial people (with a sprinkling of white blood)" (p. 127).

Katz reports that the historical record, including many legislative documents, indicates that white colonialists saw the existence of nearby Native-American tribes and nations as a threat to the slave system.
For one thing Native Americans were in the habit of providing refuge to escaped slaves. Furthermore there was the seemingly ever present threat of red and black people joining together in military action against the expansion of a system that took Native American land and African freedom.

Before the American Revolution, Europeans had attempted without much success to develop a slave system sustained by enslaving Native Americans.
After the American Revolution, north American slaveholders sought to decrease the number of escape routes available to black slaves, and to lessen the threat of red-black military coalition, by converting Native Americans into slaveholders.
And again, the effort enjoyed not much success.
Four of the so-called "five civilized" Native American nations (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations) were forced to develop slaveholding communities, but compared to the oppressions of slavery among the whites, the yoke of slavery among Native Americans was so very much lighter that black slaves were no less motivated to seek refuge among slave-holding Native Americans.
The fifth of the five--the Seminole nation, was an amalgam of red and black "runaways" ("seminole" is a Creek Indian word meaning runaway)--red people who had run away from the Creek Indian nation and black people who had run away from slavery by escaping to Florida from the Carolinas and Georgia.
Moreover, the Seminole nation had a long standing habit--extending well back into the period when Florida was Spanish territory--of waging war against slaveholding communities.
And so when Seminole war chief Osceola was finally captured by U.S. troops in 1837, "Osceola's personal bodyguard of fifty-five warriors included fifty-two Black Seminoles" (p. 5).
Thus, slaveholding communities had good reason to fear nearby Native American tribes and nations.

Katz identifies this fear as one of the reasons the U.S. government forced Native Americans to leave the eastern territories.
Katz says:

"For white U.S. citizens in the eastern states problems presented by Native Americans were solved in a single dramatic stroke by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It provided for the mass deportation of the Five Civilized Nations ..." (p. 136-137)

"Some sixty thousand red and black men and women were eventually deposited on lands in Arkansas and Oklohoma that whites considered uninhabitable." (p. 137)

"Cherokee men, women, and children, including one thousand six hundred Black Cherokees were prodded westward in midwinter by Federal bayonets" (p. 137).

Historians refer to the Cherokee's forced march to Oklahoma as "the trail of tears."
This trail of tears and other acts of relocation and genocide committed against Native American peoples were in large part responses to the fact of widespread red-black solidarity and coalition in the eastern states during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Native American struggle against the enslavement of blacks did not end with the relocation of the "five civilized nations" in 1830.
Native Americans were drawn into the U.S. Civil War, and on occasion they actually fought against whites and among themselves over slavery.
Katz reports that typically, "full blood" Indians sided with blacks and black Indians against whites and mixed-blood (mixed with white) Indian slaveholders (p. 141). (pp. 135-144)

Earlier examples from U.S. history of red-black solidarity and coalition include the following:

"The first full-scale battle between Native Americans and British colonist took place in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. ... According to historian James H. Johnson "the Indians murdered every white but saved the Negroes." This, noted Johnson, became a common pattern during wars between colonists and Indians." (p. 103)

Another instance of Native-American concern for the well-being of Africans occured during the early 1700s when the Delaware Nation consented to receive two European missionaries only on the condition that the Europeans first do justice by enslaved blacks (p. 108).
In 1726, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and in 1764 the Hurons, and in 1765 the Delaware, under duress, promised to return runaway slaves to the governor of New York, but "None ever returned a single slave" (p. 111).
Also, during the 1700s runaway slaves were welcomed by the Mohawk nation (p. 111), and in 1729 the Chickasaw Nation supported black insurrection efforts in Louisiana (p. 106).

Not only in the U.S., but throughout the Americas, there were numerous instances where Native-Americans and African-Americans joined together in a common struggle against slavery, genocide, land thief and other forms of Euro-American opression.
Instances identified by Katz include the following:
In Santo Domingo, in 1522;

"On Christmas Day, African and Indian slaves on a plantation owned by Diego Columbus rose and murdered their masters and overseers. Nearby Native Americans joined the rebels. The beautiful island of Santo Domingo shook with the first recorded slave rebellion in the New World." (p. 33)

Katz reports that there were similar incidents in Columbia, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico (p. 35). Another example of red-black coalition from South America is the history of the Sarmaka people. Katz reports:

"The history of the Saramaka people of Surinam in South America started around 1685 when African and native slaves escaped and together formed a maroon society. For eight generations Dutch armed forces tried to crush their community, but today it is still alive and boasts twenty thousand members. For the Saramakans liberty came in 1761 when Europeans abandoned their wars and sued for peace." (p. 38)

Katz identifies "Black Indian" communities in Venezuela, circa 1728, in Brazil and other South American locations (pp. 40-42). Katz reports many red-black coalition settlements in South American history were united by their military resistance to Euro-American enslavement.

Though Katz's history records many instances of red-black solidarity and coalitions throughout the history of the Americas, he does not overly idealize red-black relations. Katz acknowledges that there were instances when Native Americans and African-Americans were on opposite sides of battle lines. For example, Katz points to the fact that some Native Americans became slaveholders and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the fact that Black Seminole Indian scouts and black "buffalo soldiers" participated in the military defeat of Native Americans in the western states (pp. 78-80, 174-178). In those few instances where Native-Americans clashed with African-Americans, the red-black conflicts seem very muted when compared to red-white and black-white conflicts. For instance, where Native Americas learned to be slaveholders, they did not learn willingly or well. And where blacks fought Native Americans, the results were never genocidal. So while there are exceptions to the general pattern of red-black solidarity, the exceptions are relatively few and not at all protracted. The general rule for red-black relations has been acceptance, adoption, solidarity and coalition.

Among Native Americans, the tradition of accepting African-Americans into their families, tribes and nations is as old as New World slavery, and the historical instances of militant red-black coalition efforts are many.

Given this history,
Robert Allen Warrior's conception of the sweetgrass meaning of solidarity (a conception including special concern for solidarity and coalition with African-Americans) is consistent with the habits and traditions of Native American families, tribes and nations throughout the New World and throughout the 500+ years of indigenous resistance to European-American discovery and oppression.


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most recent update: 24 March 1997
NOTICE OF COPYRIGHT: copyright 1997 Theodore Walker, Jr. This copyright covers all content and formatting (browser-visible and HTML text) in this and attached documents created by Theodore Walker, Jr. c@Theodore Walker, Jr.