What can you say to someone who claims that your great grandparents, your ancestors, are not “real”, and did not exist? I’ve shared some of my story here, but I decided to share a bit more, and why this continued denial and prejudice against Black Indians’ right to be proud of their whole heritage is so painful for me. Everyone who has spoken out on this topic has made me feel less alone and more able to process this.
Disclaimer: My journey is a very spiritual one. I receive messages in visions and dreams, then seek out concrete answers through research of published texts as well as going through my own families’ photos and documents and asking a lot of questions. But spirit is definitely part of this journey for me.
I share this as a proud woman of African, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw descent. My journey of delving into my ancestry started while I was a student at San Francisco State University in Professor Andrew Jolivette’s class on Black Indians in America. (Prof. Jolivette is an amazing resource, he has written extensively on both the Black Indian and Creole experience, for anyone searching for more info.) In this class, were asked to dig deeper into our family history. I was always aware of my Native American ancestry through stories my family told and handwritten documents (lists and family trees) written by my great aunts in Oklahoma.
When I asked my father for more information about our ancestry, I was amazed by what he shared. It was like he had been waiting for me to ask. He told me stories about his Choctaw grandfather, and gave me photos and newspaper clippings about his great aunt, who was half Chickasaw.
My Cherokee heritage comes from my mother’s side, from my great grandmother, whose mother was Cherokee.
Uncovering this part of my heritage filled my heart up in a way that’s hard to describe. All I can say is that as a descendant of enslaved Africans who were taken so far away from their homeland, any shred of ancestral knowledge that can be recovered helps with the healing process. It grounds and roots me.
So I was happily diving into this learning process, and openly discussing it in class every week and being affirmed by what myself and others found. Then this happened.
Andre 3000 performed his hit song “Hey Ya!” at the Grammy Awards, where he and a group of scantily clad Black dancers emerged from a glow in the dark tipi, feathers and all. When questioned about the ignorance and offensiveness of such a performance, he invoked his Native American heritage. And thus began a raucous debate in my class, as well as various media outlets.
I was listening to one such debate on KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio, a news program geared toward the hip hop generation. There were two musicians on the show, one African American, one Native American, to discuss the performance. The debate got very intense, and I don’t recall exactly what the Native American artist said, but it was something along the lines of, “stick to being Black, stick to your own culture and stop trying to claim ours.” That hit me like a ton of bricks. It was never my intention to “claim” or “steal” anyone else’s culture, but to honor another part of my own. I didn’t want to be lumped in with people like Andre 3000 who used their background to play into stereotypes, or “culture vultures” who romanticized and co-opted cultures they had no real connection to. So I stopped everything. Stopped researching and asking questions, stopped learning about my ancestors.
When I felt the presence of my Native American ancestors come up in prayer, I simply ignored them. I could close a book and walk away, But they simply would not be ignored in the spirit realm. Whenever I went for spiritual readings (I practice in the African Diaspora tradition of Orisha worship, and spiritual divinations, readings, and cleansings are part of that practice) the question would invariably come up: “Why aren’t you honoring your Native American ancestors? Their presence is very strong.” I would always brush the question off, and say I didn’t know why. “At least put something for them on your altar,” they’d tell me. I never did.
Then I began to have dreams that haunted me. Violent dreams of clashes with European invaders, warriors riding horseback with their throats slit and pouring blood. Signs came that I could no longer ignore. So I turned and faced what I had been running from, ignored the criticisms and identity politics that came from both sides (“Just being Black isn’t good enough for you?” “You’re claiming a culture you don’t belong to.” )
I began to do two things: I resumed my research, poring over old family photos, going through census rolls, and constructing a family tree. I also began to paint my visions. I came to accept (though deep down I always knew) that this was my family and my history and that connection to my ancestors is deep and true. It needs validation from no one but me. I am here because my ancestors survived, I am here because they asked for me.