Black Native Americans beginning to assert identity

Kenneth J. Cooper | 12/30/2014, 12:28 p.m.
African Americans claiming Native American ancestry have begun to assert their identity more openly. In July, more than 400 attended ...
Mwalim, (Morgan James Peters) directs the African and African-American Studies program at the UMass Dartmouth.

Morgan James Peters wears dreadlocks and directs the African and African-American Studies program at the UMass Dartmouth. The single name he prefers to use, Mwalim, is similar to the Swahili word for teacher.

But Mwalim traces his ancestry not only to Africa, but also to North America — the Mashpee Wampanoag. He says he embraces both parts of his racial-ethnic identity.

“My primary identity is I’m a black Wampanoag,” Mwalim said. “It’s having a foot in both communities, being part of the Wampanoag community, being part of the black community and recognizing that they’re not mutually exclusive.”

Many African Americans claim some Native ancestry, often based on family oral history passed through the generations but undocumented. Mwalim’s Native heritage is certain as a member of the Mashpee’s prominent Peters family.

His lineage represents a major source of Native ancestry in African-Americans — the Eastern tribes, according to J. Cedric Woods, director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the UMass Boston.

“Most of the tribes have some degree or another of African intermixture,” said Woods, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. “It may be a single family line. It may be multiple lines. It may be most of the lines in the tribe. It can run the entire spectrum.”

Like Mwalim, people with that ancestral mix have begun to assert their identity more openly. In July, more than 400 attended the inaugural meeting of the National Congress of Black American Indians in Washington.

The new organization does not require participants to prove their Native lineage. Other Native Americans accuse people who say they are Indian without documentation, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, of “ethnic identity fraud.”

Tribes have various eligibility requirements, including the degree of Indian blood, to become a member or citizen of that Native nation.

“Tribes have all kinds of … ways to determine whether somebody meets particular criteria to be a citizen of a particular government,” Woods said. “You have some tribes who use blood quantum...How much of that blood quantum is required is all across the map.”

The rights and benefits that come with tribal citizenship also vary, Woods said, but generally include the right to vote in the tribe’s elections, hold office in its government, and receive social benefits, such as health care and education. Some tribes that own casinos distribute equal payments to members; others do not.

Some African-Americans have been recognized as citizens of Native nations without necessarily having any Indian blood. They are descendants of the slaves of five tribes originally from the Southeast — the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw.

Those tribes were called “civilized” after settling down to farm, with more prosperous members copying the Southern plantation model. They were nonetheless forced out of the South in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears, taking their slaves on the deadly trek to Oklahoma.

During the Civil War, those tribes supported the Confederacy. Afterwards, the federal government drafted similar treaties in 1866 requiring the tribes to free slaves and make them and their descendants tribal citizens.