There is an old joke in the Black community about women attributing long hair to having “Indian blood” in their family. But like all jokes, there is an element of truth in this statement. There are deep ties between Native Americans, America’s first residents, and Black Americans, America’s first sizable minority group.
Los Angeles resident Phil Wilkes Fixico claims both Native American and African American roots on both sides of his family. Fixico, a performance artist and activist for Black Indian culture, says that he first started exploring his genealogy, when he got into his 50s.
Fixico said he has been on an 11-year journey to identify with his Native American roots. This has included reaching out to relatives in Oklahoma, producing a DVD about the Black-Indian experience and doing presentations about Native American culture around Los Angeles.
He is a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Horse Calvary and the Seminole Negro Scouts. He is also part of a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, “IndiVisible: African-Native Lives in the Americas,” that is scheduled to appear at the California African American Museum in March 2011.
Fixico is not the only African American who has documented the Black Indian experience. Valena Broussard Dismukes, a Los Angeles-based photojournalist, has also written about this subject in her book, “The Red Black Connection: Contemporary Urban Native Americans and Their Stories of Dual Experience.”
Dismukes, who is descended from Africans from Sierra Leone and Choctaw Indians from Mississippi, has also had her work featured in the documentary, “Black Indians: An American Story.”
Fixico said that he grew up a troubled youth, who was in an out of the juvenile system. After a stint in a correctional institution, he finally turned his life around. He received help from people of all races to do this.
Fixico attributes much of his problems to an identity crisis caused by lack of knowledge about his history. At 52, he decided to start investigating his background. He knew his mother, who raised him alone, was of Creek, White and African descent, but he later learned that his biological father was also part Seminole.
Fixico discovered that his ancestors were Seminole Maroons, slaves who opted to escape captivity and form alliances with the Seminole Indians in Florida.
They were attracted to Florida because it was under Spanish control at the time, and escaped slaves were granted sanctuary there, provided they would fight against the British. However, Maroons were not just a phenomenon that occurred in the United States. There are historical incidences of Maroons forming alliances with Native American tribes in the West Indies, South America and Central America. The word “maroon” is derived from the Spanish word “cimarron,” which means runaway or fugitive.
According to Fixico, the issue of Blacks, Native Americans and slavery is a complicated one. While slavery was widespread in America in the 19th century, it was less common among Native American communities. Fixico said that in 1860, one year before the Emancipation Proclamation, there were about four million slaves in the United States, but only about 12,000 among the “Five Civilized Native American” tribes, the Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw.
Black soldiers, many times recently freed slaves, were often employed to fight in the most dangerous missions battling Indians on the frontier.
In many cases, the U.S. Army was unable to subdue the Indian population, and the government eventually negotiated treaties, allowing Native Americans to set up sovereign nations on their own lands. These nations are considered independent states within the United States.
The Native Americans were also impressed with the valor of the Black American soldiers and nicknamed them “Buffalo Soldiers,” because of their woolly hair, which the Indians believed resembled the buffalo. This name has stuck with all-Black regiments and eventually was passed on to the now famous Buffalo Soldiers, the all-Black fighter escort squadron that won acclaim for their record of never losing a bomber during World War II.
Historians have also said that Native Americans had a different view of slavery than mainstream America. Slaves owned by Native Americans were sometimes treated more like servants and some cases could even be incorporated into the tribe.
After the American Indian wars and resettlement, Native American tribes numbers were often so low, they would look for alternatives to strengthen their numbers.
Fixico says that while pressured by some African Americans to identify as “Black” because of the “One Drop Rule” and his appearance, he identifies with all the cultures that make up his background. “Some (black) people say, ‘You want to be Indian and not Black,’” Fixico said. “I feel I am Black with shades of Native American and White,” he said.
However even today, relations with Native Americans can be tense. Some Native Americans do not recognize Black Indians descendants as part of their tribes. In many cases Native American tribes recognize members based on blood percentages.
The Cherokee Nation, based in Oklahoma, is currently involved with a lawsuit with descendants of the Freedman (Black Indians), who were denied benefits. According to an article from the Tulsa World, the Cherokee Nation had voted to deny benefits to descendants of the Freedman who were not listed with certain percentage of Indian blood on the Dawes Roll.
Created by the federal government in 1893, the Dawes Roll allotted land and benefits to members of the Five Civilized Tribes and also included Freedmen.
Fixico feels that some African Americans are looking at the benefits that Native Americans receive: free healthcare, education and stipends, as a reason to identify with Indian culture. But he cautions that African Americans need to understand that in many ways Native Americans are struggling and the free healthcare they receive on tribal lands is not always of the highest quality.