Billy Bowlegs III

Black Indians is a term that refers to people of African-American descent, usually with significant Native American ancestry, who also have strong ties to Native American culture, and social and historical traditions. This article addresses Black Indians in the United States.

Certain Native American tribes had close relations with African Americans, especially those in the Southeast, where slavery was prevalent. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes held enslaved blacks, who migrated with them to the West during Indian Removal in 1830 and later. In peace treaties with the US after the American Civil War, the tribes, which had sided with the Confederacy, were required to emancipate slaves and give them full citizenship rights in their nations. The Black Indians were known as tribal Freedmen, such as Cherokee Freedmen. In addition, some black maroon communities had been allied with the Seminole in Florida and intermarried. The Black Seminole included those with and without Indian ancestry. The Cherokee and Seminole have created controversy in recent decades as they tightened rules for membership in their nations and excluded Freedmen who did not have at least one Indian ancestor on the early 20th century Dawes Rolls. Lawsuits are pending.

Edmonia Lewis


Until recently, historic relations between Native Americans and African Americans were relatively neglected in United States history studies.At various times, Africans had more or less contact with Native Americans, although they did not live together in as great number as with Europeans. African slaves brought to the United States and their descendants have had a history of cultural exchange and intermarriage with Native Americans and other slaves who possessed Native American and European ancestry. Most interaction took place in the Southern United States, where slaves were held in greatest number.Numerous African Americans thus have some Native American ancestry, although not all have current social, cultural or linguistic ties to Native peoples. Black Indians refers to African Americans who grew up or were closely associated with Native American culture. It does not mean all those who happen to have some Native American ancestry.

Relationships among Native American groups and Africans and African Americans have been varied and complex. Some groups were more accepting of Africans than others and welcomed them as full members of their respective cultures and communities. Native peoples often disagreed about the role of ethnic African people in their communities. Other Native Americans saw uses for slavery and did not oppose it for others.

After the American Civil War, as members of the US Army, some African Americans fought against Native Americans, especially in the Western frontier states. Their military units became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Black Seminoles particularly were recruited and worked as Indian scouts for the Army. On the other hand, many Native Americans and African-descended people fought alongside one another in armed struggles of resistance against U.S. expansion into Native territories, as in the Seminole Wars in Florida, as well as resistance against slavery and racism.


Colonial America

The earliest record of African and Native American contact occurred in April 1502, when the first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola. Some escaped inland on Santo Dominico; those who survived and joined with the natives became the first circle of Black Indians. In addition, the first example of African slaves' escaping from European colonists and being absorbed by Native Americans was recorded in 1526. In June of that year, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon established a Spanish colony near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in what is now eastern South Carolina. The Spanish settlement was named San Miquel de Guadalupe. Amongst the settlement were 100 enslaved Africans. In 1526, the first African slaves fled the colony and took refuge with local Native Americans

Intermarriage between African slaves and Native Americans began occurring in the early 1600s.In 1622 Native Americans overran the European colony of Jamestown. They killed the Europeans but brought the African slaves as captives back to their communities, gradually integrating them. It is a common misconception that people of African and Native American descent are descendants of only the five civilized tribes. Interracial relationships occurred between African Americans and members of other tribes in the coastal states. Several colonial advertisements for runaway slaves made direct reference to the connections African Americans had in Native American communities. For example, ...ran off with his Indian wife..., had kin among the Indians..., part Indian and speaks their language good. Massachusetts Vital Records prior to 1850 included notes of "Marriages of 'negroes' to Indians".

Members of the Creek (Muscogee) Nation in Oklahoma around 1877. Note the evidence of mixed European and African ancestry. L to R, Lochar Harjo, unidentified man, John McGilvry, Silas Jefferson or Hotulko miko (Chief of the Whirlwind).

In South Carolina, colonists were so concerned about the possible threat posed by the mixed African and Native American population that was arising due to runaways, that they passed a new law in 1725. This law stipulated a fine of 200 pounds for persons bringing a slave to the frontier regions. In 1751 South Carolina passed a law against holding Africans in proximity to Native Americans, which was deemed detrimental to the security of the colony.

In 1726 the British governor of colonial New York exacted a promise from the Iroquois Confederacy to return all runaway slaves. He required the same from the Huron tribe in 1764 and the Delaware tribe in 1765. Despite their agreements, the tribes never returned any escaped slaves.They continued to provide a safe refuge for escaped slaves. In 1763 during Chief Pontiac's uprising, a Detroit resident reported that Native Americans killed whites but were "saving and caressing all the Negroes they take." He worried lest this might "produce an insurrection." Chief Joseph Brant's Mohawks in New York welcomed runaway slaves and encouraged intermarriage. The Native American adoption systems knew no color line and accepted the fugitives as sisters and brothers. Woodson's notion of an escape hatch proved correct: Native American villages welcomed fugitives and some served as stations on the Underground Railroad.

During the transitional period of Africans' becoming the primary race enslaved, Native Americans were also sometimes enslaved at the same time. Together Africans and Native Americans worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, and shared herbal remedies, myths and legends. Some intermarried and had mixed-race children. Ads asked for the return of both African American and Native American slaves. Some Native Americans resented the presence of African Americans.In one description, the "Catawaba tribe in 1752 showed great anger and bitter resentment when an African American came among them as a trader."

The Cherokee had the strongest color prejudice of all Native Americans. The hostility has been attributed to European fears of a unified revolt of Native Americans and African Americans: "Whites sought to convince Native Americans that African Americans worked against their best interests." Europeans considered both races inferior and made efforts to make Native Americans and Africans enemies. Native Americans were rewarded if they returned escaped slaves, and African Americans were rewarded for fighting in "Indian Wars". European colonists even lied about the source of smallpox during the Cherokee smallpox epidemic of 1739 blaming African slaves as the source in order to try to create tension between Africans and Native Americans. The British even tried to restrict the amount of physical contact between Africans and free Native Americans. The British feared Native Americans taking enslaved Africans as husband or wife and tried to discourage any trade going on between Africans and Native Americans in order to try and sever bonds between them. The British also passed laws prohibiting the carrying of slaves into the Cherokee nation's territory in order to try and restrict interactions between the two groups.

By 1900, African Americans outnumbered the Native American population in areas that had been set aside as Indian Territory by the federal government. One Native American newspaper commented on the irony of whites stealing "land from the Indians only to have negroes take it from them." African Americans and American Indians often intermarried and formed a mixed population.

Yet, many tribes encouraged marriage between the two groups, to create stronger, healthier children from the unions. In the eighteenth century, many Native American women did marry freed or runaway African men due to a major decline in the male population in Native American villages. In addition, records show that Native American women bought African men as slaves. Unknown to European sellers, the women freed and married the men into their tribe. Some African men chose Native American women as their partners because their children would be free, as the child's status followed that of the mother. As European expansion increased, African and Native American marriages became more numerous.

1800s through Civil War

In the early 1800s, the US government assumed some tribes had become extinct, especially on the East Coast.It did not have a separate census designation for Native Americans. Those remaining among the European-American communities were frequently listed as mulatto, a term applied to Native American-white, Native American-African, and African-white mixed-race people, as well as tri-racial people.

The Seminole people of Florida were unusual for forming in the eighteenth century, mostly from Creek and other Native Americans who migrated from Georgia. They incorporated some Africans who had escaped from slavery. Other maroons formed separate communities near the Seminole, and were allied with them in military actions. Some intermarriage took place. All African Americans living near the Seminole were called Black Seminoles. Several hundred of African descent traveled with the Seminole when they were removed to Indian Territory. Others stayed with a few hundred Seminole in Florida.

By contrast, an 1835 census of the Cherokee showed that 10% were of African descent.Western frontier artist George Catlin described "Negro and North American Indian, mixed, of equal blood" and stated:

"the finest built and most powerful men I have ever yet seen."

By 1860 in some areas of the South, Native Americans were believed to have intermarried with African Americans to such an extent, that white legislators thought they no longer qualified as "Indian" and wanted to revoke their tax exemptions.

Freed African Americans, Black Indians and some Native Americans fought in the American Civil War against the Confederate Army. During November 1861, the Creek and Black Indians, led by Creek Chief Opothleyahola, fought three pitched battles against Confederate whites and allied Native Americans to reach Union lines in Kansas and offer their services. Some people who were Black Indians served in colored regiments with other African-American soldiers.

Black Indians were documented in the following regiments: The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, The Kansas Colored at Honey Springs, The 79th US Colored Infantry, and The 83rd US Colored Infantry, along with other colored regiments that included men listed as Negro. Civil War battles occurred in Indian Territory. The first in Indian Territory took place July 1-2 1863, and involved the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. The first battle against the Confederacy outside Indian Territory occurred at Horse Head Creek, Arkansas on February 17, 1864. The 79th U.S. Colored Infantry participated.Many Black Indians returned to Indian Territory once the Civil War had been won by the Union.When the Confederacy and its Native American allies were defeated, the US required new peace treaties by the Five Civilized Tribes, including provisions to emancipate slaves and make them full citizens of their nations. The former slaves were called tribal freedmen, as in Cherokee Freedmen and Seminole Freedmen, and adopted into the tribes. The Cherokee had freed their slaves in 1863, before the end of the war.

Cherokee Freedmen

After the Civil War in 1866, Cherokees were required to grant their slaves citizenship and membership in the tribe, as the United States freed slaves and granted them citizenship by amendments to the US Constitution. Similarly, they were required to reinstate membership for the Delaware, who had earlier been given land on their reservation, but fought for the Union during the war. Many Cherokee Freedmen, as they were called, played active political roles in the Cherokee nation over the ensuing decades.

In the late 20th century, the tribe moved to take descendants of Freedmen and Delaware off the tribal rolls, except for those who had a Cherokee ancestor on the Dawes Roll. A political struggle over this issue has ensued and the matter went to the tribe's Supreme Court. The Cherokee later reinstated the rights of Delaware to be considered members of the Cherokee, but opposed their bid for federal recognition.

By the tribal Supreme Court ruling of March 2006, the Cherokee Nation was required to reinstate as members about 1,000 African Americans (and descendants) whom they had dropped from the rolls in the mid-1970s. In response, leaders of the Cherokee Nation organized a referendum to vote on qualifications for citizenship in the tribe. The referendum established direct Cherokee ancestry as a requirement, unlike previous qualifications. Only such members were allowed to vote in the referendum. The measure passed in March 2007, thereby forcing out Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants unless they also had direct Cherokee ancestry. This has caused much controversy. The tribe has determined to limit membership only to those who can demonstrate Native American descent based on listing on the Dawes Rolls.

Shaman Red Deer

Similarly, the Seminole nation of Oklahoma moved to exclude Black Seminoles from membership. In 1990 it received $56 million from the US government as reparations for lands taken in Florida. Because the judgment trust was based on tribal membership as of 1823, it excluded Seminole Freedmen, as well as Black Seminoles who held land next to Seminole communities. In 2000 the Seminole chief moved to formally exclude Black Seminoles unless they could prove descent from a Native American ancestor on the Dawes Rolls. Two thousand Black Seminoles were excluded from the nation. Descendants of freedmen and Black Seminoles are working to secure their rights. An advocacy group representing Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes claims that members are entitled to be citizens in both the Seminole and Cherokee nations, as many are indeed part Native American by blood, with records to prove it. Their ancestors were classified incorrectly, under only the category of freedmen, at the time of the Dawes Rolls. In addition, the post-Civil War treaties of these tribes with the US government required they give African Americans full citizenship upon emancipation, regardless of blood quantum. Cherokee or Seminole descent among the Freedmen has been difficult to trace from historical records. Twenty-five thousand descendants of freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes may be affected by the legal controversies.

The Dawes Commission enrollment records, intended to establish rolls of tribal members for land allocation purposes, were done under rushed conditions by a variety of recorders. Many tended to exclude Freedmen from Cherokee rolls and enter them separately, even when they claimed Cherokee descent, had records of it, and had Cherokee physical features. Descendants of Freedmen see the tribe's contemporary reliance on the Dawes Rolls as a racially based way to exclude them.

Before the Dawes Commission was established, "the majority of the people with African blood living in the Cherokee nation prior to the Civil war lived there as slaves of Cherokee citizens or as free black non-citizens, usually the descendants of Cherokee men and women with African blood...In 1863, the Cherokee government outlawed slavery through acts of the tribal council. In 1866, a treaty was signed with the US government in which the Cherokee government agreed to give citizenship to those people with African blood living in the Cherokee nations who were not already citizens. African Cherokee people participated as full citizens of that nation, holding office, voting, running businesses, etc."

After the Dawes Commission established tribal rolls, in some cases freedmen of the Cherokee and the other Five Civilized Tribes were treated more harshly. Degrees of continued acceptance into tribal structures were low during the ensuing decades. Some tribes restricted membership to those with a documented Native ancestor on the Dawes Commission listings, and many restricted officeholders to those of direct Native American ancestry. In the later 20th century, it was difficult for Black Indians to establish official ties with Native groups to which they genetically belonged. Many of the freedmen descendants believe that their exclusion from tribal membership, and the resistance to their efforts to gain recognition, are racially motivated and based on the tribe's wanting to preserve the new gambling revenues for fewer people.


Tracing the genealogy of African Americans and Native Americans is a difficult process. Enslaved Africans were renamed by slaveholders and surnames were infrequently used until after the war. Historical records, such as censuses, did not record the names of enslaved blacks before the American Civil War. Some major slaveholders kept extensive records which historians and genealogists have used to create family trees, but generally researchers find it difficult to trace families before the Civil War. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. A majority of Native Americans did not speak English, let alone read or write it.

In some cases elder family members may withhold information about Native American heritage. However, knowing the family's geographic origins is a key factor in helping individuals unravel Native American ancestry. Many modern African Americans have taken an interest in genealogy and are learning about Native American heritage within their individual families. Some African Americans may work from oral history of the family and try to confirm stories of Native ancestry through genealogical research and DNA testing. Because of such findings, some have petitioned to be registered as members of Native American tribes. Each tribe controls the rules for membership. Most do not accept DNA tests as proof, especially since these cannot distinguish among the tribes.

"There's never been any stigma about intermarriage," says Stu Phillips, editor of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper in central Oklahoma. "You've got Indians marrying whites, Indians marrying blacks. It was never a problem until they got some money."

DNA testing and research has provided more facts about the extent of Native American ancestry among African Americans, which varies in the general population. As Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote in 2009,

"Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent. Those 'high cheek bones' and 'straight black hair' your relatives brag about at every family reunion and holiday meal since you were 2 years old? Where did they come from? To paraphrase a well-known French saying, “Seek the white man.”

African Americans, just like our first lady, are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African-American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (again, the equivalent of that one great-grandparent).

In contradiction to Gates statement The Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB) notes that:

"Native American markers" are not found solely among Native Americans. While they occur more frequently among Native Americans they are also found in people in other parts of the world.

Geneticists also state:

not all Native Americans have been tested especially with the large number of deaths due to disease such as small pox, it is unlikely that Native Americans only have the genetic markers they have identified, even when their maternal or paternal bloodline does not include a non-Native American.

In addition, standard DNA testing cannot answer all of an individual's questions about heritage. The two common types of tests used are Y-chromosome and mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) testing. The tests processes for direct-line male and female ancestors. Each follows only one line among many ancestors and thus can fail to identify others. Some critics thought the PBS series did not sufficiently explain the limitations of DNA testing for assessment of heritage. In addition, while full testing may tell an individual if he or she has some Native American ancestry, it cannot distinguish among separate Native American tribes. African Americans are using DNA testing to find out more about all their ancestry. Native American identity has historically been based on culture, not just biology.

Chief Silver Eagle Washington D.C. Chapter of the C.B.C.C

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