BLACKS AND NATIVE AMERICANS
NOTES ON HISTORICAL RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN AFRICAN AMERICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS
When Europeans began coming to the Americas (North, Central & South) they enslaved the Native Americans to build their homes, settlements and plantations. The Native Americans (mistakenly called Indians by Columbus who thought he had reached the Indies) didn't take well to enslavement. They were poor workers and died in massive numbers. As a result Africans were imported as slaves to work the land. The settlers got more work out of the Africans and fewer died in slavery. In some situations, where Native American societies held out for a while against the European invasion, the Native Americans owned black slaves. In other situations, most notably the Florida Seminoles, communities of runaway or freed slaves and Native Americans formed alliances to fight the United States. Blacks became members of some of the Seminole communities and were promoted to be war chiefs. (For decades blacks were acknowledged to be part of the Creek nation but this claim is now being disputed, probably because of the prospect of revenues from settlements with the government or gambling.) In other situations Americans of African descent fought with the U.S. Army against Native Americans. In some instances, blacks and Native Americans intermarried. Today many Indians have black ancestors and many black American have Native American ancestors.
All over the Americas and the Caribbean, small numbers of Africans were able to escape slavery and form their own communities. These were called "Maroon Societies". These communities were established in remote areas, hoping to avoid attacks by governments or slave holders. Over the years many Maroon communities were attached and destroyed, but some survived.
Below are some examples
Yanga was from the upper Nile River region of Africa. He was taken to New Spain, now called Mexico, in 1579 as a slave. He escaped into the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico with other slaves and formed a Maroon town and lived by African traditions. They fought off Spanish forces for years, but Yanga, at the age of 48, was betrayed, captured and executed by Spaniards on Easter Sunday in 1612. San Lorenzo de los Negroes no renamed "Yanga" Gaspar Yanga and The First Free People of the Americas
Another Maroon Society was started by a West African Ashanti-born woman called Nanny, who was taken to the Caribbean island of Jamaica where she ran from slavery. This Maroon Society became know as Nanny Town. She led a force of former slaves which held off British attackers for some 10 years. In 1739 Nanny finally signed a peace treaty with the British and was granted land. Nanny's image can be seen today on Jamaica's $500 dollar bill.
When the Spanish Conquistador explorer Hernando Cortes went to the southern part of the west coast of North America in 1510 he wrote about a society he came upon made up of black Amazon women. The queen of the Amazon women was named Califia. This society of women would bring men to their village so they could conceive children. After the women conceived, the men were killed. The state of California was later named after this black Amazon woman.
Once the black African slave trade took hold in America, the Indians were no longer needed to work the plantations. Small groups of blacks lived among the Native nations. One such group was called the Chickasaw Freedmen. The Chickasaw Freedmen were free blacks who, during slavery years, lived with a Chickasaw Indian tribe and daily went into town to sing for their supper. After working in town all day they returned to the Chickasaw nation to live in peace. Many of these blacks married Native people and had black Indian children. Some runaway slave ads indicate that escaped slaves were seen living among the Indians.
Chief Pontiac lived in the territory of Michigan. He was childhood friends with Jean Baptist du Sable, a black Haitian Frenchman who became a fur trapper in the upper Midwest. Jean was a childhood slave who Pontiac convinced to run away from slavery to hide deep in the vast woods among the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indian nations. Du Sable and Pontiac fought in the American Revolution for the American Rebels under French General Marquis de Lafayette. A short time later in 1778, Jean Baptist established a trading post on the north bank of the Calumet River in Illinois. He is said to have founded the city of Chicago with this trading post. But in 1779 the British went to Chief Pontiac and asked for the deed to Mackinac Island in upper Michigan. Pontiac refused to give up the beautiful island located in Lake Michigan so the Red Coats (British) captured Du Sable and used him as a bargaining chip to obtain Mackinac. About a year later the British went back to Chief Pontiac to ask for the island again. When Pontiac refused a second time the British told the Indian Chief that they had his good friend Du Sable and would sell him back into slavery if Pontiac did not give up the beloved island. So, Pontiac agreed to trade the island for the black Frenchman's release. In May of 1781, the British got the deed to Mackinac Island and 12 days later they released Jean Baptist.
In 1830, the Removal Act was signed into law. This act meant that all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River were forced to move and relocate west of the Mississippi. The law was made because the Europeans needed more land for the hundreds and thousands of settlers coming across the Atlantic Ocean to live in the United States. Many of the Indians refused to go west and ran deep into the woods, mountains and swamps. But most of the Indigenous people were forced to take the trip across the Mississippi and very few had horses to ride on the long journey. Thousands died because they did not have enough food, proper clothing and often did not have shoes to walk in. This is why the harsh trip west to Oklahoma became known as "The Trail of Tears." Of those thousands who took the trek west, it is estimated that up to 1/3 or 30 % of them were either black or black Indians.
After the Civil War many of the former black slaves had no home to go to, so they headed west. This is true of black soldiers and cowboys. At first there were very few black or white women in the Wild West. This meant that many of these men married Native American women. Most of today's African American population in the states of Oklahoma and Kansas have Indian ancestors.
One Native American nation, the Seminole Nation, came about as the result of a division in the Creek Nation. One of the reasons for the split was because slave catchers apparently asked the Creek Nation to help them catch runaway slaves. Some of the tribe agreed to do so for supplies, favor and money. However, about half of the tribe refused and separated from the other Creeks. In the early 1700s this second group of Creeks moved into the Florida territory which was under Spanish rule where slave laws differed from other states and territories. These Creek Indians combined with the few indigenous tribes still living in Florida who were near extinction after many wars and disease brought to the area by white settlers. Runaway slaves and free blacks seeking shelter from being enslaved, moved into Florida as well. Many runaways escaping plantations close to Florida's boarders chose that territory rather than run hundreds of miles north to freedom in Canada. The combination of indigenous tribes, the separating Creek Nation and black settlers who were called Black Seminoles, formed the foundation of the Seminole Nation. Today, most Seminole Indians live in Oklahoma having been removed west of the Mississippi during the "Trail of Tears." However, some of the Seminoles stayed behind hiding deep in Florida's swamps when they were ordered to move west. The Black Seminoles played a major role in the Seminole wars by forming the Negro Indian Scouts and fighting off European invaders, government soldiers, and slave catchers. Many of the Negro Seminole Scouts moved into the Texas area where they patrolled the U. S. borders. Today, their offspring hold family reunions once or twice a year in the Lone Star state.
One black Indian personality was fur trapper George Bonga of Minnesota's northwest territory. Like his father, Bonga married an Ojibwa (Chippewa) woman. His grand parents were slaves of British officer Captain Daniel Robertson on Michigan's Mackinac Island. Island post records show that his grandfather Jean Bonga married fellow slave Marie Jeanne in 1794 after the death of their master when they gained their freedom. One of their sons, Pierre, became part of the 1802-1803 expedition of the Minnesota Red River Valley for the Northwest Company. Pierre is believed to have been the first individual of African decent in the western portion of the Minnesota Territory. He stayed in the area and acted as interpreter for the Northwest Company. He married into the Ojibwa tribe and became a principle trader among the Native Americans. His son George Bonga was born near the Duluth River in Minnesota and he was educated in Montreal, Canada. George spoke the language of the Ojibwa Nation, French and English fluently. Like his father, George acted as interpreter for his tribe. In 1820 this black Indian acted as interpreter for Minnesota Governor Louis Cass at a council with the Fond du Lac Indians. As a young man he became a canoe man for the American Fur Company. He was known for his negotiation skills and his great physical strength. It is said he once carried more than 700 pounds of furs for a quarter of a mile. A well known fur trapper, Bonga maintained posts at Ottertail and Leech Lakes in Northwestern Minnesota. Legend has it that dignitaries loved being guests of the Bongas because of their generous hospitality. George's lodge and his wife's cooking were well known throughout the territory. Bonga Township near Detroit Lakes, Minn. was named after George. He was also known to take excursions on Minnesota lakes in a birch bark canoe, singing a French Canadian boat song. By the color of their skin, one can recognize some of Bonga's offspring at today's White Earth Reservation Pow Wows in the northern region of the state.
Links to the Internet:
- Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.
Anderson, W. L. ( 1991.) Cherokee Removal: before and After. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.
Bennett, L. Jr. (1970, December). Red and Black: The Indians and the Africans. Ebony.
Burton, A. T. (1991). Black, Red, and Deadly. Austin, TX: Eakin Press.
Forbes, J. D. (1993). Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Forbes, J. D. (1988). Black Africans and Native Americans: Color, Race, and Caste in the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell Ltd.
Johnson, J. H. (1929, January). Documentary Evidence of the Relations of Negroes and Indians. The Journal of Negro History. 14.
Littlefield, D. F. ( 1993). The Chickasaw Freedmen: A People Without A Country. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Willis, W. S. (1963). Divide and Rule: red, White and Black in the Southeast. The Journal of Negro History. 3, 68.
Wright, J. L. Jr. (1986). Creeks and Seminoles: Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln, NE: University of Illinois Press.
Last updated July 28, 2007.
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