Black Indians

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Black Indians





The term Black Indian is used to describe a broad range of roles and identities that are very different from one another. At one end of the spectrum are people of African ancestry who also have Native Americans in their genealogies but generally have not participated in native society or culture. These include such prominent Americans as Crispus Attucks (a victim of the Boston Massacre in 1770), Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Tiger Woods. At the other end of the spectrum are people of African ancestry who “went native” by joining an Indian nation and staying there as adopted citizens. These include such interesting and significant persons as Joseph “Black Joe” Hodge, a trapper and trader who joined the Seneca Nation of upstate New York about 1771 and served as interpreter and mediator between them and the English colonists. Perhaps the most celebrated of black people who joined the Indians was Jim Beckwourth. Born in Virginia in 1798, Beckwourth became a “Mountain Man” in the Rocky Mountain area, married a Crow Indian woman, and became a chief of the Crow Nation. His testimony was crucial in exposing the atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. He narrated his biography to one T. D. Bonner, and it was published in 1856.


Such personages as these, however, constitute only a tiny fraction of those who combined African ancestry in some manner with Native American culture. Among the earliest were the “Maroon” populations that developed in the Atlantic coastal areas from Brazil to Virginia, and in the Caribbean, during the time of the slave trade. Some of them had an “Amistad” experience, having seized their slave ships and gone ashore as fugitives. They were soon joined by thousands of escaped slaves, and some took spouses from local Indian tribes. In this manner, they soon came to constitute a hybrid society. Because they spoke different African languages, some of them developed a European Pidgin language. In other cases, they learned a local Indian language that they developed to suit their own purposes, with the addition of some African vocabulary. The northernmost remaining representatives of these Maroon communities are the “Gullah” people of the Georgia Sea Islands, and the most numerous South American group comprises the “Bush Negroes” of Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). In between, geographically, the most numerous group is the Garifuna, or “Black Caribs,” of Central America and the Caribbean. Altogether, the Garifuna number several hundred thousand people.

As southern slave society expanded along the Atlantic coast of North America in the eighteenth century, the Maroon communities along the coast increasingly came under attack from slave raiders who sold them to southern planters. The Maroons were forced to gradually move south to seek refuge. Some joined with Indian nations, notably the Seminoles of Florida and the Creeks of Georgia and Alabama, who had a history of accepting foreign allies into their Confederacy. Previously, the Creeks had accepted hundreds of escaped white indentured servants, as well as thousands of refugees from devastated eastern tribes, such as the Hitchitis and Shawnees. Individuals or families could be absorbed by the existing towns of the Confederacy, but larger groups of Maroons could negotiate some kind of “client” status. As clients, they paid an annual “tribute” in products or services to their Indian patrons, but were not under their direct control.

The “elite” ranks of southeastern Indian tribes, or those who owned land and livestock, also took on black people, but as chattel slaves rather than clients. These slaves lived under the same conditions that existed under the institution of slavery elsewhere in the United States. Both groups of blacks—slaves and clients—became somewhat “Indianized” in this situation, but the extent varied depending on local circumstances. At the extreme, Seminole blacks, who became known as Freedmen, spoke the Seminole language and participated fully in tribal politics. The man known to history as “Negro Abraham” was the chief negotiator for Seminole treaties with the U.S. government. Fully half the Seminole warriors who defeated the United States in a succession of three wars in the early nineteenth century were black. At the cessation of warfare, some black Seminoles joined the U.S. Army in the Southwest, where four of them earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, some confusion developed concerning the meaning of the word freedmen. The term free black was in use during slave times to designate a black who was not a slave. The newly freed slaves tended to use the term freedman to indicate their new status, though the term was already in use among Black Indians. But the Black Indians among the southeastern tribes, who were largely descended from Maroons, resented the implication that they were former slaves, and their descendents are still adamant in reserving the designation for themselves, stating that their ancestors “never were slaves.”

The last major incident of organized Maroon resistance to slavery in North America occurred in 1815, when the British abandoned their fort near Pensacola, Florida, leaving it and its armaments under control of 330 of their Maroon and Indian allies. Eight hundred black warriors from surrounding tribes soon joined them. The fort became known as “Negro Fort” and was attacked by the U.S. Army in March of 1816. After a lucky shot to the powder magazine by the Americans nearly destroyed the fort, the survivors who did not escape were killed or sold as slaves.

Some of the surviving Maroons joined major southeastern Indian tribes, while others fled to one of the small communities in isolated areas of the eastern United States, which became known as “triracial” communities. The people in these communities had ancestry among whites, blacks, and Indians, and they tried to remain inconspicuous to avoid persecution as blacks or removal to Indian Territory as Indians. Some are only now emerging from obscurity, hoping to be recognized as Indians by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are more than a hundred such communities, some of the more visible being the Brass Ankles and Turks of South Carolina, the Haliwas of North Carolina, the Melungeons of Tennessee, and the Red Bones of Louisiana. Some of them have Web sites supporting their historical claims.


Most Black Indians attached to the five “Civilized Tribes” of the Southeast (the Seminoles, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees) ultimately moved with these tribes when they were moved onto reservations in what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s. Their role in tribal government varied, however, from direct participation to a more marginal status, but they were all regarded legally as Indians, for example, when land was distributed to individuals under the Dawes Act in the early 1900s. As tribal claims have arisen since then concerning land and other settlements, Black Indians, or freedmen, have always demanded and received their share.

Ever since Indian Territory became part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907, there has been a steady tendency of Black Indians to melt into the general African-American population, unless there was some issue in the tribe that maintained their attention. In the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, there are a large number of African Americans descended from Black Indians on the Dawes enrollment rosters. Periodically, there have been attempts by racist elements in the Indian tribes to expel their black citizens. One such incident occurred in March 2006, when Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith proposed the removal of 2,800 Black Cherokees from the tribal roster.


The experiences of Black Indians south of the United States has been rather different, for both economic and geographic reasons. In Dutch Guiana, which the Dutch received as a colony from England in 1667 in exchange for Manhattan Island, the original inhabitants were Arawak and Carib Indians. The Dutch imported West African slaves for agriculture and treated them very brutally, perhaps not understanding that the slaves understood quite well how to live in the tropical forest and could escape and live successfully in the interior, which was not occupied by the colonists. Hundreds of slaves escaped in the first few decades of slavery and intermarried with the two tribes of Indians. Over the next three centuries, Indians and Africans created a mosaic of hybrid societies in the interior, which evolved through time to become the Djuka, Saramaccaner, Matuwari, Paramaccaner, and Quinti tribes, with a present population of about 30,000 persons. Collectively, they became known as “Bush Negroes.”

From the first, the Bush Negroes aggressively attacked the Dutch plantations, raiding them for goods and to free other slaves, so that a “no man’s land” was created between what is now known as the district of Sipaliwini, in the interior, and the coastal area that the Dutch were developing for agriculture and mineral extraction. Dutch Guiana was renamed Suriname when it became self-governing in 1954, and political tensions became exacerbated among all the ethnic groups, resulting in an outright Bush Negro insurgency in 1986. The revolt, which became known as the “Maroon Insurgency,” was led by a former soldier named Ronnie Brunswijk, who began attacking economic targets in the interior. The army retaliated brutally, forcing many Bush Negroes to flee to neighboring French Guiana. A peace treaty, called the Kourou Accord, was negotiated in 1989, but it was not implemented. The political situation has remained tense and complex since then, but the Bush Negroes have emerged as a significant and independent political force in the national arena.

The Black Indians called Garifuna have a past that may be, in part, mythological, beginning with a pre-Columbian incident in which the Arawaks of St. Vincent Island were attacked by Kalipuna from mainland South America, who killed the Arawak men and married their women. A more reliable story concerns the arrival of Africans aboard two Spanish ships carrying slaves for the Americas in 1675, which were wrecked on the same island. The Spanish-Kalipuna-Arawak-Nigerian admixture is supposed to be the origin of the Garifuna, or Black Caribs.

More historical documents come into play with the struggle between British and French forces for control of the island. The British won in 1763 and promptly expelled the Garifuna, killing many of them out of fear that a population of free blacks would be troublesome on an island where they wanted to establish slave plantations. The expelled Garifuna were then settled around the Caribbean in appropriate places, providing the seeds for a pan-Caribbean population that now numbers about 200,000 people. The Spanish helped in the dispersion of Black Caribs, transporting them to Spanish colonies to become independent farmers, craftsmen, and even soldiers. Because of their presence in the Spanish army, the Black Caribs were made to feel unwelcome when the former Spanish colonies became independent in the nineteenth century. Consequently, many Black Caribs migrated to Belize, then under British control and called British Honduras. The date of their arrival, November 19, 1832, is referred to as Garifuna Settlement Day among Garifuna communities, and it has become a major holiday.

Because of their participation in maritime trade, the Garifuna have established colonies in major cities around the world, especially New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York City. Present population estimates for nearly 200,000 people from various sources are as follows: Honduras, 120,000; Belize, 17,000; Guatemala, 3,000; New York City, 30,000; Los Angeles, 25,000; and New Orleans, 4,000.

The historical experience of the Garifunas has been quite different from that of other Black Indians. Instead of being forced to defend their territories from an encroaching colonial frontier, they found themselves transported around the Caribbean by various colonial powers for political and economic purposes. Spread among many countries, they have not constituted a unified political threat to established governments. But their proficiencies in the arts and crafts are widely celebrated, and they are currently the focus of efforts to increase tourism in the countries where they live. The experiences of other groups of Maroons around the Caribbean are included in the collection Maroon Societies, edited by Richard Price and originally published in 1973.

SEE ALSO Triracial Isolates.


Bonner, T. D. 1965 (1865). The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Hudson, WI: Ross and Haines.

Forbes, Jack D. 1993. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Gonzalez, Nancie L. 1988. The Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Herskovits, Melville Jean, and Frances S. Herskovits. 1934. Rebel Destiny: Among the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Katz, William L. 1986. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Atheneum.

Mulroy, Kevin. 1993. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press.

Price, Richard. 1996. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, 3rd ed. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

John H. Moore