The sad tale of the Black Indians

2 minute read

Wired is running a compelling story of tribal citizenship, genetic ancestry, and race (via Dienekes). </p>

The subjects of the story are "Black Indians": people of ultimately African descent who are historically affiliated with Indian tribes. In many cases, their ancestors were slaves held by the Indians, who were later freed and continued to live with the tribes as members, called Freedmen. Many of these people intermarried with the Indians, and their descendants today claim tribe membership.

But not without conflicts:

For the better part of the 20th century, black Indians were permitted to vote in elections, sit on tribal councils, and receive benefits. Tribal leaders now insist that the Freedmen were never actually citizens and that they will never attain the honor of membership because they don't have Native American blood. In 1983, the Cherokee tribe established a rule requiring citizens to carry a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. This federal document is available to anyone whose ancestors are listed on the Dawes Roll - a 1906 Indian census that excludes Freedmen. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled all 2,000 black members and denied their families a cut of the reparations money - never mind that their ancestors joined the tribe in the 18th century, endured the march from Florida to Oklahoma in the 1830s, and have considered themselves Indian for generations.
Outraged, numerous Freedmen have turned to the courts for help. In the most celebrated case, a black tribal leader named Sylvia Davis filed suit against the Seminole tribe in 1994 to get her son a $125 clothing stipend from the Seminole reparations money. But US courts have repeatedly refused to meddle in Indian affairs, noting that the sovereign nations determine their own membership criteria. Davis suffered a serious - and perhaps final - setback last year, when the Supreme Court refused to consider her appeal of a lower court's ruling that the Seminoles could not be sued in federal court. (The Bush administration filed a brief on behalf of the tribe.)
Now, just as the Freedmen's struggle appears all but lost, new hope is emerging from an unlikely place - the front lines of genetic science. Last year, several Freedmen leaders were approached by a molecular biology professor named Rick Kittles. As head of African Ancestry, a company he had recently founded to sell DNA testing services to amateur genealogists, Kittles promised to reveal any customer's preslavery roots, whether they stretch to the Tikar of Cameroon or the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Hinging on the struggle are opportunities to collect scholarships, reparation funds, casino profits, and tribal development grants.

Genetic methods ought to be of some use here. The article describes the arbitrary assignment of Freedmen to tribes or not in the original Dawes Roll, often based on eyeballing features like the prominence of the cheekbones. But of course genetic methods are not without their problems (also described in my earlier posts).

And there appears to be little prospect that the genetic tests will be accepted:

Other tribes are just as closed-minded. When I ask Jerry Haney, the Seminole chief who expelled the tribe's black members in 2000, whether he might reconsider his stance based on DNA tests, he huffs. "They can claim all the Indian they want," he says, "but they cannot become a member of the Seminole Nation by blood. They're down there [on the roll] as Freedmen. They're separate."

But all this might not matter if the results worked out. That's the really interesting part, and it starts on page 4.