Story of Americans with Native and black ancestry stirs deep emotions
By Kara Briggs\
Condensed by Native Village

Comanche family, early 1900s
Foxx family (Mashpee), 2008

WASHINGTON – According to some reports, up to 60% of African Americans may share Native American ancestry. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is now exploring their identity with “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” IndiVisible is an exhibition of 20 banners bearing photographs and text.

“The exhibition touches a deep interest in African American communities because of their links with Native America,” said guest curator Thunder Williams who has Carib Indian, African and European ancestry.  “People in the U.S. tend to be black or white, linear thinkers,. We have been indoctrinated by a race-centered system where vestiges of the ‘one-drop’ of black blood rule persist. When I acknowledge my Carib Indian and European ancestors, it is not a disclaimer of my African heritage. I am all of them, my blood is indivisible.”

IndiVisible begins in the1600s when intermarriage and slavery brought Native peoples and African slaves together. It then covers history up through today.

“It’s a very provocative topic,” said curator Gabrielle Tayac, Piscataway. “The huge back story is that it all has to do with interactions brought about by the European, with practices of slavery on the continent.”

Many panels touch core issues for people of racially mixed heritage. Tayac said the discussion is emotionally charged.  “In many Native communities on the Atlantic seaboard, African American mixing has had consequences historically. It may have them be erroneously viewed as less Indian, and it plays out in acknowledgment and enrollment. In African American communities, there is a controversy of whether people should identify as mixed race.”

Ideas about mixed-heritage people grew from colonial policies which  viewed black and Native people as dangerous.  “In colonial Mexico (the word) lobo, the wolf, is the blend of Indian and black,” Tayac said. “The combination was thought to be dangerous, that you could have two colonized and enslaved people, if they come together it could be dangerous. How much did we absorb those ideas?”

IndiVisible is so emotional that even staff from the NMAI  and the National Museum of African American History and Culture sometimes felt uneasy.

“Though sometimes there were things that were uncomfortable, we decided to keep it in the exhibition,” Tayac said. “There are difficult stories; the Cherokee Freedmen on one side, the Buffalo Soldiers on the other. What’s been interesting is people keep coming to us saying, ‘I have a story to tell you about this.’”

Another guest curator, Penny Gamble-Williams, is a Wampanoag spiritual leader. She knows people who denied their Indian heritage or wouldn't talk about it. Some embraced their Native roots later in life. Some tear-up when they ask about the Blackfeet or Cherokee tribes because family elders said they had blood ties.

Tayac says “IndiVisible” doesn’t try to provide all the answers. It often turns the question back to viewer

IndiVisible will be on exhibit until May 31, 2010 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.   Museums and schools across the U.S. are scheduling the NMAI's traveling version of
"IndiVisible. "

IndiVisible Online:
Tour Schedule: