Radmilla Cody, a Diné and African American Grammy-nominated, Nammy-winning singer from the Navajo Nation.
It is fitting to open Black History Month by exploring the long history of relationships between and among the indigenous people of this land with African Americans. Many tribal nations, especially on the East Coast, have members of African ancestry. This should come as no surprise. From the time the first British colonists and settlers arrived and instituted African enslavement, there was contact and intermarriage between slaves, free men, and free women with the original owners of this land—who were themselves under attack and threatened with genocide.
Crispus Attucks is a name most people learned in American History class. Attucks was killed during the Boston Massacre, and is believed to be the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks is most often identified as black in American history textbooks, which obscures his native heritage.
Crispus Attucks (1723 – 1770) was an enslaved man born in South Framingham of African and Native American parents. His father, Prince Yonger, was thought to have been a slave brought to America from Africa and his mother Nancy Attucks was a Natick Indian. Attucks was a direct descendant of John Attucks, an Indian killed in King Philip’sPaul Cuffee War in 1676.
The Naticks are now known as “The Praying Indians,” whom Daily Kos’ Ojibwa has written about in-depth in his “Indians 101” series.
From that same era, we also celebrate Paul Cuffee. Henry Louis Gates writes:
The person who spearheaded “the first, black initiated ‘back to Africa’ effort in U.S. history,” according to the historian Donald R. Wright, was also the first free African American to visit the White House and have an audience with a sitting president. He was Paul Cuffee, a sea captain and an entrepreneur who was perhaps the wealthiest black American of his time.
Cuffee was born on Cuttyhunk Island, off Southern Massachusetts, on Jan. 17, 1759, and died on Sept. 7, 1817. He was one of 10 children of a freed slave, a farmer named Kofi Slocum. (“Kofi” is a Twi word for a boy born on Friday, so we know that he was an Ashanti from Ghana.) Kofi Anglicized his name to “Cuffee.”
Paul’s mother was Ruth Moses, a Wampanoag Native American. He ended up marrying a member of the Pequot tribe from Martha’s Vineyard, Alice Pequit.
What’s interesting about both Attacks and Cuffee is that their indigenous ancestry and tribal affiliations have been virtually erased over time. Yet the descendants of these long ago marriages live on, and many other tribes have swelled with intermixings, black and Native American, over the centuries.
Due to the African ancestry of many of its members, the Shinnecock Nation of New York has had a long fight with federal gatekeepers over who is or is not Indian.
The Shinnecock were among the thirteen Indian bands loosely based on kinship on Long Island, which were named by their geographic locations, but the people were highly decentralized. “The most common pattern of indigenous life on Long Island prior to their slaughter by the Europeans was the autonomous village linked by kinship to its neighbors.” They were related and politically subject to the Pequot and Narragansett, the more powerful Algonquian tribes of southern New England across Long Island Sound. The Shinnecock are believed to have spoken a dialect of Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk, similar to their neighbors the Montaukett on Long Island. As is the case with many North Eastern tribes after the establishment of reservations, the Shinnecock language was not allowed to be spoken in schools, or off of the reservation. This caused a decline in the number of people who spoke the language, however, the tribe is actively engaged in language renewal programs to secure the legacy of the language for future generations.
Though their history stretches back into the mists of time, their battle for federal recognition didn’t end until 2010, when the Shinnecock finally became the 565th federally acknowledged tribe.
In “Reservations,” the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy wrote about tensions in the Hamptons between the white elite Hamptons glitterati and the original Long Island inhabitants.
Long Island’s Native Americans have been marrying African-Americans since the seventeenth century, when the Dutch started bringing slaves into New York. John Strong, the premier historian of Native Americans on Long Island, told me, “Slave status was defined by law in terms of the woman—a child becomes the property of the mother’s owner. If you’re a slave and you want to make sure your children are free, you marry an Indian woman.” But if slave status was defined by maternity, racial status was defined by color. “If the father was black and the mother was Indian, or vice versa, and the child comes forward with a claim to Native American identity, the white arbiters say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t jump up a notch in the hierarchy—you’re black,’ ” Strong said. “When I came here, in ’65, you’d go in any of the local bars and they would talk about the Shinnecocks as ‘monigs’: more nigger than Indian.” It’s a slur that you still sometimes hear in the Hamptons.
The Shinnecocks’ group-mindedness has been reinforced by the process of applying for federal recognition, which entails an exhaustive inquiry into who belongs to the tribe. The B.I.A. requires proof that every person listed as a tribe member is the direct descendant of someone who lived on the reservation in 1865. According to the tribe’s own policy, babies born to Shinnecock mothers are automatically included on the tribal roll. But if a baby’s parents are unmarried and only the father is Shinnecock the child is ineligible for enrollment. “There’s a saying,” Fred Bess told me. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe.”
The question of legitimacy has been particularly vexed, because most members of the tribe do not look the way American Indians are expected to look. “That’s what this whole federal-recognition process has been about,” Roberta O. Hunter, a Shinnecock lawyer, told me. “Are you who you say you are? Are you really authentic?” Hunter majored in anthropology at Bennington, and she said that in the twenties scholars got “interested in the ‘red man’ and the ‘vanishing race,’ and everybody raced out West.” The academics, she suggested, were in pursuit of motion-picture Indians. “Those stereotypes of who’s an Indian and who isn’t an Indian, those were based on all those groups west of the Mississippi. I don’t look anything like that,” Hunter, who has dark skin and kinky hair, said.
Federal recognition has not decreased the Shinnecocks’ conflicts with their Hamptons neighbors. It even became food for satire on The Daily Show in 2019.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s recent controversial construction of an electronic monument in Hampton Bays got the Comedy Central treatment in a satirical segment that aired this week on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Comic correspondent Michael Kosta braved Hamptons traffic in August to interview Shinnecock Chairman Bryan Polite, who can’t contain his laughter when told that Hamptonites find the ad-revenue-generating monument on the side of Sunrise Highway to be an attack on their way of life.
“How much of this monument is economic development and how much of it is kind of a f*** you to the people of Southampton?” Kosta asks. Polite replies, “I think it’s a little bit of both.”
Also on the East Coast, is the Nation whose members included Paul Cuffee’s mother—the Mashpee Wampanoags. They too have been engaged in battle with the federal government, most recently with the Trump administration.
Their fight for sovereignty sparked a #StandWithMashpee hashtag in 2018.
The struggle continues.
The Nation’s Aviva Chomsky examines the white purity police further in “DNA Tests Make Native Americans Strangers in Their Own Land: Reviving race science plays into centuries of oppression.”
The ancestry industry, even while celebrating diverse origins and multiculturalism, has revived long-held ideas about purity and authenticity. For much of US history, white colonizers argued that Native Americans would “vanish,” at least in part through biological dilution. New England’s native peoples were, for instance, systematically denied land rights and tribal status in the 19th century on the grounds that they were too racially mixed to be “authentic” Indians.
As historian Jean O’Brien has explained, “Insistence on ‘blood purity’ as a central criterion of ‘authentic’ Indianness reflected the scientific racism that prevailed in the 19th century. New England Indians had intermarried, including with African Americans, for many decades, and their failure to comply with non-Indian ideas about Indian phenotype strained the credence for their Indianness in New England minds.” The supposed “disappearance” of such Indians then justified the elimination of any rights that they might have had to land or sovereignty, the elimination of which, in a form of circular reasoning, only confirmed their nonexistence as a people.
However, it was never phenotype or distant ancestry but, as O’Brien points out, “complex regional kinship networks that remained at the core of Indian identity in New England, despite the nearly complete Indian dispossession that English colonists accomplished… Even as Indians continued to reckon membership in their communities through the time-honored system of kinship, New Englanders invoked the myth of blood purity as identity in denying Indian persistence.”
Scholastic Magazine produced a teaching video for first graders on “the Wampanoag Way,” which does not erase who Wampanoag are.
The Wampanoag are a Native American tribe from the northeastern United States. They were there when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 and they are still there today.
There are too many related issues to cover in just one story. The fate of the descendants of slaves held by the “Five Civilized Tribes,” many of whom are also descended from those who owned them, requires its own space. This struggle also raised issues of “anti-blackness” in those communities.
In 2017, the Cherokee Freedmen finally won their citizenship battle with the current tribal leadership.
I wrote about some maroon communities, often dubbed “tri-racial isolates,” among them the Lumbee of North Carolina in “Slippin’ into whiteness: Melungeons and other ‘almost white’ groups.”
The Lumbee continue to fight a seemingly endless battle for federal recognition, as The Washington Post reported in 2018.
Her birth certificate says she’s Indian, as did her first driver’s license. Both of her parents were required to attend segregated tribal schools in the 1950s and ’60s. In Nakai’s hometown in Robeson County, N.C., strangers can look at the dark ringlets in her hair, hear her speak and watch her eyes widen when she’s indignant, and know exactly who her mother and father are. “Who’s your people?” is a common question in Robeson, allowing locals to pinpoint their place among the generations of Lumbee who have lived in the area for nearly 300 years.
Yet in the eyes of the BIA, the Lumbee have never been Indian enough. Responding to Nakai the following month, tribal government specialist Chandra Joseph informed her that the Lumbee were not a federally recognized tribe and therefore couldn’t receive any federal benefits, including “Indian preference.” Invoking a 1956 law concerning the status of the Lumbee, Joseph wrote: “The Lumbee Act precludes the Bureau from extending any benefits to the Indians of Robeson and adjoining counties.” She enclosed a pamphlet titled “Guide to Tracing Indian Ancestry.”
Many black families refer to ancestral kin who were Cherokee, oftentimes with no proof. In a recent, rather obstreperous Twitter discussion on this issue that I won’t link here, it was pointed out that most of these families have no interest in claiming to actually be Indigenous themselves; instead, being “part Cherokee” is a way to explain away photos of “great-grandma with the long straight hair,” rather than face the traumatic reality of the long history of black women in this country being raped (and bred) by owners, overseers and other white men.
Shifting to the Southwest, and more recent history, I discovered the story of Radmilla Cody several years ago, while reading my friend Ajijaakwe’s blog. Aji featured her for Women’s History Month.
We begin today with Radmilla Cody, GRAMMY-nominated, NAMMY-winning singer from the Navajo Nation. And I do mean “singer” in the fullest Indian sense of the word.
Diné and African American, Ms. Cody has a special perspective on what it means to be a multiracial woman straddling multiple cultures and lifeways, one that I understand (in some ways, all too well). She’s a survivor of domestic violence, another issue that is close to my heart for many reasons, and she has become a fierce anti-domestic violence activist. She also does what I will never be able to do if I live to be a thousand: Sing. In the most hauntingly beautiful voice.
Journalist Garth Cartwright’s interview with Radmilla Cody digs even deeper.
“Flagstaff’s a conservative town and I have three strikes against me. Firstly, I’m a felon. Secondly I’m a woman. Third strike, I’m Native and black.’
Brief resume: born of a teenage Navajo mother and African American father, Radmilla Cody was raised on the Navajo Nation Reservation by her grandmother, Dorothy Cody, initially speaking only Dine (as the Navajo call themselves – Navajo is a Pueblo Indian term bestowed on these people when they settled the South West half millennia ago – and their language). Across two albums recorded for Phoenix Native music specialists Canyon Records she’s marked herself out as a distinctive Native voice…
Radmilla describes a childhood spent herding sheep on foot and horseback, carding and spinning wool, searching late into the night with grandmother for lost sheep and lambs. Sounds idyllic. Not so, says Radmilla. ‘’Things weren’t easy. My Mom was eighteen when I was born and was away living her life while my dad wasn’t ‘round at all. Being mixed race I attracted a lot of racial abuse. Kids were always teasing me about it; black kids doing war whoops and saying all Indians were drunk. Indian kids calling me “nigger”. I never took sides when people were rude; I stood up for Navajos and for African Americans. I’m not bitter about this. It hurt, yes, but I’ve put all these incidents behind me. My grandmother has been a great teacher. She raised me planting corn, shearing sheep, gathering water from the well. Living this life you take on tasks and responsibilities which teach you life lessons urban existence can’t.’
Cody is also the subject of a documentary film, “Hearing Radmilla,” produced and directed by Angela Webb.
I salute those whose ancestry is both Native and Naahilii.
*The term Naahilii is a new term that was passed down to Radmilla from a Dine’ practitioner when she inquired about a more positive, respectful, and empowering term to identify those whom she is born for, the African Americans. The following is the Dine’ description of the term Naahilii / Nahilii: “Na(a)” – Those who have come across. “hil (slash in the l)” – dark, calm, have overcome, persevered and we have come to like. “ii” – oneness.
As Black History Month begins, join me in honoring those whose ancestry is both Native and Naahilii!
Next Sunday I’ll be exploring the world of Afro-Puerto Ricans.
source: Black History Month: The Afro-Indigenous—Native Americans with African ancestry