Most U.S. education curriculum talks about the attempted genocide of Native Americans upon the arrival of European settlers. However, what many people are not aware of is the paper genocide that continues to divide and destroy the relationships between Native American people.
I grew up in Pembroke, NC. My mother is an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, and my father is African American. I am what people consider racially ambiguous. I could pass for just about anything.
My ambiguity led to a great deal of confusion at first. My complexion isn’t dark enough to fit in with the black side of my family, and my blood quantum leads to a little bit of push back from some of the members in my Native community. My mother married a “Ghaffar,” which leads many to believe that I’m Arabic. Yes, my father is Muslim, but because his father converted to Islam along with a number of other black Muslim converts in the 70s and 80s like Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali.
My father’s grandmother was Cherokee. Both of her parents passed away in an accident, and she was adopted by a black family. She passed as black her entire life. Cherokee is so loosely claimed these days that I shy away from telling anyone. Many safeguards have been put up to inhibit people from claiming tribal affiliations. This is understandable considering that some people would try to reap the benefits of having a Native identity without having any type of actual connection to the tribe. But what about people who do actually have ancestry? What about people like my great grandmother, who passed as black during a time when it was more dangerous to be Native? Children were being taken to Indian boarding schools when she was a girl. Natives, just like Black Americans were suffering the repercussions of racist Jim Crow Laws. The one-drop rule prevented anyone with one drop of black blood to claim their Native ancestry, making it very difficult to find documents proving that an ancestor was of Native descent.
I think about how blessed I am to stand on Turtle Island and feel the ancestral bond between me and the ground that supports me. I think about the trauma some of my ancestors went through when they were being forced to hide in the swamps or be removed hundreds of miles from their homes on a long journey that could result in death and separation from their loved ones.Then I think about my other ancestors of African descent and how they were stolen from their lands, separated from their families, and forced to build a nation that saw them as less than three-fifths of a human being. Why would we as Indigenous people deny anyone, who suffered these traumas, the ability to feel that same connection to Turtle Island?
In my opinion, many of us have internalized the same oppression that was used to destroy our ancestors.
As a racially ambiguous mixed person, I hear a lot of different perspectives. I pick up on racist comments from people, without them realizing that they’re talking to a black and native person. I hear the argument that anti-blackness is rooted Native tribes because some of them owned slaves, but not that they were conditioned to keep a pure blood line out of fear of losing their identity. Some Native people agree with an oppressive mindset that rejects tribal members that are not full blooded, especially if they’re “too black.”
Some federally recognized tribes don’t consider many unrecognized or non-beneficiary tribes as “real Indians,” although many Eastern Woodland tribes were first contact with European settlers. My mother says denying us is denying a huge part of our story. Instead of resenting us for being “colonized,” admire our ability to adapt and survive. That is why we are all still here. There is a constant banter of denying other people their right to their ancestry and their connection to Turtle Island.
There is a great deal of division and an overall lack of unity between the Indigenous People of the Americas. There was a time during the Civil Rights Movement, when Native Americans and Black Americans worked together to overcome racial oppression. All tribes set aside their disagreements and affiliations to come together as one. We united under the mission to bring justice and equality to all nations and people with all colors of skin. It seems as if we have reverted back to demonizing each other and blaming each other for colonialism and enslavement, when we should be fighting this battle together. Turtle Island began to be colonized 527 years ago. The slave trade began around 400 years ago. Native and Black Americans are still fighting to be heard. We’re both still fighting illegal seizures of land, treaty violations and for dues owed for building the United States of America. We should be fighting together instead of against each other.
There needs to be a deep healing and unification process that sutures this nation’s greatest wounds. We will not be able to move forward without each other, and if one surpasses the other, debts are still owed, whether it be for land occupation or the luxuries we enjoy today.
Our battle for reconciliation starts within us, and then our fight is with the U.S. government. So let’s see each other as we are supposed to, as human beings before any color, gender, or sexuality. We are complex, but we have more in common than we think. The reality is that we are all Americans, but there needs to be heavy reckoning.
Aminah Ghaffar is a Lumbee and African American Indigenous Advocate from Pembroke, NC. She has a BS in Biology from ECU, where she also competed for the track and field team, and a MS in Physiology and Biophysics from Georgetown.