One of the most understudied topics in history is that relationship between Native Americans and African Americans. This topic becomes even less explored in the 20th century. I hope to place these particular groups in conversation with one another in various historical moments. What is most interesting, though, is that I am a product of this relationship; that is, I’m, in fact, a “mixed-blood,” being African American and Native American. However, outside of some cursory comparative works, this scholarship is clearly lacking.
I hope to enter this conversation by looking at this relationship during the Black and Red Power Movements. There are two current problems that I have with doing this research: 1) how does one periodize these movements when doing them comparatively; 2) how does one take into account the fact that, although Blacks and Natives have experienced oppression, namely slavery and settler colonialism and exploitation, these experiences are very different? To be sure, Natives were (and are today) the original peoples of this land and Blacks were brought as property to work this land. Native communities had (and have today) a treaty relationship with the U.S. government, which means that the U.S. viewed them as sovereign nations. Blacks were slaves and are literally free because of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. As these few, unpacked examples demonstrate, there are some major differences.
As I skip up into the 1960s and 1970s, there are clearly differences. Native communities, although varied as to what they were fighting for, generally fought for some form of self-determination, whether it was water rights, fishing rights, or the restoration and respect for treaties. Blacks, in general, sought equal protection under the law and respect as human beings, and an end to economic segregation and exploitation. Here, I am clearly conflating key points of both the Native American Freedom Struggle and the African American Freedom Struggle. However, during the Black Power and Red Power Movements, two similarities played out rhetorically; that was calls for self-determination and nationhood. One of the more interesting things is the fact that Native communities had a more legitimate claim to self-determination because of their treaty relationship and the fact that this was (and is) their land. Blacks, on the other hand, used this rhetoric, but without much concreteness. For example, African American’s call for nationhood, particularly that of an all Blacks land base, which was a tenet of self-determination. Interestingly enough, while advocates and adversaries of the “nation within a nation” thesis had land as their central discussion, no one ever seemed to question this relationship between land and the original peoples of this land, Native Americans.
Self-determination also played out in other interesting ways, particularly in urban areas. Indeed Leonard Peltier is noted for saying that Blacks and Natives worked together in Seattle. Dennis Banks alludes to the fact that he was influenced by the Black civil rights movement and even worked with some Blacks in Minneapolis. As of right now, most of this is not documented history, to my current knowledge. Nevertheless, the urban experience seems to be where Blacks and Natives during the Black and Red Power eras can best be compared, for when one gets to the reservations it becomes a bit more complicated. Therefore, what were these relationships, if they existed, like? What were the overlaps? How did they come to urban areas such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles? These questions remained to be explored comparatively.
At least right now, the only place where I know for sure this relationship occurred is with my own family in the “D.” Indeed there seems to be a relationship between identity and the Black and Red Power movements, and how my family supported each one at different times for different reasons. One of the major reasons, it seems, was because they were in an urban context and had interactions with (and were) mixed blooded people. We shall see where this research and information takes me over the next several years.