by DON PERRY
All my life, people have looked at me with confusion, their eyes filled with questions, Who are your people? What’s your background? When I travel to the Caribbean or Latin America, I am often taken for one of the locals. Though I identify as African American and have features that signify I am definitively “non-white,” even Black folk sometimes give me questioning stares. When I recently visited IndiVisible, the traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently on view at SUNY Rockland through March 9th, I found myself staring into the faces of many people just like me…of mixed African-Native American heritage.
Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were one-quarter Native American – Cherokee and Blackfoot – and my paternal grandfather was also one-quarter Cherokee. In complexion and facial features, I mostly favor my Native American ancestry. It’s something that I have always been aware of, but haven’t really begun to explore until recently. This exhibit, produced in cooperation with the African American Historical Society of Rockland County (AAHS), the CEJJES Institute and SUNY Rockland’s African American History Month Committee, helps to shed light on the little known, oft-repressed history of our African-Native American ancestors and their struggles to find a place for themselves between two traditions and within a cultural context that first enslaved then discriminated against both.
Thrice shunned, by Native Americans, by African Americans and by white society, the lives of African-Native Americans have indeed been largely invisible. But not any longer. Thanks to the Smithsonian, and AAHS, for making it possible to see “my” people once more in all their humanity.To quote from the exhibit brochure:
“For those of dual African American and Native American heritage, this powerful sense of finding a place of beginning, a true sense of home, has been difficult. Because they have not fit into society’s established racial categories, they’ve been denied a true sense of belonging. Faced with centuries of government policies and laws that systematically oppressed and excluded them, they came together to find creative and effective ways to fight back. They established new blended communities that drew strength from sharing traditions and philosophies. And, for more than 500 years, with their music, dance, craft and food, African-Native Americans developed deeply rich cultural expressions that made an indelible mark on American life.”