Headlines, North America

INDIGENOUS-US: Black Indians Strike it Rich

Leslie Goffe

NEW YORK, Apr 4 1999 (IPS) - Who is, and who is not an Indian is a subject of debate among the 2.5 million Native Americans – few of whom can claim to be “pure blood.”

One tribe of so-called ‘black indians’, who have both Indian and African-American ancestry, have now become the focus of discussion about Indian identity.

The racially-mixed Mashantucket Pequot Indians may be small in number – there are currently only 502 officially registered members – but they comprise the richest, most powerful Indian community in the United States.

They own Foxwoods Resort Casino, situated about 30 miles south of Hartford, the capital of Connecticut state – about a one hour’s drive from either New York or Boston.

The casino grosses more than a billion dollars a year, much of which, the Mashantucket Pequots say, has gone towards rebuilding Indian life in the United States.

They cite, for example, the 200 million dollar Indian museum they recently built on their reservation, and the annual festival they host on their reservation which draws around 50,000 Indians from 500 tribes from across the U.S. and Canada.

Yet, despite all of this, the Mashantuckets are viewed by many as falling short of being truly Native American, says Arlene Hirschfelder, author of The Native American Almanac.

“There are Native American people who react to tribal groups who’ve inter-married with blacks. They’re criticised for not having their language and traditions. They see them as people without a culture.

I look at it as these Pequot people are trying to re-learn who they are.”

But Carrie Braine, a leader of the Northern Cheyenne Indians – the victors over General George Custer’s soldiers at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 – says ‘black Indians’ dont quite fit the part they’re playing.

“Many Indian people believe that a ‘real Indian’ must have dark brown hair, dark eyes, you know the stereotype, and must not be too dark or too light.”

Though this picture does fit most people’s idea of a Native American, that’s not how Vinny Sebastien or most of the members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe look.

Sebastien looks African-American because of a complicated history which saw the original Pequot driven off their land onto a run- down reservation, and eventually into neighbouring cities in New England where they inter-married within African American communities.

“I consider myself an “African-American Indian”, explains Sebastien, 37, determined to acknowledge both sides of his ancestry.

Other Mashantuckets, though, like Clifford Sebastien, 72, are determined to erase the tribe’s African ancestry.

“A lot of us who appear like we marry out too far” he says. “We are marrying back in to make the blood stronger.”

Another Mashantucket, Valerie Burgess, 34, is divided over the matter. She’s married to an African-American, but says for the sake of the tribe she would encourage her children to marry only Indians.

“I would drop subtle hints that he should marry somebody who was Pequot.” she says.

But others, such as elder John Perry, say the tribe cannot mandate who people should love. “In this modern time it is going to be kind of hard to have a pure Indian race” he says.

He does admit, however, that talk of racial purity does obsess some Pequot. “They are trying here on the reservation to get people to marry other Indians. So I guess there will be some pure Indians, but not that many.”

Instead of trying to ‘improve the blood’, Vinny Sebastien says his tribe ought to busy itself learning what it can about Indian language and culture.

Vinny Sebastien grew up far away from the reservation in an inner city ghetto immersed in black music. But now, six years after he moved to the reservation to begin a new life, he has become an accomplished drummer, and can often be found at pow-wows dressed in full Indian regalia..

“I dont speak the language” Sebastien says. “But I’m getting into the culture now.”

All Pequot work for one or other of the tribe’s many business or as adminstrators in departments like Youth, Culture, Senior Citizens, etc. Vinny Sebastien is director of the Youth Service Department.

All members of the community thereotically are shareholders in the billion dollars grossed at the Casino every year. But the tribal council, concerned not encourage idleness, requires members to work in some shape or form and so earn their dividend from the gambling profits.

Vinny Sebastien earns about 150,000 dollars as Director of Youth Services, but by volunteering for other tasks and sitting on committees he can increase his dividends at the end of the year to quadruple his income.

If any of the community members want to set up a business, the tribe will help out with the money to get started.

Still, this isn’t good enough says Carrie Braine of the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Montana. “I dont think you can re-learn being Indian if it was lost,” she insists.

And, it’s not just Indians who do not accept the racially-mixed Mashantuckets.

Whites, like Wesley Johnson, Mayor of the Connecticut town surrounding the Pequot reservation, says he speaks for many whites when he questions the tribe’s authenticity.

“Locals do say that they (the Mashantuckets) aren’t really Indians, that they are black and whatever. But I guess they, and the federal government, have their rules as to what is and is not an Indian.”

Ever since Africans arrived in the United States as slaves they have been mixing with Native Americans. Tribes like the Seminole of Florida often provided runaway slaves with refuge.

Several studies have shown that between 30 and 70 per cent of African-Americans claimed they had some Indian ancestry.

But, whether other Indians, whites, or even the African-Americans they used to live amongst, like it or not, the Mashantucket Pequot refuse to apologise for their ancestry, or the good fortune that has made them fantastically rich and powerful.

Tribal elder John Perry says they are a true American melting pot.

“If you look at the Pequot today you are going to see light-skin ones, you are going to see dark-skin ones. Some are going to look white, some black, but we’re all related.”

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  • Gladys Nesbit

    This is why I do not give to charitable “Indian” org…some are not accepting Black Americans who have proven their “Indian-African Ancestry”.!!!! When they know the truth!!!

  • Eric Huishen Hernandez

    The language in articles like these proves how racist America continues to be. Do you want DNA tests?! Do you want paperwork? DNA can be managed but paperwork??–both Native and Black Peoples have a little trouble with that–thanks to the horrors and abuses visited upon us by whites. And I doubt DNA results can cure racism.

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