Groundbreaking Forum Explores Afro-Native Identity

by Alejandra Padín-Dujon

“There is no specific point at which Black-Cherokee relations begin,” cautioned Yale law student and Harvard Ph.D. candidate Shannon Prince by way of introduction to her history of the Cherokee Freedmen—freed slaves incorporated into the racially diverse Cherokee Nation who struggle to procure tribal citizenship to this day. Prince herself is Black Cherokee, though not a Freedman.

Her comment offered a suggestive preview of the fraught intersection between Black and Native identities in a country pockmarked by slavery and genocide.

At the Afro-Native American Heritage Panel held at the Af-Am House on Wednesday, November 11, discussion ranged from the need for Black-Native solidarity, to academia’s neglect of Black-Native identities, to exposition on the historical tensions between Black and Native communities.

Dean Kelly Fayard of the Native American Cultural Center began by recounting the devastation wrought by settler colonialism and Euro-American civilizing projects on the Native community. She noted that some Native populations, including the Five Civilized Tribes of the American Southeast, adopted plantation slavery as part of an overall push for assimilation.

The forum also incorporated personal statements from two self-identified Black Native Yale women, Karléh Wilson ’16 (Black Creek) and Naivasha Harris (Choctaw and Cherokee). Both stressed that Blackness and Nativeness are integral, complementary, and inseparable parts of their identity.

“I feel like if I had to choose one race and stick with it, I would be betraying my family members,” said Wilson.

However, reconciling the two is not without its challenges. Harris expressed frustration that many in the Native community doubt the validity of her Native identity, accusing her of being “just one of those people who claims to have a Cherokee grandma”—when she does indeed have a Cherokee grandmother—while she feels pressure from the Black community to “identify as only Black, or I’m not Black enough.”

For many, the forum was a unique opportunity to explore the intersections between Black and Native identity. Trumbull junior Tobias Holden remarked that he was excited by “the fact that this event existed.”

“I didn’t even know what I had going on today, and I was like, ‘I’m going!’” he said, laughing.

The element of self-discovery also held true for Eliza Quander ’16, who at one point was asked point-blank whether she was Black Native.

“I never said that before, and I’m not sure I have a right to say it, but I guess I’m learning that,” she said. Quander is of Cherokee descent.

“I think I was letting the way people see me affect my own identity more than it should,” she later reflected.

Dean Fayard was quick to welcome both Holden and Quander to spend time at the Native American Cultural Center, stressing that it is an inclusive and diverse community.

Unfortunately, collaborations between the House and the NACC such as Wednesday’s forum have been sporadic and rare, and in the broader realm of academia, the Black Native identity has been largely ignored.

“We feel very invisible,” said Harris, alluding to the fact that there are few Native students on campus, and even fewer Black Natives.

“There’s not much scholarship on who I am,” noted Wilson. “There are no words.”

Both women expressed regret that it had taken until their senior year for them to get to know each other. Holden felt it was a shame that it “took this long for me to feel like these [Black and Native] identities could complement each other.”

Ultimately, however, all parties expressed optimism about the future of Black Native dialogue on campus and on the national level.

“One of the things this week has shown is that we can’t fix anything unless we band together,” said Harris, referencing the recent flurry of student activism as universities nationwide reach a tipping point on tensions surrounding institutionalized racism.

Ultimately, the solution may lie in discarding misleading and divisive conceptions of racial and ethnic identity.

“Those ideas about race are just colonial imports that we can reject as an expression of sovereignty,” declared Prince.