Gamble-Williams, an educator, artist and community activist, and her husband, Thunder Williams, of Afro-Carib ancestry from Trinidad and Tobago, have a radio show on D.C.’s WOL-AM Radio, called “The Talking Feather.” The show explores the history and culture of American Indians, blacks and and indigenous peoples from around the world.
“On our show, a lot of Afro-Native people were calling in, questioning why our story was not in the National Museum of the American Indian,” the Hyattsville, Md., resident said.
Later, the couple would attend a viewing of the documentary film, "Black Indians in America: An America Story," which affirmed “this identity issue started 500 years ago,” the radio host said. “When we met Louise Thundercloud, a Native woman with African ancestry, she said our story could not stop with the documentary, and we thought how we could have the story of black Indians told in the museum.”
The Williamses would put together a concept paper with a proposal to tell the story of the rich heritage forged from the relationship between American Indians and blacks and present it to NMAI'S community affairs department in early 2005. On Nov. 10, 2009, four years of work paid off with the opening of the exhibit, "IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas." The exhibit will run through May 2010. An opening symposium drew a standing-room-only audience.
Many in attendance felt that the story of the intersection and relationship of the two peoples was long overdue, although several books have attempted to tell the story of the historical connections between the two groups that began more than 500 years ago. The late educator Carter G. Woodson stated that it "is one of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United Sates."
Books like “Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples” by Jack D. Forbes, pointed out that free Africans reached the shores of the Americas as traders and settlers long before Europeans brought African slaves to the Americas in chains. Noted scholar Dr. Ivan Sertima’s “They Came Before Columbus” argues that historical, archaeological and even botanical evidence shows proof of African contact with the New World in Pre-Columbian times.
More recent evidence depicts how the relationships become more complex with the institution of slavery and the Indian Wars that pitted black soldiers against Indian tribes. While documents show the intermarriage of blacks and American Indians, African-Native slave narratives tell the stories of slaves held captive by American Indian tribes. Other times, white settlers held both American Indians and blacks captive.
However, according to Rex Ellis, associate director for cultural affairs for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a co-collaborator with NMAI, “While there has been excellent scholarship on the subject, the story of African-Native people is one that has not been fully explored in a wide public forum, until this exhibition. It is a story that while painful at times, needs to be told.
“African-Native Americans are inextricably bound, and they no longer wish to hide. Whatever the consequences, they want people to know who they are.”
For some like John W. Franklin, son of noted scholar John Hope Franklin, the exhibit is important “because our stories are shared. Our children need to see the overlap.” Franklin, director of partnerships and international programs for the National Museum of African History and Culture, said his grandfather, Buck Albert Franklin, is pictured in the exhibition. “The picture was taken in 1899. He had been enslaved by Native Americans but was able to escape and serve in the Civil War.”
For 75-year-old Alfred Whitaker, a member of Virginia’s Nottoway tribe, the exhibit means, “Black Indians are no longer invisible. I grew up listening to stories from my great-grandmother who was full-blooded Creek, but I could not say in proper company that my ancestors were Native American. Virginia had a law that said that if you had one drop of black blood, then you were considered colored, effectively disenfranchising Native Americans.”
For Louise Thundercloud, the exhibit “is the beginning of a place of healing long overdue. That we have come together to give a more accurate representation is really exciting.”
Tall Oak, a 73-year-old elder from Rhode Island and an Absentee Mashentucket Pequot, commented that the exhibit shows a more balanced picture between red and black peoples than previously shown in history books.
“For so long, the history books had been sanitized. Before this exhibition came to fruition, I had dreamed of telling the impact of slavery on people. Little Rhode Island was the tail that wagged the dog in the English Colonies when it came to slavery in the U.S. “
A history buff, Tall Oak captivated an attentive audience during a session with his own Afro-Native version of the song ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy” and shared some little-known historical facts.
“The Desire, the first slave ship built in the U.S., was built in Marblehead, Massachusetts,” Tall Oak said. “A year later, there was the Pequot Massacre, and all of the Pequot that were not massacred were sent as slaves to Bermuda. In 2002, we connected with the offspring of those sent to Bermuda, and they look just like us.”
Thunder Williams, who with his wife is part of a curatorial team that includes Robert Keith Collins, Angela Gonzales, Judy Kertesz and Gabrielle Tayac, said he hopes the new Smithsonian exhibit opens the door on a larger scale for reconciliation between Afro-Native people through open dialogue “and for the bigger task of helping a society that has not reconciled with one another,” Williams said.
“Colonization in the Americas inflicted psychic trauma on black and red people, resulting in a loss of identity and a distorted reality. We need a reconciliation with history, ourselves and with others,” said Gamble-Williams.” Let’s get over the fear of Africa and the fear of being identified as having African blood.”
Co-sponsored by local chapters of the Links, the exhibit will travel on exhibition through 2012. The Williamses hope the exhibition will reach numerous groups so that open discussions can be addressed around sensitive issues such as full blood versus mixed blood, and the social and political implications around identity issues.
Thunder Williams says, " 'IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas' will facilitate dispelling negative images and unfounded myths perpetuated by inaccurate historical accounts and unbalanced academic instruction. Understanding how one's personal history fits into the national history and correspondingly into a global history is a cornerstone of cross-cultural enlightenment."
“As a sociologist, I ask, ‘How did we come to have these different ideologies?' " Dr. Angela A. Gonzales, a member of the Hopi tribe, and a member of the curator team said. “This is a huge topic that so many of us are invested in.”
IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas
National Museum of the American Indian: Symposium - Friday, November 13, 2009
A part of the American story has long been invisible—the story of people who share African American and Native American ancestry. Over centuries, African American and Native people came together, creating shared histories, communities, and ways of life. Often divided by prejudice, laws, or twists of history, African-Native Americans were united by a double heritage that is truly indivisible.
Held on the occasion of the groundbreaking exhibition IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, this symposium aims to bring visibility to African-Native American lives and initiate a healing dialogue on African-Native American experiences for people of all backgrounds. Speakers include curators and authors Robert Keith Collins (African and Choctaw descent), Penny Gamble-Williams (Chappaquiddick Wampanoag), Angela Gonzales (Hopi), Judy Kertész, Tiya Miles, and Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway). Lonnie G. Bunch, III, director of the Smithsonians National Museum of African American History and Culture, will deliver opening remarks, and NMAI director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) moderates.