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America's Black Indians Celebrate Two Cultural Heritages


Black Americans can trace their roots to Africa, but millions of them share another heritage, as well: American Indian ancestry. Jerry Monroe is one of them.

Mr. Monroe was born in New York City in 1960 to a father who was both Apache and Mohawk, and to a mother whose ancestors were African American, Irish and Cherokee. He knew at a young age that he was American Indian, but the more interested he became in that heritage, the more he realized that most people only saw him as African American. "In the 1980s," he says, "I grew my hair long and a lot of my Indian friends and my father's friends accepted me as Native American. But I knew that whenever an African American mixes with another nationality, you see that predominant gene of the African American."

At powwows, Mr. Monroe saw other black Indians like himself, but noticed that other Native Americans did not always accept them. In response, he founded blackindians.com, launching the website in 1992 to outline the history of black Indians. The site also displays pictures of black Indians, including some famous Americans like Michael and Janet Jackson, and dancer Debbie Allen and her sister, actress Felicia Rashad. There is also information about books, videos and music CDs by and about black Indians.

Tchiya Amet is one of the artists profiled. Born and raised in Chicago, Ms. Amet did not discover her American Indian heritage until she was an adult. "I was raised in a totally black and white world, and I was black," says the singer/songwriter. "Then one day I realized that I was really a rainbow." That day came a few months after her first daughter was born and she was home visiting her family. "Just joking around the table," she says, "they told me that my grandfather, whom I had never met, was Cherokee and German. I asked 'Why did no one ever tell me this?' And then they said, 'On your grandmother's side, she's Blackfoot.' And on my Mom's side of the family, they said I had a great-grandmother who was Cherokee, also."

Discovering her Native American heritage has had an impact on Tchiya Amet's music. Although her songs have a distinctive reggae beat, her lyrics are often inspired by Native American philosophy and history. Knowing that she has American Indian ancestors has also shaped the way she raises her daughters as descendents of Native People.

As for Jerry Monroe, the success of his website led him to create a tribe, the "Binay" - or Black Indians and Intertribal Native Americans Association. "We were getting such a response," says Mr. Monroe. "About 100 people got together and said, 'Our people should come back together.'" The group's lawyer drew up paperwork and told Jerry Monroe that, to make everything legal, they needed to have a council and a chief. Mr. Monroe was nominated for that position and now goes by the name Chief Eaglefeather.

The federal government considers the Binay to be a non-profit intertribal organization, not an Indian tribe. But the lack of federal recognition has no impact on the way Chief Eaglefeather feels about his tribe of 1,200. The Binay have purchased a small plot of land - about nine hectares - where they plan to create a retreat for those who want to learn more about black Indians and their history.
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