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Africa & Aboriginal Tuesdays: Navajo 'Black Sheep' Fights Prejudice by Jodi Rave


Radmilla Cody grew up in a Navajo world, butchering sheep, raising goats and speaking Dine.

Yet many in her tribe - and her family - never accepted her.

Her maternal uncle called her a black pig.

Neighborhood kids taunted her with names like “Zhinii Zhinii coco puff,” a Navajo slur for blacks.

Even when Cody was crowned Miss Navajo Nation, some complained she could not represent the country's largest tribe.

Cody was born to a Navajo mother and a black father.

She grew up knowing her mother considered giving her up. But her grandmother filled those empty spaces with kindness, reminding the girl she was special and beautiful - like ancient canyon walls against a turquoise sky.

She wanted a place among the Navajo, and she learned to embrace her two cultures.

“I identify more with the Navajo side,” said Cody, now 29. “But I love the black side as well. That is who I am.”

Who she is - part Native, part black - is at the heart of a growing debate about Native identity.

A tribe's right to determine its citizens, either through degrees of Native blood or cultural and community ties, has always been a controversial subject. But in recent years, a political and legal battle has been brewing around Natives with black ancestry.

When Dartmouth College in New Hampshire hosted a conference on black and Native relations five years ago, some participants nearly came to blows.

The Mashantucket Peqout tribe of Connecticut has faced scrutiny from Natives and non-Natives alike because some members look “too black” or “not Native enough.”

It's a prejudice rooted in money - the Peqout tribe owns one the world's most profitable tribal resort casinos - and in physical characteristics associated with blacks, said Judy Kertesz, a Harvard doctoral student of history.

“This touches at the very core of white America,” she said. “This is what enrages them. Only they have a right to black bodies and Indian land.”

The Pequots are often viewed by other tribes with suspicion because the tribe - which is newly recognized - is seen as having a “borrowed culture,” said Kertesz, a Lumbee with black ancestry.

And the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma - Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Cherokee and Seminole - are under pressure for excluding would-be tribal members with black bloodlines.

James Brooks, president of the School of American Research in Santa Fe, N.M., was among a half-dozen scholars from across the country to participate in a seminar on black-Native relations at the University of New Mexico in November.

“Everybody's identity is constructed of stories,” Brooks said. “Those stories don't rub without friction. We need to share those stories, but we need to recognize they won't be harmonious.”

Racism or reluctance?

The Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma made headlines in 2000 when it changed its constitution to expel about 2,000 black members.

Earlier changes, in 1989 and 1991, pitted the tribe against the so-called Freedmen, who had a 135-year connection to the Seminoles.

Freedmen is a historical term used to describe free blacks who lived in communities near the Seminole in Florida before the tribe's forced move to Oklahoma around 1830.

When the tribe moved, the federal government sent the Freedmen with them.

In 1976, the government settled a $16 million land claim with the Seminole for treaty lands taken in Florida. By 1990, interest on the account had grown to $56 million.

The tribe later determined that descendants of people who lived on the Florida lands in 1823 would be entitled to settlement claims. But that excluded the Freedmen.

A single word can describe the tribe's actions, said Daniel Littlefield, director of the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas and a noted historian of the Seminoles: “racism.”

“If they're going to exclude people because of African-American descendants, why don't they exclude people who are of white descendants?”

But it's not that simple, argued Susan Miller, an Arizona State University assistant professor of American Indian Studies. The Seminole perspective has been ignored in the public debate and by the mainstream press, she said.

The result: vilification of the Seminole and glorification of the Freedmen.

A New York Times editorial claimed “millions of black Americans are descended from black people who were either members of the tribes during slavery or adopted into them just after Emancipation.”

In reality, 2000 census figures show only 182,000 blacks nationwide who claim a race combination that includes Native.

When they were forcibly resettled in Oklahoma, Seminole tribal leaders were also forced to sign a treaty requiring the adoption of Freedmen. The tribe objected.

“The tribe's resistance to taking in the Freedmen during the treaty negotiations in 1866 reflects a general avoidance of outsiders,” Miller said. “The dearth of whites in the tribe mirrors the resistance to admitting blacks. People who see things in terms of race are likely to see this as a general racism, but I see it as an indigenous reluctance to admit people who would tamper with the culture and traditions.”

The federal government further intervened in Seminole matters.

In 1906, it forced the tribe to allot reservation lands among tribal citizens. Under the Dawes Commission, the government also gave Seminole land to Freedmen. Two census rolls were created - one for Seminoles, one for Freedmen.

In 1930, the Seminole sought compensation for lands given to the Freedmen. The Freedmen, meanwhile, have argued the census rolls prove their entitlement to tribal benefits. Their fight to be recognized continues.

Moving ahead

Robert Collins, a University of California-Berkeley Native studies lecturer who is also black and Choctaw, is routinely asked: “You're black and you're Indian? How did that happen?”

It's a question organizers of the recent symposium, including Jennifer Denetdale, an assistant professor of history at New Mexico, hoped to answer during “Crossings of Breath: Indigenous and Black Relations in North America.”

While white and black scholars have explored black-Native relations, the one-day UNM conference brought the issue to the doorstep of Natives, who have typically remained on the sidelines of the discussion, Denetdale said.

Black-Native identity issues aren't likely to subside, especially as the nature of what it means to be Native changes. The ultimate definition rests with a tribe's sovereign right to determine its citizenship.

If anyone disagrees, tribes must waive sovereign immunity and consent to be sued.

“It's a question of law, not of rights or truth but what words mean,” said Littlefield. “A lot of times, it's who gets the last word.”

Cortez Williams, professor emeritus of New Mexico's African American Studies Department, said the future of black-Indian relations should rest on issues of respect rather than focus on race.

“Man's inhumanity to man is one of the greatest detriments to humanity,” Cortez said.

This is your home

Despite her struggles, Radmilla Cody earned the adoration of the Dine people after she was crowned Miss Navajo Nation in 1997.

She became one of the Southwest's most visible black-Native figures.

Controversy followed her reign, though, when she became involved in her then-boyfriend's drug smuggling ring. In January 2003, the former Navajo queen was sentenced to 21 months in a federal prison near Phoenix.

“Her name and image became defined as the black sheep of the Navajo Nation,” said Celia Naylor, assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College.

People were saying: “See. We told you so.”

Again, Cody turned to the woman who kept her in one piece as a little girl. She looked to the grandmother who once said, “I'm going to take this little girl and raise her.”

Her grandmother made that choice when others were saying, “This child will not be accepted. This child is not one of us,” Cody said.

It was her grandmother who stood with open arms when the girl returned home from school, her face wet with tears. The elder would remind the girl she belonged in the Navajo world: “This land, these sheep, are your home.”

Jodi Rave covers Native issues for Lee Enterprises. Reach her at jodi.rave@lee.net. This article was published by Lee News Service.


Jodi Rave

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

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