May 12, 2011

Thoughts on IndiVisible

As I said, I saw IndiVisible at the California African American Museum Tuesday. The exhibit consisted of a 1) smallish gallery with a couple dozen vinyl panels supplemented by paintings, photos, newspaper clippings, and works of art, and 2) a side room noting some joint civil-rights struggles.

I didn't know what to expect, but IndiVisible was a comprehensive survey of black-Indian relations since 1492. If the exhibit omitted anything significant, I didn't notice it. You could've picked up a lot of the information by reading Newspaper Rock or a good book, but IndiVisible provided an excellent introduction to the subject.

Here are my notes on what you can see and learn from IndiVisible:

  • Prefacing the exhibit were photos of black Indians living in California and the West. They were taken by Valena Dismukes, an aquaintance, and included James Howard Scott, another acquaintance.

  • A drawing titled An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man (1799) by Dr. Charles Wright, which sought to prove that blacks and Indians were more animal-like.

  • Bartolomé de las Casas, who championed the Indians against Columbus, thought the Spanish should replace Indian slaves with African slaves. Until he actually saw the Portuguese slave trade in action, that is. about your blind spots. If you have to see the cruelty of slavery to realize it's wrong, you're not exactly a deep thinker.

  • Estevanico, the black slave who was one of the first non-Indians to cross America.

  • Mo'Pak, a painting that represents the union of Native and African themes, by Maceo Leatherwood.

  • Illustrations showing the marked similarity between a Fulani village in Guinea, Africa, during the 1500s and a Timucua Indian village in Florida, 1564.

  • A photo of an Olmec head suggesting that Africans visited America before Columbus. With a note saying this theory is widely disputed.

  • A panel on identity featuring Crispus Attucks, Radmilla Cody, and Jimi Hendrix.

  • Lots of potential controversies

  • Mildred Loving, a black woman with Indian blood married to a white man. Her case went to the Supreme Court and led to the legalization of interracial marriage.

  • Info on tribal blood quantum and the "one drop" rule that classified blacks.

  • The Shinnecock, Pequot, and Wampanoag tribes and their struggles because people often see them as blacks rather than Indians.

  • The Cherokee Freedman controversy: Chief Chad Smith vs. Marilyn Vann.

  • The Walter Plecker letter that reclassified Virginia's Indians as Negroes.

  • A 1913 letter requesting separating waiting rooms at a train station in Pembroke, North Carolina, for whites, Negroes, and Cherokee Indians.

  • The Lumbee Indian rout of the Ku Klax Klan in 1958.

  • "Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance," an actor who starred in the movie The Silent Enemy. He only pretended to be a Blackfoot chief but, ironically, he was qualified to be a Lumbee Indian.

  • Two versions of a Kickapoo delegation petitioning Emperor Maximilian for land grants in Mexico. A photograph shows a dozen people with clothes ranging from cowboy- to Indian-style and dark features indicating their black/Indian heritage. A painting of the same delegation shows only six people wearing traditional Indian clothes with pale skins and almost Caucasian features. The African influence is completely missing.

  • The Buffalo Soldiers.

  • Modern-day issues

  • Mary Ann Martin Green, a Californian who was raised as an African American but eventually embraced her Native heritage. She became the only adult member of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians and, the text blandly notes, opened a casino. What the text doesn't mention is that this is the prototypical case of someone's "discovering" he or she is an Indian and becoming wealthy on that basis.

  • Professor Jack Forbes, now deceased, who was a pioneering academic on black/Indian relations.

  • The 1960s: "United in common struggle...risen up together to fight oppression." And "Civil Rights, Sovereign Rights."

  • A photo of "Barack Black Eagle," Obama's name as an honorary Crow Indian.

  • A Black Panther newspaper featuring articles on Indians titled "Persecution of Nevada Indians" and "Rebirth."

  • A panel on black/Indian issues elsewhere in the Americas: Afro-Bolivians, the Taino resurgence, and the Miskito struggle.

  • "Native Resistance and African American Solidarity"

    As the title indicates, this room covered black and Indian protests of the last few decades. It contained the following displays:

  • The Alcatraz Proclamation of 1969 and the Black Panther Party's Ten Point Plan side by side, showing the two documents' similarities.

  • The Longest Walk in 1978 with an appearance by Muhammad Ali.

  • The Longest Walk 2 in 2008 with Congressman John Conyers Jr., Dennis Banks, Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Danny Glover, and Darryl Hannah.

  • Fasting for Freedom in 1984: Three Native prisoners fasted for 50 days for the right to practice their religion. Angela Davis spoke for them.

  • Wounded Knee II in 1973: Ralph Abernathy joined Russell Means and Dennis Banks, with a visit by Angela Davis.

  • The No Extradition Rally for Dennis Banks in 1976, with Kathleen Cleaver of the Black Panther Party speaking.

  • Conclusion

    All in all, IndiVisible was an illuminating exhibit, especially if you think blacks and Indians are distinct peoples with distinct histories. I can see how this exhibit would be controversial if your image of an Indian was a pure-blooded Lakota. Even some Indians reject black Indians because they're prejudiced against blacks.

    Fortunately, as most Indians do, I've tried to be inclusive. As I said in Separate Nations for Blacks, Indians? when I disputed the great Vine Deloria Jr., the two groups have much in common. As I said in Indians "Win" Oppression Olympics, everyone concerned with social justice should fight racism and stereotyping together.

    For more on IndiVisible, see IndiVisible Is "Long Overdue" and IndiVisible Causes Divisions. For more on black Indians, see People Can't Be Black and Indian? and Powwow Dance Excludes Unregistered Indian.

    Below:  Marilyn Vann, the Cherokee Freedmen, and Chad Smith.


    Anonymous said...

    Yeah, "widely disputed" is a way of saying "We have more ethics than the History Channel. We'll put it here."

    (They should've used another of Winters' and Sertima's evidences: A statue of Min and another statue from Mexico of a man "holding his phallus". Put a bunch more of those statues, and you've got hyperdiffusionism in a nutshell.)

    Anyway, I would've also included the connections between the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. But when you get into the Black Panthers, it becomes all the marginalized peoples of the world rising up.

    Anonymous said...

    thanks for the detailed review Ron. I'm not planning to see it myself because I'm already familiar with much of the history, but I appreciate all efforts to help illuminate the fuller picture of American Indian experience, in this instance with African Americans.

    Rob said...

    It's Rob, not Ron. But you're welcome.