Language and Communications

There’s been a common misconception that Indigenous people all spoke the same language. A widely known fact is that the Navajo “Code Talkers” made an impact during WW1. But did you know that Choctaw, Cherokee and Comanche languages contributed to the “code” as well?

Just as there are different Spanish or German dialects, the same is true for the many tribes of Turtle Island.

Piece of birch bark for scroll

Most early education of Native people came from observation and oral teachings, generally shared by elders of the communities. The Ojibway people recorded histories and legends on birchbark scrolls. Some plains tribes used the “winter count” pictographs. These pictographs documented significant events of the year, generally on animal hides or muslin. All across Turtle Island, sign language was widely used and still is today.

In the effort to “assimilate” our ancestors, Indigenous languages were stifled for almost a century in the U.S.  Native children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools. In these boarding schools, children were forbidden to and punished if they used their native tongue. My mother remembers her parents speaking Michif very rarely, and only in the privacy of their home. Today, although many of those languages have been lost, there is a great effort to revive the languages of many tribes. Some communities offer “total immersion” programs for both children and adults.

The variety of dialects in the Anishinaabe/Ojibway/Metis cultures alone is amazing! Northern and southern influence as well as Cree and French contribute to Michif language used by the Metis. I’ve tried to learn a few phrases without the help of a mentor, so please forgive any errors! In the language of my ancestors:

“Maarsii poor toon taan & Enn bon zhornii ayahkun!!”

“Thanks for your time & Have a good day!!”

African-Native Americans

Until recently, the topic of historic relations between Native Americans and African Americans has been somewhat neglected. The lives and experiences of people who share African American and Native American ancestry contain stories that have been invisible for ages.

Some reports indicate that, after 1492, large numbers of Natives were being shipped to Europe as slaves. Many of these slaves were then shipped from Spain to Africa. Survivors and descendants of the original group that later returned to America were now classified as “African Slaves”.  African and Native people coming together in the Americas was first recorded in 1502.  Many Indigenous people of the Eastern Woodlands as well as people of a few nations historically from the Southeast have a significant amount of African as well as European ancestry.

Comanche Family early 1900’s
Courtesy Sam Devenney

Unfortunately, the relationship between Blacks and Natives before emancipation was often uncertain. A number of Native American tribes have had close relations with African Americans, especially in areas where slavery was prevalent or where free people of color have historically lived. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes participated in holding enslaved African Americans in the Southeast. Some enslaved or formerly enslaved people migrated with them to the West on the Trail of Tears in 1830 and later during the period of Indian removal. Some Seminole Natives of Florida formed communities with escaped Africans that came to be known as Black Seminoles. Hundreds of Africans traveled with the Seminole nation when they were forced to relocate to Native American territory.

Native Americans nicknamed the African American cavalrymen that they fought in the late 1800’s “Buffalo Soldiers”. The origin of this nickname is not certain. It may have had something to do with the appearance of their dark curly hair resembling the buffalo. These Buffalo Soldiers fought so fiercely that the Natives may have regarded them in a way that compared to the buffalo. On occasion, Buffalo Soldiers married into Native American families. This was similar to the blending of European and Indigenous cultures among the Metis.

Over centuries, African Americans and Native Americans created shared histories, communities, families, and ways of life. They were often separated from others by prejudice, laws, and twists of history. These mixed-blood people lived with a mutual struggle against slavery and dispossession that continues to touch their lives today.

For African-Native Americans, much like the Metis, double heritage will forever be inseparable.