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IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas

A new exhibit on links between African-Americans and Native Americans sidesteps controversy

Photo: John Running, License: N/A

John Running

Radmilla Cody, Miss Navajo Nation, and her grandmother in 2006.

IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas

At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum through Dec. 30

African-Americans and Native Americans have interacted with one another for centuries in the Americas: through intermarriage and alliance in some cases, through enslavement and subjugation in others. Yet despite this shared history, it’s a link that is not much discussed in the public sphere. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum’s new exhibition, IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, is an attempt to get the conversation going.

IndiVisible is a traveling show, produced by the National Museum of the American Indian in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian Institute. An exhibition in the same gallery, Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente, is also a Smithsonian product, though the two are not usually shown together. IndiVisible is by far the more ambitious show—the Clemente exhibit consists solely of word-heavy panels describing the ball-player’s life and one lone artifact, the “type of bat” he used. Fans would be better served by reading his biography. IndiVisible, however, has the potential to be a fascinating exhibition, touching as it does on questions of identity going back generations. Unfortunately, it is light on context and prone to moralizing.

These failings are not for a lack of interesting stories. The exhibition is riddled with tantalizing snippets of information. Some members of Native nations had black slaves, we are told. The Spanish invaders of the New World created more than 15 categories to classify racial background. Booker T. Washington served as “house father” to Native American students at the Hampton Institute, a historically black institution that briefly hosted an education program for warriors who had fought in the Indian Wars. All of these are topics that merit more back-story, but in many cases they are not explored in greater depth, nor presented within a strong chronological framework. Within the exhibition, for instance, one finds Crispus Attucks and Jimi Hendrix sharing a panel. The rationale is that Attucks and Hendrix were of both Native and African ancestry, but by putting them alongside one another, the historical context for each is lost.

The photographs in IndiVisible, however—especially the early examples—are often riveting. A studio portrait of an early 1900s Comanche family, for instance, challenges our popular conception of a more segregated time. An elderly man in a full headdress and his wife, also in traditional Comanche garments, stand beside their niece and her two sons, who appear more African-American than Native—they are both—and are dressed in European clothing.

And the exhibition does touch upon major flash points in the shared history between African-Americans and Native Americans. The case of the Cherokee Freedmen is a notable example. In the early 1800s, the Cherokees acquired slaves and these slaves moved to Oklahoma with the tribe when they were relocated by the federal government in the 1830s. By 1861, there were 4,000 black slaves living among the Cherokees, and for more than 100 years after their release, these freedmen were granted all the rights of Native Cherokees. Then, in 2007, the Cherokees ruled that “Indian blood” was a requirement for citizenship. Thousands of descendants of freedmen were suddenly excluded from the tribe, and many continue to fight to reclaim their membership.

Tribal membership is a complex problem, one with which most every tribe struggles. Beyond abstract notions of belonging, membership confers eligibility for a range of federal and tribal benefits, from subsidized health care to job preference. And the more members a tribe has, opponents to expanding tribal membership say, the less each person receives. But IndiVisible scarcely acknowledges this complexity. Though it includes the occasional quote in support of tribal sovereignty, it counsels acceptance. In one video, Penny Gamble-Williams, a woman of dual ancestry who was instrumental in putting together the exhibition, says the solution is simple: “Accept other people for who they say they are.” That is, perhaps, a noble goal, but one that is not achieved as easily as the exhibition implies.

This notion of inclusivity also ignores the cachet that having Native American ancestry seems to confer. It is common for Americans to claim a percentage of Native blood, so common it is unlikely they are all correct. “I think that’s why we didn’t address [the question],” says Michelle Torres-Carmona, director of scheduling and exhibitor relations for the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibits, who was at the opening reception. “That’s something that will never be solved.” But history museum exhibitions are not meant to solve difficult questions; they are meant, in part, to pose them. And IndiVisible, for all its promise, doesn’t do that enough.

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