WASHINGTON — The soaring sound of “Wade in the Water,” a Negro spiritual once said to be used on the Underground Railroad, filled Plymouth Congressional United Church of Christ Saturday morning.
But on this particular Saturday, church-goers offered their respects to the Great Spirit, in addition to the Holy Spirit, looked on as a Native American drum processional wound its way through the aisle, and took part in a ceremonial tobacco offering.
At the first gathering of the newly created National Congress of Black American Indians, organizers and attendees came to unite and celebrate individuals of both African and Native American ancestry — a subject often fraught with complicated questions of race, identity and citizenship.
Although Native Americans and African-Americans have crossed paths, intermarried and formed alliances since pre-colonial times, often uniting in their common fight against slavery and dispossession, their shared history has been slow to be unearthed and brought into the light.
The formation and the first meeting of the NCBAI sought to remove the taboo of mixed ancestry and bring together those who could trace their ancestry to both communities. The gathering received endorsement and letters of support from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray and Prince George County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
"This has been a conversation that has been avoided and pushed aside, and folks who have wanted to have this conversation have been marginalized, subjugated, separated, downtrodden, stepped on," said Jay Gola Waya Sunoyi, one of the founders of the National Congress. “But still we’re here.”
Sunoyi, a member of Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama, said that black Native Americans historically concealed one part of their ancestry to avoid the trouble that would inevitably come along with being a part of both marginalized groups. Sunoyi said he himself did not know that he was descended from enslaved black Americans until after his grandmother, a Taino Indian from Puerto Rico, passed away and old family letters were recovered. For others, it was easier to integrate into black communities and avoid claiming their Native American identity.
"In the history of this Western Hemisphere, because of the price on Native American people’s heads, our people hid in other folk’s identities just to survive," he said. "But if you don’t accept all of you, you are lying to yourselves."
Some attendees had done extensive research into their genealogy to find their Native roots, while others were more reliant on oral histories and anecdotal evidence. The lore of Native American ancestors runs deep in many African-American families, although geneticists have found the numbers of black Native Americans to be relatively small. When activist and scholar Henry Louis Gates looked into the subject, he found that only 5 percent of African-American people carry more than 2 percent Native American ancestry.
Still, David Rich, 62, said he thought “more people had claim to it than they know.”
Rich, who was not a member of any tribe himself, said he was drawn to the gathering to pay respects to his grandmother, who he said was a Cherokee Indian.
Marlene Parker, 47, who recently discovered through family records that she had ancestors who were part of the Meherrin tribe of North Carolina, said she felt liberated to be in an environment where her heritage was celebrated. Although she had grown up identifying as an African-American in the black community, Parker said she wanted to know more about her Native roots.
"For such a long time, it was outsiders who defined who we were, depending on what we looked like," she said. "This is about finding the truth."
The common linkages between blacks and Native Americans have not always been celebrated. In 2011, the Cherokee Nation revoked the tribal citizenship of 3,000 black Freedmen — descendants of slaves that Cherokees once owned, with ugly accusations being hurled about race, politics and who could rightfully claim millions of dollars in casino revenue.
Although its charter says the organization seeks to “uphold the rights of all Native people with African ancestry,” Sunoyi said that the National Congress had no overt political goals and did not seek to get involved in disputes over government or tribal benefits.
"It’s about fulfillment of self," he said. "It’s about knowing who you are. If you know who you are, you know where you stand in the universe."
Penny Gamble-Williams, a black Native American activist and a member of the Wampanoag tribe, similarly said at least culturally, it was time bury old stigmas and stop subjecting people to arbitrary tests to prove themselves “Native enough.”
"It is time to move past these conversations about ‘Who is more Indian? Who looks more Indian? Who can speak the language?’ These things are only somewhat important," she said. "This is all about healing."
Maimouna Youssef, a musician of Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek as well as African ancestry, recounted the poking and prodding she endured being “the brownest child” taking part in powwows and other Native American dance ceremonies as she was growing up.
Youssef remembers asking her mother, “Why can’t I just be black?”
"And she told me ‘It’s not enough. You have to be all of who you are.’
"People would say to me, ‘What, you’re trying to go to college for free?’" Youssef added. "It’s got nothing to do with that."