Interview with “Omoya”, who discusses her life experiences as a proud woman of African, European and Native American ancestry.
Americans of mixed racial ancestry in the southeastern United States have a fascinating and controversial history. Whether free farmers and hunters living in Native American villages, slaves owned by plantation owners of various races, or armed insurgents fighting for their freedom on the frontier, their stories remain largely untold. Last year, during an on-line list discussion of Native genealogy, Omoya first caught my attention by writing:
“…we’ve always known we were of Creek* ancestry, though, through family lore and traditions — carefully concealed lest we be “removed,” during the time that was all going on…It has made it very, very difficult for us to find any type of paperwork to prove all that, though, as we were listed as Black in the census and elsewhere…”
I was delighted when Omoya graciously consented to the following interview. Not only her family experiences, but her exploration of African cultural roots plus nine years living in Hopi country with her then-husband offers a unique perspective on America’s multiracial citizens.
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To the best of your knowledge, what is your ethnic/racial/tribal mix?
We’re English (our first American ancestor got here in 1698, as a white indentured servant), Creek, Vai/Bobo (Northwest Africa) and Yoruba (West Africa). I’ve actually been to Dagnall, in Buckinghamshire, England. Really a funny experience, that, when the locals saw my passport!
Tell me something about your family genealogy, especially the Native American line.
Family lore, and now some potentially “hard evidence” on the Final Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes and the Dawes Rolls, say that we are “Black Creek,” mixed blood, on my Mom’s side. There is also Native blood on my father’s side, but we haven’t been able to find out what nations his family was affiliated with yet.
And I was told that we were NOT slaves, by the way. That surprises and rankles some Creeks, who believed that the only Blacks among them were slaves they owned. I don’t know how we became affiliated with them, initially, but we were mixed bloods, who apparently were not owned by anyone — or at least, not for long.
How and when did you find out that you were Native American, and how did learning this affect you?
I was told about it all my life, via a couple of elderly aunts who were determined to keep the family stories alive, despite great opposition. Apparently, at first, family members hid their Creek roots because they were afraid of retaliation or “removal.” They blended into the African American community to keep from being moved out of the Southeast.
Later, though, they hid it because there was a wrong-headed and racist perception in that part of the South that Indians were somehow “backwards,” and could not make it in the modern world. This perception seems to have been exacerbated by the practices of some of our womenfolk, who remembered the old rituals and remedies, and weren’t ashamed to use them.
When our family began to move North — the progressives among them, that is — they deliberately suppressed all those things, so they wouldn’t be looked down upon. But my rural relations who remained in the South kept them going, and I visited them every summer of my childhood. They didn’t always tell me why we were fasting and such, but it was part of the old traditions.
All this truly resurfaced when I had my baby girl, back in 1987. A couple of my elder aunts wanted the baby to know that she had Native blood from her mother, not just her father, who was full blood Hopi. So, the eldest of the bunch called me, and told me the little she knew — the tribal name, for one thing, for the first time.
If she’d said we were Cherokee, I probably would have discounted it. But when she said, “They call us Black Creeks,” I realized that wasn’t something that got bandied about by a lot of people. So, I began researching it, and lo and behold…there WAS such a thing. From there, I’ve been trying to document it. But because our branch of the family didn’t go to Oklahoma, we’re not on any rolls.
Except, I may have found one family member who did enroll back when, very recently. That remains to be seen.
How is being Native a part of your self-identity, and how has it affected you life?
It really permeates my world view. I know it more now than ever. We always had a very interesting way of looking at life — my grandparents were more “naturist” than Christian, which is VERY unusual in any African community.
So, I used to get ostracized by my friends in the city, when I couldn’t quite go along with “being saved” and such. I didn’t feel as if I needed saving. And I didn’t think “God” was the Biblical one they worshipped. Spirit was…all around us, sort of. I was taught that everything I touched had Spirit in it, and should be respected. My friends thought I was nuts!
And the elders had very, very strong ties to the land everyone grew up on, down South. When I left the city to visit them, I always felt as if we were living on our own little reservation, where food came from the sweat of our brows, or from the trees, or from the river…and life was very slow and sweet, and mysteriously deep, unlike the rushed, “pre-packaged” life I lived up North.
My grandparents answered us in stories, never just a direct explanation. And there was a great reluctance to be “assimilated,” which I took with me, even into the city world I lived in each day. I realized I was part of something so much bigger than that manmade world I dwelled in, and I always felt a little bit different from the others around me.
It also made it very easy for me to live on the rez, when I finally had to. The rez wasn’t a shock to me, the outhouses didn’t put me off, I’d even made hominy before, and all that. I felt as if I was “down home” with my grandparents. And the Hopis took note of that, right away.
Do you have any spiritual names?
I have two Hopi names, Tangakmana (Rainbow Girl) and Yuyungmana, (Rain girl) which are only used for ceremonial purposes.
What does Omoya mean?
It’s a pen/nickname. “Omoya,” which is Yoruba, means “Daughter of Oya.” That is to do with the guardian African spirit I’m said to be most “like.” She’s a warrior, a spirit of change and wind and rain, and one of her symbols is a buffalo, oddly enough. I found that interesting, given the symbology of the buffalo among some Natives in this country.
As with Hopi katsinas, African spirits/gods/goddesses all have stories that tell you about a certain personality type or way of behaving. If you are told that you are a child of a certain spirit, you are supposed to learn the stories about that spirit, so that you’ll know both HOW to behave, and how NOT to behave. African spirits almost all have some “bad” traits, along with the good. And if you’re a child of one, someone may be telling you, also, that you have those BAD traits, which must be kept in check.
So, while an Oya woman is brave and bold and is the “head” of the market (and therefore the ONLY woman who needs no husband, and doesn’t have to obey one if she chooses to marry), she is also headstrong and stubborn and easily bored…kinda wild and difficult to control. Not a “team” player. And among tribal people, THAT kind of behavior was not considered always a good thing!
Are you officially affiliated with a tribe or registered with the U.S. Government as Native American?
Not yet. My daughter, being half-Hopi, has been able to do that. But I also have political reasons why I might not enroll, even if we could. In her case, it was done more to make sure she was recognized by the locals, than to be “counted” by the government.
Since some of the most traditional people on the reservations don’t bother, don’t have the paperwork or the desire to be enrolled, we’re losing the very people who most need to be counted. And so, there are more mixed bloods and such enrolling, in some cases, than full bloods and traditionals.
And as the mixed bloods continue to “mix,” their kids will be unable to enroll, in some tribes. So, the numbers will dwindle drastically, in the future. The near future, in some cases. The Hopis require at least half, now, and that will affect numbers a LOT by the time my daughter has children.
Why haven’t you been able to enroll?
I’m not enrolled because we may never find official documents of any kind that would allow that. You HAVE to be on the Dawes, and unless this latest discovery pans out, we’re not likely to be accepted. Papers weren’t kept, and worse, the few that may have been were probably burned up during the Civil War, and in some of the other weird and legendary “city hall fires” on record throughout the South that I keep running into.
Also, a lot of the records call everyone who isn’t “white” colored, or Black. Or, as in the case of early census records, there’s no designation at all. And non-whites weren’t even listed, in some cases, or were listed without last names, as property of someone, or laborers. It’s VERY complicated and frustrating.
What is it like, being Native but not having any official standing as one?
I find a lot of hypocritical/contradictory reactions from Natives on this one. On the one hand, many agree with me that enrollment isn’t the greatest idea. And they’ll espouse a belief that only the locals can really say who’s Native or not. That it’s about where you grew up and how, not a paper. And they’ll insist that “oral tradition” is the real tradition.
But if there’s a closed ceremony of some sort, or even if I just mention that I have Creek blood, suddenly, I’m asked to produce papers, or some sort of proof.
I know some urbanized Natives who have no idea where they’re really from, or what their clans are, etc., but they have those papers. And that makes them Native, even if they don’t particularly want to be. They wouldn’t last on a rez for two days, but they’d get all the benefits, etc., if they went. The locals would mess with their heads, but — they’re “official.”
But I myself quit allowing others to create my reality long ago. I know what I know — it’s not much, but it’s there, as part of our family history. That’s how traditions used to be passed on by all the nations, and to me, that’s the “official” record, whether we like it or not. I don’t go around crowing about our Creek blood, though.
Nor do I try to participate in Native ceremonies and such, because the controversy would spoil the event. On Hopi, I have been ceremonially adopted, and allowed to do some things that non-Hopis usually aren’t. But I only do those things if asked. When a ceremony is closed, I stay home, until someone comes to get me, with permission from the chiefs running the ceremony. So far, I’ve had no problems there.
But I wouldn’t think of heading down to Oklahoma and “crashing” a ceremony. I may have a birthright to it, but…I’d rather keep the proceedings sacred and “serene,” and spare them the controversy. What I’m supposed to know, I’ll know. That’s how my life has always worked. When it’s time for something, it happens.
How does your family deal with all of this?
Most of the family only talks about it when I bring it up, or find some new “link.” The elders who really cared are dying away. I did notice, though, at the last reunion, that they were really happy to hear all the things I’d discovered.
In my immediate family, as I’ve said, I’m treated as an adopted “relation.” They gave me Indian preference on Hopi without my even asking for it. I’ve never forgotten that — I wasn’t married yet, and I didn’t turn in any papers, but when I got my first contract with the BIA up there it was stamped and coded for “Indian preference.” That amazed me.
Do you have any stories or anecdotes that you would like to relate?
My real grandmother, who died before I was born (her sister is the “granny” I remember) was apparently a “root doctor” of some repute, who used Native and African methods to cure certain ailments. And she was both feared and revered, which eventually caused her to have to move North.
Neighbors accused her of being a “hoodoo doctor,” and putting spells on people. And others said she was mean and superstitious because she had Indian blood, and knew “all them old Indian ways they used to have…” When she died young, some people in their old home town said it was because one of her own “spells” had “backed up on her.”
And I remember outsiders didn’t come out to the family compound in rural Mississippi too often. The local African Americans were proud of us, because we were the only people of color to have owned their own land “forever,” and never worked for white folks, either. But they also seemed to fear us, a little. I kinda liked that, though!
Was your husband also being Native a factor in developing that relationship or was it only incidental or was something subconsious involved?
I don’t think there was anything other than necessity involved, so to speak. I had been living among the Hopi for two years at least, and…there were no other options! I don’t want to downplay the lovely beginnings of it all, but I was on their turf, and the only men available were Hopi men, period! Unless I wanted to drive 120 miles one-way on the weekends trolling the bars in Flagstaff and Winslow and such!
I didn’t see him across a crowded room in the city somewhere and have a “subconscious” Native connection or anything. He was friends with friends of mine, and we sat across from each other at a dinner gathering — and he was gorgeous, and we talked and laughed and…it went on from there. It was unusual, up there, for a full blood, or ANYONE at that time, to marry a non-Hopi (less so with every generation), but…it just happened, as they say!
What is it like rearing a child who is Native, in some aspects more than you are?
I love to see the Hopi in her come out in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Intellectually, like a lot of Native kids, she has a subdued, quiet brilliance about her that is available, but not on display. VERY high IQs among Native kids — that’s documented somewhere, too. And emotionally, she’s quite confident about herself, and her identity, but again she doesn’t make a fuss. It just informs her life.
And she seems to instinctively understand their worldview — her approach to spiritual matters is really startling sometimes. She’ll say something that sounds so very “right,” out of the blue, so that I’m not worried that she’s losing that part of herself while we’re so far away from the rez. She just came back from visiting Hopi, in fact, and she brought a pouch that she’d made for her white cornmeal — ceremonial meal, for praying. And it was so matter of fact, not…”LOOK Ma, I made this!” It’s just part of her, and I love that.
Let’s go back to your comment about traditional Hopi not bothering to register.
A couple of years ago there was a huge discussion of this in the newsgroups, and people from many Nations talked about this. And having lived on our rez, I know that even my ex was born in the house, not in the hospital, and, like lots of people, didn’t have his birth certificate and other papers almost until he had to leave the rez and go to boarding school.
And that’s the 60s, so you can imagine what the elders are like! They just didn’t bother with papers — the midwives or the village chiefs would remember that it was a “real bright, sunny day during that summer when so and so and so and so were fighting over that land over there by the village…” Real dates, real places…forget it!
I think that’s why they use things like the Dawes roll — on Hopi there’s a different one, and I can’t think of the name right now — so that if you can trace your lineage back to someone who’s on it, and my daughter has all KINDS of relations on the Hopi one, you can enroll, even without papers. SOMETIMES. But you have to get all kinds of affidavits and notarized stuff from family members and all, and again, elders and real traditional types are NOT going to go through that process.
Consequently, you get the ones who are willing to and know how to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, usually the VERY people you DON’T want running things, we are eligible for jobs and everything else. So, traditional concerns are not brought into the decision making process, and…things get really strange.
On Hopi, though, the villages drop in and out of the tribal government regularly — sometimes there’ll be only a couple still there, and no business can be conducted, period. The villages take back their autonomy, and the “paper tigers” get very, very nervous. That seems to keep things in balance!
*”Creek” is also known as the “Muscogee” tribe.
Copyright © 2000 by David Arv Bragi. All rights reserved.
Omoya is a former journalist with the Chicago Sun Times and Arizona Daily Star, and works as a teacher and freelance writer.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)
Would you like to learn more about issues related tribal documentation and the heritage of contemporary diaspora Native Americans of mixed descent? Read the groundbreaking book Invisible Indians: Mixed-Blood Native Americans Who Are Not Enrolled in Federally Recognized Tribes, by David Arv Bragi.