Black American Indians Reach for Untold Story

Judy Masterson, Lake County News-Sun, November 2, 2009

A group of black Americans interested in exploring their American Indian roots has formed a group called the Northern Illinois Afro-Aboriginals.

“The African Native American is a story that’s not told,” said Ali Albakri, a founding member and managing editor of Lake County Arts magazine, who heard from a cousin that his family tree includes members of the Blackfoot tribe.

Heritage quest

No one knows how many black American Indians live in the United States. During the 2000 Census, 182,494 people were identified as ethnically African and Native American.

Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts the number of black Americans who have at least one great-grandparent with American Indian blood at just 5 percent.

Northern Illinois Afro-Aboriginals founder Joe Russell believes the number to be much higher.

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The idea for the group came from Joe Russell, 54, of Waukegan, a substitute teacher. Russell’s birth mother, Tienna Evans, was a full-blooded Arapaho, he said, and his birth father was black. Russell, who was adopted, has struggled to learn the facts of his heritage, and he has struggled for acceptance as a bi-racial, multi-ethnic person in a culture that is just beginning to embrace multiculturalism.

“Being racially mixed means, to some groups, that I’m diluting blood lines,” he said. “But I’m equal parts both.

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Russell points to the close connection between American Indians and Africans, the latter who were depicted in Incan and Mayan ruins. Indians and Africans have a history of cultural exchange and intermarriage, especially in the southern United States. According to some historical accounts, Africans already lived in Jamestown when the Dutch imported slaves to the settlement in 1619–a year before the arrival of the Pilgrims.

“Blacks intermarried with Indians 3,000 years ago–we’ve been around that long,” said Russell, who has explored the connections between the two ethnic groups and has created posters and other visual aids that he uses to teach on the subject.

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