A History of the Weyanoke Association
by Anita Harrell
by Anita Harrell
We give thanks to Creator for each new day
- Red-Black Prayer
possible to recover that which has been shattered. The meaning of the
recovery, reconstitution and reconstruction of history is that, that which
has been dispersed and shattered within us can be made whole again. Thus
through history we can redeem ourselves.
- Ivan Van Sertima
The Weyanoke Association has grown out of our personal need to restore "that which has been dispersed and shattered within us," and to encourage and help others to do the same. We became aware of the need to reconcile the 'Red' of our family trees with the 'Black' that the larger society gave us permission to acknowledge, before we heard anyone else talking about the subject. We were laughed at, accused of trying to deny our Blackness, and forced to choose between one and the other when filling out forms and when performing other official and social actions.
When I was a child in New York in the Fifties I was Colored, pronounced with a curl of the lip everywhere but at home. The Sixties and early Seventies gave me permission to honor my theoretical African ancestors, and explore as many of the continent's glorious cultures as possible. Then I happened upon an old photograph. I remember saying to my father, "Who is this woman? She looks like an Indian." He answered, "That's because she is. That's my Cherokee grandmother." He had never mentioned her before. And still my mother said nothing about her Native ancestry until I put it to her as a direct question. When I asked, "Were any of your ancestors Indian?" she simply answered, "Yes." She made it clear I had already stepped over the line somehow by asking that question; I didn't push my luck by asking more. It was from my older cousin, much later, that I learned that the relatives my mother had lived with in Colorado were Shoshone.
When my husband Hugh and I moved to Hampton from Brooklyn in 1988, we discovered that the history largely buried under pavement in New York is much closer to the surface in Virginia. Information was so much easier to find that we were upon it almost before we started looking. We stumbled over people who remembered, had our glances held by books lying on a table or protruding an extra one-half inch from library shelves, and found important articles in random magazines picked up at the doctor's office. It began to look as if the Ancestors were encouraging us in our search.
We started visiting Hugh's many maternal relatives, most of whom were named Charity, in Charles City County. Hugh learned that his Native ancestors on that side were Chickahominy, Pamunkey and Mattaponi. We also learned that this, especially the Chickahominy admixture, was a touchy subject. Some people didn't want to talk about it, some denied it, and one went so far as to say there was no such thing as 'Indians' - they were just the mixed offspring of Blacks and Whites. We were told of hard feelings of long standing between the Black and the Chickahominy communities, but we couldn't get at the reasons. All we heard was the result, members of one community speaking in private about the other with muted anger. It sounded to us like a place still dealing with the British invasion of 1607.
In 1993 we decided to see if we could bring the topic out in the open for discussion. We applied for a matching grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, and designed a six-month symposium series to take place at the local high school. Once a month we alternated speakers from the Native and African American communities, and supported them with panels that included authors and historians with roots in the county, tribal council members, professional genealogists, and individuals who were not necessarily 'degreed' but were generally recognized in the county as knowledgeable about local history. We kept in mind that Charles City is a rural and unpretentious community, and made sure there was ample opportunity for discussion, both formal and informal. We inspired the Superintendent of Schools to borrow two photo exhibits from the VFH, one Red and one Black, and display them in the lobby. We got a different local church each month to bring and serve food - wonderful food, like at the potlucks from your childhood - and everybody ate together in the school cafeteria. We had performances of songs and dances from both cultural traditions. Every month we plastered the county with posters, some of which were torn down. We sent press releases to every newspaper and radio or TV station from Richmond to Virginia Beach, and we talked about it to everybody we could catch.
What was the result? On the surface, nothing has changed. The Black and Chickahominy communities are still separate. But apart from truly wearing ourselves out, we put the subject on the local map. The new Chief and a member of the tribal council greet Hugh warmly whenever they see him. Genealogical information is more widely known in the county. The Black congregation of St. John Baptist Church, whose building was the sixth in the area to be destroyed by an arson fire, was invited to continue their worship at Samaria Baptist, the Chickahominy church. More people from the Black community are applying for membership in the Chickahominy Tribe. We haven't yet heard of any who have been admitted.
We aimed the series at current and former residents of Charles City, but people came from DC and New York. Somebody quipped that the trip had been worth it for the food alone.
We did learn the reason for the antagonism. Some of the Chickahominy - as is the case with some other Virginia tribes - resist the idea of having relatives in the Black community, probably supposing, with ample historical precedent, that the White community will consider them less 'Indian' if they admit to having them. After all, Walter Ashby Plecker's statement as head of Virginia's Department of Vital Records that there are no more Indians in the state, and his policy of deliberate alteration of state records to reflect his opinion, were not that long ago. Many of their 'Black' relatives, in turn, aren't happy about having been chopped off the family tree.
A memorable moment occurred when a Chickahominy woman cried while relating that the tribe had ostracized her because she married a Black man. An Assistant Chief responded with a warm, personal statement of tolerance for and appreciation of difference. The woman's husband was then told by the local historian that even though he might identify with the African American community, his grandfather had been one of the founders of the reorganized tribe. The wife was later seen being hugged by the Chief's daughter.
During the very first discussion period a White audience member, upset because she couldn't understand how we could leave the British out of the conversation, took us to task for it. Our explanation was, and remains, that information on the British is the constant background hum of American life; there is no shortage of such information, and there has been no attempt to suppress that portion of the country's history. On the contrary, it has been emphasized, and the British have been given credit for some of the accomplishments of others. Our focus was on two groups not receiving such preferential treatment.
Then in 1999 we decided our heritage needed to be celebrated, not just talked about. The 1619 'Arrival' of Africans into Jamestown had been observed twice previously in recent years at Jamestown Settlement, the first time successfully and the second with a token effort that left a sour taste in our mouths. Surely, we thought, we could do better than that even on a 'grass roots' level.
Our aim was to again honor both the Red and the Black, since for most African Americans the two are impossible to separate without dumping a goodly portion of family history. We sought to enable people to continue the discussion begun by the symposium series, to compare notes with others, and to enjoy an informal outdoor setting. We looked for Indians and Africans, dancers and drummers, vendors of food and non-food items, and speakers willing to share informal conversation with an interested audience. We decided to hold the event, called "Coming Together: The Link and Legacy of Native and African Americans," in our large front yard in Charles City. We paid for everything out of our own shallow pockets, and used all our discretionary time in planning. We sent out more press releases and flyers, and talked about it everywhere we went. We wore ourselves out again.
And oh my, what a moving experience it was. The gorgeous day, the pine woods, the drummed and chanted procession, the Native and African prayers to Creator and the Ancestors, the generous presenters, the informal conversations on history, genealogy and culture, the evocative fabrics and feathers, the singing, the horses, the fried fish sandwiches, the Fire Dance at the end, and the open hearts and minds of everyone in attendance, all contributed to an atmosphere of goodwill and exploration.
So we did it again the next year, and have been doing it every year since then on the second Saturday in August. From 2000 on, it has been held at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery in Charles City, Virginia, thanks to the interest of the Project Manager there. The Hatchery has over 400 acres, including an area natural for a program, a wonderful 90-acre lake with a boat ramp, and extra fishing poles. City kids love it. We have tried to offer an informal, consistent opportunity for interested people to talk about the history and culture that have been largely left out of, or distorted in, most textbooks and encyclopedias, concerning the intimate relationship between Native and African Americans. We still pay for it out of our pockets, but are surrounded by interested people who volunteer to do certain tasks or donate particular items. Each Coming Together is a bit different as a result of the weather and the particular cast of individuals, but each is a precious experience. Every now and then we encounter people who say, "I was at the very first Coming Together you had at your place."
Which is, of course, how the Weyanoke Association was started. We reached a point at which more and more people were saying, "You need to have programs the rest of the year," and, "What can we do to help?"
So I booked a conference room in an old city-owned building and let it be known that anybody interested should come help us figure out what came next. After the usual airing of individual concerns and frustrations, and lots of genealogical sharing, we held a few more meetings devoted largely to getting to know each other. They were widely spaced due to the intrusion of real life. Then the dust settled, and we were delighted to discover in our midst people with clear minds, organizational skills and a willingness to work, some of whom were relatives. We eventually put together a succinct statement of 'who we are and what we do.' This in turn enabled us to formulate bylaws, and then to submit an application for tax-exempt status to the IRS, with a minimum of fuss and feathers. It doesn't seem so long now, but the whole process took us about two years.
We needed to be together in the same room to discuss all the issues that came up; the telephone and email just weren't enough, although we certainly used them. And it was very important to us to reach consensus - a Native concept - and not fall victim to European tendencies toward authoritarianism. We had many a hot debate over almost every organizational issue, as those in favor of traditional Native or African structures pulled against those wanting a more mainstream organizational development process. It all got done eventually. We are now recognized officially by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a legal body of Red-Black people "dedicated to acquiring and promoting a greater understanding and appreciation of our ancestry by encouraging education, raising public awareness, preserving historical information, and perpetuating our mixed heritage."
In the meantime, Hugh and I had started a professional a cappella vocal and storytelling ensemble in 1990. We called it Legacy of Weyanoke in honor of the 1619 settlement of Africans in the midst of the Weyanoke Indians, in what is now Charles City County. All current and former members have Native ancestry as well as African, and we perform songs and stories from Africa to the Americas, both Black and Red. The idea was to raise money for the Association and supplement our income, through providing educational entertainment composed of folk-based songs and stories that were sliding further into obscurity with each passing day. We have performed at libraries, elementary school PTA programs, college Black History Month observances, church events, and summer festivals, mostly along the East Coast.
We gradually realized that the two organizations are complementary in more than one way. Legacy of Weyanoke isn't just a fundraising arm of the Weyanoke Association; it's members are an important part of spreading the Association's message. We began to involve the ensemble in all the Association's programs, as a way to add power to the presentations. It has been a challenge for some of us, after years of identifying only with the Black community, to give ourselves permission to identify also with the Red. We, as individuals, had to allow ourselves to honor our Red ancestors privately before we could be comfortable doing so publicly as a group. And if it has been a challenge for us, we know it must be difficult also for those in our audiences who have never attended powwows or been exposed to other aspects of the culture they have been denied by circumstances beyond their control.
We have been frustrated in the past by the need to share information and by the difficulty of doing so. Large-scale photocopying gets expensive and runs afoul of copyright laws. We'd come across an article or a passage in a book and say to each other in despair, "This is so important. How can we share it?!" Every time I bought a new copy of William Loren Katz's Black Indians, Hugh would hand it to somebody saying, "Here, you have to read this," and it would never come home again.
I decided a web page could be a help. I bought the domain name weyanoke.org, and also -.com and -.net as insurance. I paid to have the domain hosted and to have weyanoke.com and weyanoke.net both 'point' to weyanoke.org. That way, even if you typed weyanoke.com by mistake, as a kind of reflex after visiting too many online stores, you would still end up in the right place, weyanoke.org. I spent long hours learning the software needed to design the site because I'm a librarian, not a web designer.
It became a habit to make note of web sites where I found good, verifiable information, so I could link to them from our site. Much of the information I mention here can be found at sites to which I have linked. I also linked to a few sites where the information was not necessarily verifiable but made sense in view of what else I had learned, and was provided by a source that appeared to be reputable. But the most time-consuming activity by far was the planning needed to organize the site so it was easy to use and to maintain. Www.weyanoke.org went live in March of 2003 and soon we began getting email from people who had visited the site. Every one was an expression of appreciation and thanks for information not easily found elsewhere, which was gratifying. Now I look forward to getting messages from people who take the time to make suggestions for improvement.
The world sees me as an 'African American.' I have never been asked, however, if I had a DAB card, a card certifying my Degree of African Blood. Nobody but me cares who my African ancestors were, what part of the continent they came from, or what cultural traditions they practiced. I can assert my African ancestry as loudly and often as I please, and nobody even blinks. Fortunately, there is no such thing as a DAB card; if there were, I wouldn't be eligible for one. I have absolutely no clue who my African ancestors were, because my family information doesn't go back far enough. But nobody has ever challenged my right to claim African ancestry or honor my African ancestors, whoever they may turn out to have been, because of the way I look.
With my Native American ancestors it's a different story. They are on both sides of my family, and I know where they lived, what cultural groups they belonged to, and even their names. What I don't have, though, is cards. I don't have a tribal membership card, and I don't have a DIB card to certify my own Degree of Indian Blood.
But that's fine, since I have never applied for any such cards and don't intend to do so. I embrace the second Kwanzaa principle of 'Kujichagulia,' of self-determination. That principle says that I am who I say I am, based on what I know about myself and about the family into which I was born. I choose to acknowledge, to honor and to learn as much as I can about all my ancestors. To do otherwise would be disrespectful, and I don't want any of my ancestors angry with me. I've seen what they can do!
In addition, it doesn't make sense to me to request validation of my Native ancestry of the very folk who came from elsewhere and took over, crowding indigenous nations into a barren corner to get control over all the best land, and who now give selectively the most grudging of benefits in return. Not to mention the many and varied attempts to reduce the Native population by means ranging from the physical through the legal to the statistical.
British colonists repaid the friendliness and cordiality of the native peoples they encountered by burning their canoes and villages; by destroying their crops; by killing their men, women and children; by kidnapping some of those they did not kill, including Pocahontas; by subverting their religious and cultural beliefs, and insisting on the superiority of British culture, including Christianity, the English language, British Common Law and the concepts of class status, racial inferiority and the privatization of land; by making them servants and slaves; and by introducing the world's first germ warfare in the form of smallpox-laden blankets.
The colonists did not find the gold they were seeking, and so invented a 'golden' export crop, tobacco. They wanted lots of land and labor to exploit this addictive substance. They stole both. Having found that Native labor was not as productive as they wished, they imported Africans. The use of Africans to labor on tobacco plantations was so cost-effective that by the 1650s the British had begun enacting chattel-slavery laws that trapped both Africans and Indians in what was to become the most brutal form of slavery ever practiced. Native and African peoples, who held many similar religious and cultural beliefs, were thereby forced to work and live together. In the process, they learned to appreciate each other's humanity.
They continue to do so today, although mostly through the integration of Indians into the Black community, which has nothing at all to lose in the way of recognition from the mainstream. The discomfort felt between the Black and the local officially designated 'Red' community is not unique to Charles City County, however. We are all, Red and Black people all over the United States, still trying to recover from that British invasion. Almost 400 years later, we are still attempting to cope with the racism the British brought with them. Native nations had no problem adopting Africans, or vice versa, until the British realized the danger to them from Red-Black alliances and worked to turn each against the other. The success of General Armstrong's 'Hampton Experiment' in poisoning the relations between Red and Black students at Hampton Institute, the slavery encouraged in the 'Five Civilized Tribes,' and the use of the 'Buffalo Soldiers' to hunt Indians are just a few examples.
Despite what anybody else wanted to believe, Red and Black was a natural combination. There is a long list of similarities in the history and culture. Here are some of the parallels that Deborah Tucker, a librarian and researcher at Wayne State University, found in her research that explain why this was so:
Unlike the government, I recognize the possibility of more than 'either/or,' 'Black' or 'White,' 'Native' or 'non-Native.' I proclaim again that I am who I say I am, and hereby declare that who I am is a Red-Black person, a 'mixed-blood,' a fortunate inheritor of two cultures, and a strong descendant of survivors, some of whom were Cherokee and Shoshone.
I've never talked to any African Americans who could say for sure that they did not have Native American ancestry. I've read that perhaps as many as 95% could have Indian ancestry. But no matter what your grandmothers told you, nobody believed you because they didn't want to believe you. The Red and White combination was acceptable, but Red and Black was most definitely not, so it didn't happen. It couldn't happen. If you believed the history books available when I was in school, the only relationship that ever developed was between Natives and Europeans. There were, therefore, in the African American community, no Cherokee grandmothers, no Choctaw grandfathers, and no fathers or mothers from Virginia tribes. The resentment felt by some Blacks towards Indian tribes who deny them entry, despite a demonstrated blood connection, predates considerably the recent concerted effort of Virginia tribes to gain federal recognition. That this denial has been brought to the attention of the federal government and the general public at this time is likely not due to any spiteful, politically motivated attempt to put a monkey wrench into the works. It is more probably due to the belief that this may well be the final opportunity to correct the situation before the tribes become sovereign nations, leaving the federal government with no leverage with which to influence admission policies. Of course, if there is no truth to the allegation, it can easily be proven false and there need be no further discussion.
We call ourselves the Weyanoke Association and Legacy of Weyanoke, but our history as Red-Black people did not start at Jamestown. Think about the Olmec heads in Mexico, those finely detailed sculptures, eight to eleven feet tall, of clearly African individuals of importance. Keep in mind that the Olmec, who called themselves the Xi, formed the basis of the civilizations of the Aztec and the Maya, 3,500 years ago. And don't forget West Africa's King Abubakari II in the early 15th century, who led an expedition of many ships across the Atlantic, following the currents south and west from Mali. Remember that the British referred to the first Indians they saw as having a "black, swarte complexion." Remember also that the colonists cleared land of inhabitants by capturing Indians and selling them into slavery. In the early 1700s there were as many slave coffles of Indians heading east out of Charleston for sale in Europe and North Africa, as there were of Africans heading west. So, the existence of Red-Black peoples is not even limited to this continent, although I am not yet aware of any research into the descendants of Indians in Africa, or of the descendants of African and Indian slaves in Europe.
'That which has been dispersed and shattered within us' is a direct result of the pressures put on our Red and Black ancestors by the racism this country and this state inherited from the British. The Virginia Council on Indians requires that a group of people be recognizably "tribal" for recognition by them as an Indian tribe. However, the institution of slavery, the broken treaties, the 'Trail of Tears,' the Dawes Act, Virginia's Racial Integrity Act, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, and many other such indicators of attitude are the reason so many of us are no longer a 'tribal' people. Thus by the deeds and then by the definition of those who benefit we have become "detribalized," shattered as a people as our communities have been split apart, in body as well as in spirit.
We, as Red-Black people,
are living proof of a relationship of long standing. It is up to us to
know the truth about our history and culture, and to share it with others,
especially our children. That's why we of the Weyanoke Association do
what we do.