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Personal passion fuels Smithsonian exhibit

February 12, 2010 -- The search for identity is particularly complex for Americans of both African and Native American heritage, according to Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies Robert Keith Collins.

Cover of exhibit book featuring photographs of African-Native American families from the early 20th and 21st centures.The cover of the exhibit book featuring photos from the exhibit.

Of Choctaw and African American descent, Collins has turned a personal passion into a career. His research, featured in a major exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, focuses on the racially motivated laws and other influences and issues that continue to complicate the lives of mixed-heritage people throughout the Americas. 

According to the 2000 U.S. census, hundreds of thousands of Americans claim both African and Native American heritage. The tangled relationship between these groups began when Native Americans were enslaved, took African slaves, rescued them from slavery and married freed or freeborn African slaves. Collins' research involves scouring historical records of the Americas, particularly the slave narratives compiled by the WPA (Works Project Administration) during the Great Depression, which illuminated the dynamics of slave life within Native American nations.

Collins notes that the situation could be both brutal and loving, just as it was with white slave owners.  But it produced individuals of blended African and Native American parentage and culture who were keen observers of their social status and other realities that shifted as chiefs made different rules regarding African ancestry. Over time, some families began to split on their beliefs about marriage and identity along black and white racial lines.

"Fueling these decisions were desires for social mobility, the inclinations of tribal leaders and prevailing U.S. laws that limited the sovereignty of Native American nations and tribes to determine citizenry based on traditional kinship rather than racial lines," Collins said. "Some people simply believed -- and still do -- that if your grandmother or great grandmother was Native American, then you are too."

He also found that some African-Native American people looked to tribal laws that determined blood heritage, while others had a tendency to identify themselves based on what the people around them assumed because of skin color.

"I hope that the results of my research offer a window into how people of both heritages arrive at self-understanding," Collins said. "It is important to challenge the notion that racial and cultural identity should be based on skin color. We should pay more attention to family-based beliefs about identity."

The exhibit, "IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas," curated by Collins and three colleagues, features his interviews with several generations of African-Choctaw people in southeastern Oklahoma and the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as representatives of the California Muskogee Association, and the Garifuna Heritage Foundation.  A collaboration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian, the exhibit will tour the U.S. after it concludes its run in the nation's capitol on May 31. It can be viewed online at http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indivisible/african_roots.html

A book accompanying the exhibit contains a chapter by Collins. His co-curators are Angela Gonzales of Cornell University, Judy Kertez of North Carolina State University and Gabi Tayac, a historian with the National Museum of the American Indian. Community members Thunder Williams and Penny Gamble-Williams also collaborated on the project.

-- Denize Springer


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