What we can learn from the stories of Black Native people

Editor’s Note: Three years ago, Michael Santiago and Macha Rose began working on “Afro Native Narratives,” a documentary and photo project that documents the stories of people of both North American indigenous and African descent — a group that they say has been underrepresented throughout history. In this week’s edition of Parallax, Santiago discusses the purpose of the project and what he learned from Theo and Lonnie, who are pictured above.

On the day I took Theo’s photo (left), I saw a transformation few get to witness. He dressed in the regalia he makes by hand, applied his war paint and danced. Theo, who is of Blackfoot/Niitsiitapii descent, is a generally shy person, but he allowed us to photograph him because he is passionate about the visibility of Black Natives.

The photo is for “Afro Native Narratives,” a portrait and film series project that explores the historically-ignored Black Native identity as it stands today, as well as the effects of “blood quantum” laws, which define who is allowed membership in Native American tribes or nations based on the degree of ancestry a person has to that tribe or nation. The project aims to bring the discussion of Black Native identity to the forefront and bring forward the faces of Black Natives who continue to embrace the traditions of their ancestors. We photograph and interview individuals who have grown up maintaining tradition and continue to do so, like Theo.

The project also focuses on individuals like Lonnie Graham (right), who know some of their Native history because it has been passed down through oral tradition, but are missing a lot of information, like which tribe they belong to. Lonnie was able to vividly recall the stories passed down to him that have been in his family for generations. But unfortunately, he has never known exactly which tribe his family belonged to, which means that he cannot be a tribal member according to “blood quantum” laws.

“In other cultures where people even have the smallest amount of a particular type of ancestry or lineage … it can be accepted,” he said. “But here in North America it seems to be always some kind of contention.”

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