“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee…”: Black, White & Cherokee…

Talking Drum: At Peace...

“When the white man discovered this

Country, Indians were running it.

No taxes no debt, women did all the work…

White man thought he could improve on a system like this…” (From a Cherokee Nation Adage)

Humor…  It’s nice to have, during periods of high stress or when your horizons look rather bleak.  Our African-American forefathers and Native-American cousins used it often, in good times, as well as when their cultural horizons seemed gloomy and dim. I was reminded of this on my recent trip home to my high school graduation class’ 50th reunion.

But, it was the narratives within the once-taboo subject of my family’s mixed-race past often reminded me of the complex, confluent dynamics which blended America’s bloodlines and shared experiences.  It happened again, a couple of years ago, at a holiday gathering, in Virginia. Then, we were guests at a dinner, hosted by a good friend, a Marine Corps combat veteran, that we recently buried at the Quantico (Virginia) National Cemetery.

While in the dinner’s buffet line, I observed a young father struggling alone, to balance his attention between the Thanksgiving-related array of food and his energetic kids.  He was dressed in casual clothes, of obvious Native-American influence, with hints of familiar customs, within the Southern Cherokee Nation back home, in Kentucky, as well as my mother’s birthplace in Tennessee.  

Our mid-brown skin tones were similar.  But, external similarities stopped there.   Dangling beneath his pony-tailed neckline, on braided rawhide, was a polished bear claw, some purple quartz and a sterling silver arrow-head, similar to what I’ve seen at ceremonial stomp dances.  Another silver ornament, I didn’t recognize, was highlighted by turquoise inlays, fitted inside the pendant hanging from his neck.  Like other, more elaborate Native-American garb I’ve seen at area “Pow Wows,” it too was impressive.  But, it was his proud demeanor which begged me to inquire about his attire. 

 In the brief conversation that followed, I was surprised how much he knew of his North Carolina Cherokee roots and how he shamelessly passed them on to his kids, although they were clad like the rest of us, in more contemporary clothing. Before I knew it, we were joking about the common experiences of blacks and Indians in the United States.  We also talked about the limited understanding, like my own, or outright ignorance by many African-Americans, of the Native-American links to our unique culture.  And, he cracked up with the story I shared about how little I actually knew- and once didn’t care to know- of my Scotch-Irish ancestry.  

It’s sad to think of the cross-cultural illiteracies regarding our common past, in the United States.  Whether or not it’s the mix-bag of Cherokee, African and Scotch-Irish, like mine, or inclusive of Apache, Arawak, Blackfeet, Catawbas, Chauchas, Cheyenne, Chicksaw, Choctow, Comanche, Creek, Croaton, Crow, Delaware, Iroquois, Huron, Kickapoo, Kiowas, Mattaponi, Melungeon, Mohawk, Natchez, Navajo, Osage, Pamunkey, Potawatomi, Powhatan, Seminole, Shawnee, Sioux, Tonkawa, Ute, Zuni or many others…, even limited awareness of the blood-ties, blended soul and cultural bonds between Native-Americans and African-Americans can be spiritually uplifting.  It opens up additional pathways within the quest for inner peace and understanding. Exploring such winding roads can be a daunting task.  Yet, an entire universe of misconceptions often surfaces which can be quite revealing, therapeutic and humorous, as well. 

Within the kaleidoscope of reasoning, like many African-Americans, I’ve never actively sought out my Native-American genealogy, nor my Scotch-Irish roots.  But, like the lore of West African Griots, the information seems to ooze through family and community narratives, legends and anecdotes. 

When I was about 10 years old, during one of my summer-vacation stays at my maternal grandparent’s farm in Zanesville, Ohio, a white friend teasingly called me “Cherokee Bill,” when my grandmother informed him of my Cherokee ties, although through my paternal grandparents, in Dayton, Ohio.  We played cowboy and Indian games all the time.  But, he laughed for a long time on finding out how my obviously “white,” paternal grandfather once came to visit at our home in Kentucky.  At that time, segregation laws forced him to use a different railroad car than my mixed blood, “Black Cherokee” or “colored” grandmother, traveling on the same train.  I already knew some of the story, so his laughing didn’t bother me.  What irritated me was his assumption that the cowboy– “Cherokee Bill”– was white. 

At the time, I only knew that anything “Cherokee” was certainly not white.  Although my Scotch-Irish grandfather and I were close, I just never considered him as “white.”  It never crossed my mind, since he took me everywhere he went, until he died, when I was around 6 years old.  And, while I’d heard the term “mulatto” before, it was just another word I hadn’t looked up in the dictionary, like my mother used to demand, whenever I questioned what some new word meant. 

 Later, I learned that “Cherokee Bill” was black– by prevailing standards of measuring one’s “blackness,” back then.  But, he certainly looked white!  Public references even labeled him “light-skinned mulatto.”  Okay…  I’ve also nearly had it with these zany labels America invented, within its shabby attempts to maintain some sort of so-called racial purity, considering the depth and profuseness of its mongrelized blood-lines.  It is what it is.  But, I’m merely trying to make it plain so, at least, my grandchildren will understand.  “Cherokee Bill” was black AND, Cherokee.  His photos might “support” the idea that he was “white,” but closer scrutiny reveals that he was black, pure and simple.  He was born as “Crawford Goldsby,” in 1876, to “Black Cherokee” parents, George Goldsby and Ellen Beck (“Black Indians,” W.L. Katz, 1996).  Other records show that his father, “a mulatto” from Alabama, was a Buffalo Soldier, in the 10th United States Calvary, at Fort Concho, Texas.  His mother, like my paternal grandmother, was Cherokee, mixed with African and white ancestry.

 But, you should know that when I explain the unique blending of African-American and Native-American culture to my grandchildren, I’ll be sure to point out that “Cherokee Bill” was NOT the character they should emulate.  He was a baad dude, an “outlaw”– a criminal by any standard. Research reveals that he was part of a gang of Black Indians allegedly roaming the Oklahoma Territory, robbing banks and stagecoaches, stealing horses and shooting anyone trying to stop them. 

Records show that the famous “Hanging Judge,” Isaac Parker, who ruled over the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during the late 1800s, called “Cherokee Bill” “the most vicious… bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing,” more than any of the outlaws within the Oklahoma Territory (“Legends of America,” 2010). Eventually- at age 20- “Cherokee Bill” was hanged by federal officials, on March 17, 1896, “before hundreds of spectators.” When asked if he had any last words, he reminded everyone that “I came here to die, not to make a speech” (Katz, 1996).  According to legend, when “Cherokee Bill” stepped on the gallows, he merely said, “This is as good a day to die as any.”

“Cherokee Bill’s” alleged criminal behavior was deplorable, not anything to celebrate.  But, I do honor the unique bloodlines and blended culture within this nation’s storied past, whether so-called black, white, Cherokee or otherwise.  More uplifting stories abound. The mirrored face of multi-cultural America is an image to behold and celebrated, not shunned within some silly attempt to maintain counter-productive concepts of racial purity, nor smothered within “Old Jim Crow’s” “one drop rule,” for the convenience of society’s status quo. Links to race and ethnicity- already a pure de mess– should be celebrated, not shamefully buried beneath the reams and reams of missing pages to our storied past in America, “Sweet Land of Liberty, of Thee I Sing; Land Where My Fathers Died…” Black, White & Cherokee… 

By the way, do you celebrate or shun your past?  What about your family’s history?  Please let us know within the ‘comments’ section, below.  Thanks!  “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

(From “Backstreet’s Blog” article originally posted @ rizingcubenterprises.com, October 2010)

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.