On Being Native and Black

Yawna Allen

Complex relationships are oftentimes the best relationships. Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack had a complex relationship. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had a complex relationship. Lennon and McCartney had a complex relationship.

But despite those complex relationships, all of them made beautiful music together.


With Natives and black people, there were certainly many, many instances of beautiful bonding and cooperation—Native people hiding runaway slaves and otherwise taking in black folk to be a part of the community. Now mind you, this isn’t just rhetoric—there are nuff historical examples. For example, the Tuscarora tribe hiding slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp, which served as the initial leg of runaway slaves’ journey on the Underground Railroad. Or the Potawatomi, who took in black French fur trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and treated him as a fellow Potawatomi (he was even considered, at one point, for a leadership position!). He was accepted because he participated in the community, learned the languages in the area and respected the protocols.

“We can learn together. We can rock together and build something beautiful together.”

But there has been another side of the complex relationship; there have been times when groups of Natives and groups of black folks were at each other’s throats. For example, there was absolutely a small group of Native people who held black slaves. A shame. There were absolutely a small group of black men who joined the 9th and 10th Cavalry of the U.S. Army that were dedicated almost exclusively to fighting, capturing and killing Natives for over 25 years. A travesty.

And some folks point to these regrettable facts of history as evidence that Natives and black folks are not natural allies. But that’s too simple. That’s light. When one closely examines history, one realizes that even in the worst of times, there was never any real beef between black folks and Natives. No, instead, history tells us that during those vulnerable times, these two groups did not have full agency with which to do these regrettable acts—Natives enslaving black people or black soldiers hunting and fighting Natives.

“We can learn together. We can rock together and build something beautiful together.”

To wit, in post-Civil War America, there were really few opportunities for black people to make a living. The military provided $13 a month and a chance at building a new life in the aftermath of the war. Many young African-American men (not all) enlisted in the U.S. Army searching for freedom and any opportunity to make a decent living. Is it really a meaningful choice if the only way you can make a living and feed your family is by fighting other oppressed people? Sometimes you just have to feed your family.

Can we really say that all black soldiers would have refused this work, fighting Natives, if there were other means of making a living? Who knows?


Likewise, when tribes along the Eastern Seaboard were facing removal, there was a prayer that perhaps the colonial power would actually treat them as human beings if they acted as “civilized Natives.” What were the hallmarks of civilization at the time? Private ownership of land. Christianity. Western clothing. Short hair. Written language. Slaveholding. Unfortunately, slaveholding seemed to hold a special place in showing how civilized one was considered to be, regardless of color—white people owned slaves, and they were considered to be the model of civilization. Accordingly, some “civilized” black people also owned slaves and, yes, some “civilized” Native people owned slaves too. And everyone wanted to be considered “civilized”—that meant you got treated like a human being.

Once again, we all buy into the bullshit sometimes. No one is immune.

Like the Buffalo Soldiers, we cannot say conclusively that all Natives would have abstained from slaveholding if it weren’t so highly regarded as a symbol of civilization. Who knows?

It’s complex. But speculatively, it does seem that there was specific intent—around the 1820s (Andrew Jackson era, Manifest Destiny Era)—to put Native people and black people into a no-win situation in relationship to each other via slavery and the Buffalo Soldiers. It seems like there was an actual effort to place division into what had been a pretty loving and supportive relationship, historically.
Divide and conquer. But that’s speculation.

In a similar vein, those ties have remained complex until the modern day. Many people of Native and black ancestry feel pressured to “choose” one side or the other by both sides; others feel like no matter what they do, it will not be enough to gain acceptance from either side.

What were the hallmarks of civilization at the time? Private ownership of land. Christianity. Western clothing. Short hair. Written language. Slaveholding.

Yet many of those with both black and Native ancestry understand they are blessed with the amazing DNA of two of the most resilient groups of people in the world. I was fortunate to speak with one such descendant—Yawna Allen—a former college and professional tennis player who works hard to mentor and cultivate more Native tennis players through the North American Indian Tennis Association. We talked a bit about history, about genetics and the complex nature of being a Native of black descent.

Hi Yawna. Thank you for doing this interview. Could you please tell the readers a little bit about yourself, your professional background as well as your ethnic background/tribal history?

Sure, my pleasure. My name is Yawna Allen and I’m 21/64 Native—or about 1/3 if you follow blood quantum. I am Quapaw, Cherokee, and Euchee (Creek), as well as a little white (Irish/German) from my mother’s side; my father was black. I played professional tennis for four years after earning my Bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University, where I was on athletic scholarship. More recently, I completed my Master’s degree from Liberty University and am currently the executive director of the North American Indian Tennis Association, a small non-profit organization based in Kansas City.

What was the effect of playing tennis on your racial/ethnic identity? Did the Williams sisters become automatic role models within that game? Or were there Native women who served as role models in tennis? Or did ethnicity even matter to you as you sought role models?

I don’t think tennis had much of an effect on my racial identity. My grandfather, Dr. Noah Allen, learned how to play tennis when he attended Haskell in middle school way back in the Haskell Institute days. He taught all five of his daughters to play as well as all of his grandchildren. I was lucky in that both my mother (Casaja Allen Qualls, who played No. 1 on the women’s tennis team for Haskell Junior College) and my aunt Dawn Allen (who played professional tennis and inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame) were my role models. Not only were they great players, but they happened to be Native players as well, so I didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

It has been a common occurrence for me to be asked if the Williams sisters are my favorite players, often the question stemmed from my deep tennis tan and what I looked like. While there is no denying the amazing things they have accomplished in tennis, my favorite female player of all time was Monica Seles (for her precision, intensity, and laser-like focus). For me, ethnicity never played a role in the people I looked up to in the sport; I can appreciate great play and sportsmanship wherever it comes from.

What would you say to someone who sees tennis as primarily a so-called white sport?

I would say they are both right and wrong. Honestly, tennis is a global sport very similar to soccer. From the junior level through the professional ranks, there are just as many tournaments in South American and Asian countries as there are in Europe, for example.

It has been a common occurrence for me to be asked if the Williams sisters are my favorite players, often the question stemmed from my deep tennis tan and what I looked like.

However, within the United States, minorities are still vastly underrepresented as compared to their white counterparts, particularly in the elite junior and professional ranks. Part of this might be due to socioeconomic factors. To get started in tennis when playing for fun is inexpensive—one can buy a simple racquet and a can of balls and play at a park court for less than the cost of a movie ticket and popcorn. But to train at a high level, one must pay for private lessons (often at country clubs or academies), pay for national and international travel expenses, and shell out money for better equipment. It’s a lot—as my family will tell you—with little help for minorities to get interested in the sport. These days, as young players from more diverse backgrounds play their way into the spotlight, I hope it will encourage more children of color to play tennis or sports in general.

Staying on the topic of sports just a bit longer, one of my theories is that all people—Native, black, Hispanic, whomever—have bought into white supremacy. I think one way that Native people show this in how we are comfortable with seeing Natives with white ancestry, but Natives with black ancestry are still oftentimes a shock to the system. Have you ever noticed any difference between how Native athletes or perhaps mixed black/Native athletes are treated or perceived?

I think you make a great point. I have often wondered why it seems to be that if you took two people mixed half and half—one who is mixed black/Native, one mixed white/Native—the latter is almost always accepted and their “Indianness” isn’t questioned while the former is often overlooked. This happens in life in general, but can be magnified in the context of sports. Take women’s basketball, for example. Basketball is a huge sport in Indian Country, and in the last few years, Shoni and Jude Schimmel have exploded onto the scene. Their success has inspired many Native people to play basketball, come out to games, and has given them two of their own to cheer for. “Native American Nights” have become common at the girls’ games to celebrate their heritage and the fans who come to see them. Don’t get me wrong; all of their success is well-deserved and they both have bright futures ahead of them. But it is hard to overlook the fact that as talented as the Schimmel sisters are, so is another young player—Angel Goodrich. Goodrich is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, played on the collegiate level at University of Kansas, and like Shoni, plays in the WNBA. These girls are similar in age, all three have played at major universities, all have limitless potential in their basketball careers, and all are Natives. The difference? The Schimmels are mixed with white, while Goodrich is mixed with black. Goodrich has not received anywhere near the same amount of attention which is unfortunate because she is a proud Native and just as good as the other girls. I hope in the not-too-distant future, Natives can support, celebrate, and acknowledge more of their own who are doing something positive—because no matter what tribe you come from or what you’re mixed with, we’re all Indians at the end of the day.

Did or do you ever feel pressure to identify as either simply Native American or simply African-American? Who was it that created that pressure?

All the time. Most of the pressure is to identify myself as being simply black and surprisingly, it has most often come from the black community in my personal experience. I have been told that since I look black and my father was black, I am just black. That isn’t to say I haven’t experienced this from the white community as well. A business professor (with a doctorate degree who taught in international studies, no less) once asked me several years ago what my next tennis tournament would be. I told him I was playing in the North American Indian Tennis Association Tournament. Before I could finish my sentence, he cut me off and said, “Now, you know you’re not Native American right?” It was only after he quizzed me on what tribes I belonged to that he dropped the discussion.

I have often wondered why it seems to be that if you took two people mixed half and half—one who is mixed black/Native, one mixed white/Native—the latter is almost always accepted and their “Indianness” isn’t questioned while the former is often overlooked.

From the Native side of things, it’s interesting. Some of the issues arise from differences in blood quantum requirements among tribes, being of mixed-tribal or mixed-race descent, or views on the Five Civilized Tribes. The question is usually if I am “Native enough.” These are the only things I have encountered with Natives, but on limited occasions.

Sometimes it feels like society as a whole forces you to choose, so “they” know what category to put you in. But I have never wanted to deny any part of my heritage or bow to that pressure, even if it makes some uncomfortable for me to be a proud “other.”

Were there ever times when you simply wanted to be one or the other—wholly Native American or wholly black?

Definitely. I was solely raised by my mother with the help of my maternal grandparents. As far back as I can remember I have always known what tribes I belonged to, or what my name meant, or certain Cherokee and Euchee words my family taught me. I never thought I looked any different from my mom’s family—my full-blooded grandmother’s skin was the same golden brown hue as mine, and everyone had curly hair (it was the ’80s after all!). It wasn’t until my mom and I moved to the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona when I started elementary school that I learned of my father’s heritage. Being raised by my Native family and being surrounded by other Native children, for a short time I wished my outside reflected how I identified myself on the inside. As time has passed, I don’t want to be simply one or the other; because then I wouldn’t be me. It took a pretty awesome mixture of white/black/Native to make me who I am, and I love and accept all of me. I’m proud of where I come from.

I guess, in kinda the opposite of the last question, was there a point where you began to see being mixed Native and black as a positive or an asset?

I never realized how much of an asset it was until I was older. The greatest thing to me is being able to blend in with, appreciate, and understand both sides. I think it’s unique and a blessing to be able to frame switch and see the world through different cultures’ eyes.

The greatest thing to me is being able to blend in with, appreciate, and understand both sides.

Finally, coming from both backgrounds—black and Cherokee—you of course understand that there were a small number of Cherokees who held black slaves and also a small number of black soldiers who were charged with hunting Natives. I know some people are fixated on those past transgressions, but I’ve also heard others say that whatever the reason for those events, there’s a much larger history of many more positive interactions between the Native and black communities historically and it makes sense to build off of those. How do you feel about that? Is a reconciliation that must happen between the two groups?

I feel like more information on the historical interconnectedness of both black and Native people could make a tremendous difference. Much of this information hasn’t been presented in the mainstream. What is known is that both groups are incredibly strong and resilient. Once there is a better understanding and acceptance of one another and that they in fact share many of the same struggles today, the two can learn from each other and bond together to create a better future—and that is a powerful thing.

This interview originally appeared at Indian Country Today Media Network.

By Gyasi Ross

Gyasi Ross is an author, speaker, lawyer and storyteller. Gyasi comes from the Blackfeet Nation and resides on the Port Madison Indian Reservation near Seattle.