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Language and Culture (13-17)

Reclaiming identity in the face of systemic erasure

February 3, 2023

Black Indigenous women shed light on intertwining histories during Black History Month

Tiara Cash has both Black and Indigenous heritage, but says she didn’t connect with her Indigenous identity until recently. 
Ben Nelms/CBC

CBC News: Two framed photographs sit on Tiara Cash’s kitchen table in her Coquitlam, B.C., home. “This is my mom and this is my grandfather, and they are both Black Native,” she said.

Cash’s great-grandmother on her mothers’s side was Chahta (Choctaw) and Tsalagi (Cherokee), while her great-grandfather on her mothers’s side was Chahta. They were also Black.

But she says her Indigenous identity was shrouded because of the U.S.’s ‘one-drop rule’ that came into effect around the 1830s. “If you had any percentage of Black within you or you had Black relatives, you were re-classified [by the U.S. government] … as white or Black,” said Cash, a PhD student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

A woman holds a photo of her grandparents in a gold frame
Tiara Cash’s grandparents, middle, pictured with the hosts of Bride and Groom — an early reality TV show where couples got married on air. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“I always knew I was Indigenous growing up but it’s only been in the last half decade that I’ve really been able to find community, do ceremony and have conversations around this,” Cash said. 

Despite having a sense of belonging within a Black community, Cash says her African ancestry has been difficult to identify because of a lack of documentation during forced migration through enslavement. “There was a stealing of your ancestors that happened from West Africa, and if you are lucky you can trace one or two of those ancestors back to Africa,” she said. “I was able to trace one.”

In search of ancestry

For generations, Cash says, her ancestors have been living in Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.  “Most of what I know about being Black is being Black American,” she said.

A woman stands in front of a wall of plants, looking into the distance
Tiara Cash is pictured at her home in Coquitlam, B.C., on Feb. 2, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

While the identities of Black and Indigenous people have been systemically erased, for many those lineages are also defined by resilience, resistance and reclamation. “It’s so powerful to come from ancestry of slavery, ancestory of genocide — that’s a lot of resilience that I carry within me and a lot of resilience that a lot of Afro Indigenous people have,” said Victoria-based Taleetha Tait, who is Black, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en. 

A family stands on some steps
Taleetha Tait is pictured in her grandfather’s arms next to her mother in Texas. (Submitted by Taleetha Tait)

Tait has gone to great lengths researching and learning about her Black lineage, which according to a DNA test is most likely from West Africa, she says — but it’s been difficult to know for sure.  “We are descendents of human trafficking so I can’t go as far back as I’d like to,” Tait said.

She adds it’s a stark contrast to her knowledge of her Indigenous ancestry. “Those connections are much more accessible.”

Still, she says, she recognizes how government policy attempted to repress both identities. “My mother went to residential day school and my dad grew up in Jim Crow south in a segregated school — that is not that far back,” Tait said. Now, she says, she is witnessing both sides healing.

A woman stands in front of a black and red mural
Taleetha Tait is pictured in downtown Vancouver, in front of a mural by James Harry and Lauren Brevner titled Dreamweaver, about the weaving of cultures. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“I have so much compassion and admiration for the strength that runs in my blood,” she said. “I see the strength coming through on both sides.”

Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty

Despite the similarities and connections between her Black and Indigenous sides, Tait says there’s been misunderstanding or racism from both sides. “I have experienced microaggressions being Black and Indigenous — comments that are coming from a place of not knowing,” she said. “There’s a lot of explaining I need to do.”

Over time, though, her family has had more of an awareness of who she is, and of the parallels — rather than the differences — between both cultures, she says.

Cash says both histories are deeply connected. “These histories with land being stolen, children being stolen and people being stolen are all intertwined and they all come together,” Cash said. “And we can’t talk about Black liberation without talking about Indigenous sovereignty.” 

It’s something that Virginia-based Taylor McCarthy — who is Black and of the Squamish Nation — sees as core to her identity.

Two women smile
Taylor McCarthy, left, is pictured next to Elder Chief Janice George. (Submitted by Taylor McCarthy)

“My ancestors fought hard and never gave up,” McCarthy said. “It’s the reason why we have our songs and dances, why I can go to a restaurant as a Black person in general, I can have a job, be in the military and I have a Bachelor’s — it’s because of my ancestors on both my Black and my Native sides,” said McCarthy, who is currently serving in the U.S. military.

A family of four smiles
Taylor McCarthy, far left, is pictured with her brother Stephen, dad George, and sister Letha in Tacoma, Wash. (Submitted by Taylor McCarthy)

McCarthy was raised in Tacoma, Wash., by her late father, who was Black. He was born and raised in Charlotte, N.C.

Her grandmother, meanwhile, is from the Squamish Nation, and her grandfather is from the Sechelt Nation. When she was 18 years old, McCarthy moved to the Capilano Reserve, near North Vancouver to be with family there. “It was such a beautiful experience, I was welcomed with open arms,” she said. 

This Black History month, she hopes other Black and Indigenous people have the same experience of belonging and that “they have a community where they can thrive, with their language, culture, songs that they learn of the land, so they can share that with their grandchildren,” McCarthy said. 

“So that the culture on both sides is strong.”