Land and Identity
For indigenous peoples around the world, ancestral land holds meaning beyond ownership. Tribal communities see themselves as stewards. Their particular place in the living world is linked to identity, culture, and history. It is both physical and spiritual—an ecosystem of earth, water, plants, and animals as well as supernatural beings and the skies above.
For African Americans, to hold and work the land is deeply meaningful. After centuries of slavery, many freedmen sought to own farmland. Some succeeded, but most were forced to become tenant farmers. To participate in America’s promise as self-supporting, land-owning citizens was an elusive dream for the poorest African Americans for many decades, especially in the South.
Native people and communities with African American ancestry feel equally powerful emotional and spiritual connections to the land. Like all Native peoples, they have seen their land rights threatened and usurped throughout history. And now, state and federal authorities often view African-Native Americans as not “Indian” enough to qualify for tribal status and tribal lands.
Montauk family—lasting ties to the sea
On Long Island, New York, ancestral “land” included the sea. During colonial times, the Shinnecock and the Montauk adapted their traditional fishing skills to whaling. Working on whaleboats or captaining ships with mixed African and Indian crews, they prospered from the mid-1600s to the late 1700s.
Ironically, their adaptability—and intermarriage with African Americans—obscured their Native identity in the eyes of the white population. By the 20th century, many Montauks had left Long Island to join Native communities elsewhere. The Shinnecock have kept their land rights and continue to celebrate their whaling heritage.
Top: Photograph by Robert Cushman Murphy
Courtesy The Whaling Museum, Cold Spring Harbor, NY
Bottom: Courtesy Long Island Collection, East Hampton Free Library