Being that February is #BlackHistoryMonth, we thought it was appropriate to honor black celebrities, musicians and history makers who share some Native American ancestry. According to William Loren Katz, the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, speculates that a “vast majority” of African Americans today also share Native Ancestry.
Though not all of the specific tribes are known, the Native heritage of these historic notables has been documented, researched or claimed by them in their lifetime in some way or another.
In appreciation of these notables who have contributed to society in some way or another, here are 10 African Americans you may not have known have some Native ancestry.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls him the greatest instrumentalist of all time, Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27, 1942. Hendrix was of African, European, Cherokee and Mexican descent and spent many of his early years with his grandmother, a "Cherokee Indian." After a short career, Hendrix died in 1970 from barbiturate-related asphyxia at the age of 27.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (and his wife Coretta Scott King)
In William Loren Katz’s book Black Indians, he cites that Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 had mobilized a Poor People’s March and had invited whites, African Americans, Native Americans and all other races. In his book Katz writes, “King whose own ancestors included Native Americans as well as Africans, was assassinated in Memphis before the March reached Washington.” It was also known that Coretta was of African American and Creek ancestry.
Known as an influential African American actress, dancer, singer and civil rights activist, Lena Horne was also Native American from both of her parents, Edwin Frank Horne Jr. and Edna Louise Scottron. Horne joined the famous Cotton Club chorus at age 16 and performed in the movie and performing industry for decades, born in 1917, Lena Horne passed away in 2010 at age 92.
Michael Jackson (and all the Jacksons)
In an interview with Joe Jackson in the book, The Jacksons he tells the readers that he has Choctaw in his family history. There are also unconfirmed accounts that Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, has Blackfeet Nation ancestry.
James Earl Jones
Yes Luke, you might have had a Native American father—at least as far as the voice of Darth Vader is concerned. According to James Earl Jones in an interview with the BBC, he said his grandmother had Cherokee, Choctaw and African American roots.
Well, some of you might know that Beyonce’ is part Native American after she did that L’Oréal commercial. According to Ms. Knowles the Native American comes from her mother’s Creole heritage, which includes Native American.
Rosa Parks rocked the civil rights world when she refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger on a segregated bus. Called the “First Lady of Civil Rights” by the U.S. Congress, Rosa Parks was also of Cherokee and Creek descent.
The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, with such blazing hits as “Sex Machine” and “I Feel Good” is Apache as well as African American. In a 2004 interview, Brown credited his Apache roots to living a healthier lifestyle without cigarettes and alcohol. He said, “I guess the Indian temper is there. That’s why I don’t drink liquor… I smoke very little. If I smoke, I smoke what the Indians smoke. Whatever that is, ha ha ha!”
The dynamic “Godfather of Soul,” whose rasping vocals and revolutionary rhythms made him a founder of rap, funk and disco as well, died December 25, 2006 of heart failure brought on by pneumonia. He was 73.
LL Cool J.
Just as William Loren Katz proclaims on his website regarding Africans and Indians, “Though often unmentioned except in family circles, this biological legacy has been shared by such figures as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Alice Walker, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson and LL Cool J.”
In Katz’ book, LL Cool J. is holding a copy of Black Indians and claims Cherokee descent… enough said.
Worth mentioning category - But it doesn't count Oprah
Though not proof of Native heritage, Oprah Winfrey went the DNA testing route on a documentary called African American Lives in 2006 and discovered she was part Native American along with Chris Tucker. During the program, Oprah said that to many African-Americans in her generation, being “a little Indian” was desirable.
This article originally was published in February of 2014.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling