Born and raised in Washington D.C., Cheryl Watkins always knew she was Native American, because she remembered looking through her maternal grandfather’s family album. There, in all her glory, was a grainy photograph of her great-grandmother in full Indian regalia. She was sitting on a stool, a shawl wrapped around her and no part of her body showing. A Cherokee Indian; the ancient Cherokee (Sharkee) identified themselves as Ani'Yun'-wiya, meaning "real or principal people."
Watkins used to work for the Fairfax County School District. A degenerative, herniated disc has left her unable to work but she keeps herself moving and busy. She attends the Islamic Research and Humanitarian Services Center of America, Dar Al Hijrah, the 18th Street masjid and Dar Al Noor-which is around the corner from her daughter’s house in Manassas, VA.
When her grandfather, Dahlia H. Miller (the Miller part came from the family’s slave owner), was a little boy his family left Kentucky and headed North; his brother Maniply ended up in Ohio.
Her mother was the first of 11 children; her family traveled from Ohio to Virginia to the town of Laurel Hill, in Augusta County, VA, nestled beneath the Blue Ridge mountains and close to the picturesque Shenandoah Valley. They still own land there. Her aunt has a Cherokee name, Efwie. “My grandmother, Alma Clemens was 13 years old when she got married - she was part Indian, part German,”says Watkins.
Aminah bint Watkins wants to establish descent from her Indian tribe so she must collect genealogical documentation. The documentation must prove that she lineally descended from an ancestor who was a member of the federally recognized tribe; in her case: Cherokee. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) does not maintain a national registry. Once she completes her research, documents her ancestry, she will have to contact the tribe directly.
“I will need to show a DNA test from a male member,” says Watkins. This is because males carry the strongest bloodline. “My son is very adamant and very much into the fact that he is Native American.” This option may only be open to her grandchildren; if she applies for membership in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a sovereign nation, as membership is closed to all except babies and 18 years olds with 1/16 Indian blood, other nations are open but need a higher blood quantum.
Aminah would accompany her mother – Ruth Eloise – to the National Pow Wow. Ruth really enjoyed herself. The wheel-chair bound Ruth said her shahadah three times before she passed away. “She used to read the Quran and make dhikr,” recalled Watkins, who along with her mother represent the only Muslims in her family. Aminah’s children are not practicing and the third has not accepted Islam.
“I came to Islam 23 years ago,” says Watkins. She was ten years old when she started to question her traveling evangelist paternal grandfather and her Indian maternal grandfather. They both told her to search until she found her answers. “Don't stop searching Cheryl” and that is what she did until she found Islam.
Aminah wants to be declared as a American Indian, but she is also just as excited about her other roots. “My father’s side of the family were African slaves of Patrick Henry; in fact my cousins are working on proving our relationship to Patrick Henry himself.”
“Our families were separated when our people were oppressed. I have relatives in Canada that refused to be enslaved, so they ran as far north as they could,” she says. Cherokees do not live on reservations, and are the second largest tribe in the United States.
Watkins is fascinated by the portraits of Sequoyah (Sequoia), who invented the Cherokee Nation written language. Sequoyah is shown wearing a Muslim looking turban in a portrait which hung in the Smithsonian. “The devotion of the Cherokee people was to the Supreme Holy Spirit. They were rigidly non-idolaters and neither would they observe any religious images among them or practice idolatrous religious ceremonies. Instead the Cherokee people adored the one Great Spirit, God, whom they described as “the only Giver and Taker of life.” They were devoted to a higher principled way of living according to their ancient religious beliefs of the one benevolent God,” writes Chief Jahtlohi Rogers of the Cherokee Nation.
Watkins is a revert to Islam and doesn’t see any clash between her religion and culture. It takes us back to our roots and where we came from, she believes. “There were Muslims here long before ‘the white man’. I am so glad be asked these questions; this will force us to look at where we came from.”
Aminah also wants to see the roots of her religion. “I want to make Hajj.”
Aminah Salim lives in Alexandria, VA, meets friends at the Islamic Research Center (IRHSA) and Prince George’s County Muslim Association in Maryland. She grew up playing and praying in the Dar al Hijrah masjid, attended Quran school in Springfield, and her father walks to pray at the ICNA masjid. Aminah and her father are Nipmuc Indians.
Born and raised Muslim, she is originally from Massachusetts. The Nipmuc or Nipmuck people are descendants of the indigenous Algonquian peoples of Nippenet, 'the freshwater pond place'.
White settlers and expansionists set Nipmuc wigwams on fire burning hundreds of men, women and children, while others died of smallpox, and the rest forced to march 600 miles south to escape the ethnic cleansing. Those who escaped dispersed into different bands. “We eventually broke into bands after the white man came, and I am from the band Hassanamisco Nipmuc,” says Salim.
Since she lives in Virginia, she is not as involved as the rest of her family. She is trying to learn the N dialect, the other language spoken is called the L dialect. Unlike most mixed Native American Indians whose knowledge is limited to only of stories they heard about their ancestors, Salim is proud that she lives her ancestry. Her elders sit on the tribe’s council. “This is my great grandmother, my great great grand uncle,” she emphasizes. “My mission is that my kids know their heritage.” Her paternal grandmother was Native American, African American and European. Salim’s mother is African American.
“My father accepted Islam when he was in Massachusetts, my mother accepted in DC, they married as Muslims and we moved down to the DC area,” shares Salim. She wasn’t reared on the Hassanamisco Indian Reservation, the third smallest reservation in the United States, with her cousins. A mother of two children, a boy and a girl, this software engineer wants to spread the message of education amongst her tribe. “I want to learn and work with Native Americans. We are known as a people with no education.”
The biggest issue faced by her tribe is federal recognition; they are recognized by the states of New England, but federal recognition is in process.
Isolated, her tribe is in a tiny town lacking education and jobs so there are few opportunities for making money. Times are tough and the nation holds a $1 a week donation campaign and hosts fundraisers on the idyllic reservation. The Hassanamisco reservation is unique in Massachusetts having never been owned or occupied by non-native people, remaining the property of the members of the Nipmuc Tribe for the past 400 years. Salim is planning a trip in December with her cousin; he is white and native. Both plan to apply for their native names while they are there. There is a need for alcohol abuse prevention and treatment programs especially for children. Salim says that Harvard University was built on Nipmuc land and Nipmuc can attend Harvard for free as a repatriation. “If we have the resources for a free college education, we can use it to combat issues of poverty and alcoholism.” Some Indians look down on college education, calling those who leave an ‘apple’-- red on the outside but white on the inside.
Uncomfortable with some of the rituals of the Nipmuc such as rain dancing which make her feel like she is involved in shirk, Salim picks and chooses parts of her culture that don’t conflict with her deen, so she skipped the Strawberry Moon Nipmuc Nation celebration last June. “I don’t want to be involved in some ceremonies, I am Muslim first and foremost.”
Most of the tribe considers themselves Christian, but they participate in the chantings at the powwow. “They are Christians in regular life.” She thinks that the ancestral religion included worshiping many gods. Salim wants to study their history and learn about this. ”We always [learn] about smallpox and how we were kicked off our land, but not about religion.” Neither she nor her father have faced any issues with the tribe about their Islam. She has an aunt who is Jewish, and another is Christian.
“I can reach out and touch a Nipmuc cookbook- I want to try everything other than the bear stew!” she says as she plans for her harvest dinner.
Sewing beads on her daughter’s regalia, Rashidah Sharif of Baltimore, MD is a self-employed, divorcée from the East Coast Iroquois Nation, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I have always known that I was Native, we used to go to pow wows with my mom. My sisters went through women’s training, and I am doing that with my daughter to prepare her for puberty,” she said.
“Pow wows are a lot fun. It is a community gathering for Natives and people who are native enthusiasts,” she giggles.
“I have never been to a Iroquois reservation, I don't think there are any in Maryland, there might be some in Canada,” says Rasheedah.
As a young girl she used to dream about venturing on a vision quest to find her Indian name. But now she says she was born Rasheeda Sharif and that’s who she is. “Native names are different, you can start off with one and as you grow and develop as a person your name can change. “In a vision quest, you go up to a secluded mountain and sleep outside, while fasting and praying, and your subconscious tells you what your name is. I have heard stories -- but I am not into that anymore,” she shares.
Rasheedah's parents came to Islam before they were married.
Mama Hummingbird is Rasheedah’s aunt; she is Cherokee Muslim. Hummingbird’s mother was a full blooded Cherokee tribal mother. From her Rasheedah learned how their beliefs didn't conflict with her Islam. “They believe in one God, in women covering their bodies so becoming Muslim was easy for them,” said Rasheedah.
According to Rasheedah, the Iroquois are a monotheistic tribe- “a lot of them especially on the East Coast respect the Earth but walk on the soil so lightly so that they wouldn't leave footprints.” She says the women wear tunic top and long skirts, with a cap covering their hair- “they dress like Muslims.”
One myth spread in the Muslim community that she would like to dispel is that Thanksgiving is a pagan holiday. “I would like to say to my Muslim brothers and sisters that it is not a pagan festival, it is the end of the harvest dinner for the Iroquois -my people thanked God, came together as a tribe and stored everything away for the winter. [Many] Native Americans may have a harvest dinner the weekend before Thanksgiving.”
Rasheedah has never used her Native status; she never applied to get recognized. “My great grandfather didn't want the papers.” She says they were too proud, believing that “the government shouldn't tell them who and what tribe they belong to.”
Everything is Allah’s plan, says Rasheedah. Everywhere white Europeans set foot around the world, those Native people were forced to not practice their culture. What does Allah have planned for the Nations of the Americas, she reflects. “They made them forget their culture, but there is a resurgence of people coming back to their culture.”
If no one lives on the reservation, the government will take that land away. “That really trips me out!” With a sigh, she speaks about ongoing injustices and admires the resilience of her people- despite everything they are still proud, still strong, still speak the languages and still remember their history.
Passing the traditions on means teaching her daughter how to bead and weave. “I read to her about our culture. She wants to dress like the other kids at her Islamic school’s culture day; she gets embarrassed of her Native dress, but one day she will appreciate it.”