Hashim Saleh has dedicated much of his life to the celebration of African culture through his Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble, the state’s oldest African American drumming and dance troupe.
The Bronx, N.Y. native knows a lot about his family’s roots, which can be traced all the way back to his great grandmother – whom he says was born on an auction block in Charleston, S.C. Yet, the news that he was part Native American came as a surprise to Saleh when his cousins uncovered it two decades ago. To this day, the father of five says he knows very little about his other great-grandmother, who was a full-blooded Cherokee.
Saleh is one of many African Americans who can trace their heritage to two distinct cultures: African and Native American. The shared history of blacks and Native Americans was celebrated Saturday at Old Salem Museum & Gardens’ Heritage Day. The theme of the daylong festival was, “Our Shared History: African American and Native American Roots and Connections.” The festival was the brainchild of Cheryl Harry, director of African American Programming at Old Salem. The common history of the two groups is also explored during a Smithsonian traveling exhibit that is currently traversing the nation, Harry said.
“Our vision was to develop a deeper appreciation of our African American history by expanding the scope of the celebration to include the Native American aspect of our history,” she said. “…That’s part of our history also, and I think it’ll help explain some things and help us understand a little bit more about ourselves and each other.”
Like Saleh, many of those who attended the festival have both African and Native roots. Winston-Salem resident Jackie Gant believes her Native ancestry can be traced back to the Saponi tribe, which populates her native Person County.
Gant, a retired research scientist at Unilever (an international company whose brands include Wish-Bone and Ben & Jerry’s), said many of her Native American relatives were listed in early Censuses as mulatto or black because there was no American Indian designation. Still, she and her three siblings were always aware of their Native American roots.
“We’ve been told all our lives that my father’s grandmother was a Native person,” related the 70 year-old. “When you look at my father and my other cousins, you can see it.”
Gant says much of what she knows about her Native American heritage stems from family stories. She hopes to someday have more concrete answers.
“I want to get more definitive about where I came from as far as Africa is concerned, and how much Native blood I do have,” said the grandmother of four. “Hopefully, I can get a DNA test so I can know for sure.”
Warren County native Nana Vee Terry can trace her family’s lineage back to a white slave owner by the name of Young, from whom the family draws its surname. As the founder of The Whole Village project, which teaches youth about African cultures and traditions, and the former owner of an ethnic wedding shop on Capitol Hill, Terry has spent much of her life helping others gain a deeper appreciation of their cultural heritage. She says she is proud of her varied background, which includes American Indian lineage.
“It makes me feel very international,” said the mother of two. “I don’t have a challenge with racism; I fight against it because I believe if you know your own culture, that empowers you to be able to get along with other people. That’s what I taught my kids.”
The Moravians who founded Old Salem also had a mission based in northern Georgia, where they worked specifically with members of the Cherokee tribe, Harry said, but she didn’t realize how ubiquitous Afro-Native families were in the area until recently. She hopes to delve deeper into the history of Native people in Winston-Salem.
“This is just the beginning,” she said of the festival. “So much is unfolding.”
Verna and Lonny Street have dedicated their lives to sharing the vibrancy of Native American culture through the Raven Street Dance Troupe, an intertribal song and dance troupe, and the Hollister-based Raven Street Dance Studio, where youngsters learn the sacred dances of their respective groups. Verna, a competitive fancy shawl dancer, has Meherrin, Saponi and Cherokee roots. Both she and Lonny, who hails from the Meskwaki tribe in Iowa, compete in the national pow wow circuit. Street said she was interested to find that Old Salem serves as a link to the past for both Native people as well as African Americans and Caucasians.
“What I learned is that Winston-Salem was the last stop before you hit the Smoky Mountains to the west, so it was a major trade area. Native Americans would come down here from the mountains and trade with the settlers,” she related. “We would trade for pots and pans and bring our hides to Winston-Salem, so we all shared culture.”
Raven Street briefly shared the stage with Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble Saturday, bringing to life a long held desire for Saleh, who is expecting his sixth grandchild. Though he doesn’t have much information about his Native ancestors, Saleh says he has long desired to honor that piece of his heritage by incorporating Native American components into his art. After performing alongside members of Raven Street, Saleh said he was more inspired than ever to make such a project happen.
“It’s nice to communicate with the Native Americans that are on the program today. It just gives me more incentive to do things together. It opens up another area of what I’ve been wanting to do,” he remarked. “For the longest, we needed this, and what was so nice was they felt the same way about us.” Street said she believes that learning about other people’s cultures promotes a deeper sense of appreciation and unity across racial lines.
“I hope that people can see that we are all connected – all races – and once we see those connections, we can be more unified,” commented the mother of four. “We are individuals in who we are … however, being human is our true race.”