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Hidden Histories

In a way, Judy Kertész’s arrival at NC State in 2008 was a homecoming. Although she grew up in New York, she was told “home is in North Carolina,” where her Lumbee ancestors originated. And she has brought national recognition with her, as the co-curator of “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas” – a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit, which runs through next May, shines a light on the complex relationships between American Indians and African Americans throughout the Americas, including the Caribbean. The idea for the exhibit stems from museum visitors of mixed ancestry who told the museum they “didn’t see themselves” there.

Lumbee indians
The Smithsonian Exhibit runs through May.

When NMAI set out to tackle the difficult, intertwined histories of Native and African American peoples in the Americas, Kertész was one of the experts they turned to.

“It’s not about telling people who they are,” Kertész says, “it’s about helping all Americans learn about an American history that has been hidden in plain sight.”

Kertész was a natural fit for the project.

“My ancestry is Lumbee, African American and Hungarian Jewish, so I’ve always been fascinated by the way people navigate their multiple histories,” she says.

That fascination led her to Harvard, where she worked on her Ph.D. prior to coming to NC State to teach courses on Native American history, material culture and museology (the study of museums and memorial sites).

The exhibit explores the way that the public, and Native peoples themselves, view race.

“We have to be very careful about not lumping all these different historical experiences together,” Kertész says. “They are each distinct.”

For example, the Wampanoag confederation, consisting of the Mashpee and Aquinnah nations in coastal Massachusetts, see themselves as indigenous peoples, with some families having African ancestry.

“They recognize their African ancestry but view themselves as Native American nations,” she says.

Things get more complicated in the South, where Jim Crow laws and a history of segregation created a more divisive racial atmosphere. As a result of this racial tension, there are tribes in the South that have had significantly less intermarriage with the African American community.

But, Kertész says, many people erroneously believe southern tribes have significant African American or European ancestry.

“It feeds into a dangerous myth: that Indians are vanishing,” Kertész says.

They’re not vanishing, and many Indian nations are still seeking to gain federal recognition of their status.

“At the core of all of this is the issue of sovereignty and self-determination for Indian nations,” Kertész says.

The separate and shared histories of people with African American and Native American ancestry are relevant today and, through Kertész’s work, the IndiVisible exhibit gives all Americans a chance to explore these stories.