When Ivan Watkins was growing up in New Orleans, he was surrounded by the brilliant pomp of the Indians at Mardi Gras. The colorful plumes and the dancing fascinated him and made him wonder about the connection between African-Americans and Native Americans. “I grew up around it but I wasn’t a part of it,” he says. “The elders in my family would speak of our Indian ancestors. When I thought of Native Americans, I felt the same rush of energy that I felt for my African ancestors. As I grew older I was driven to investigate this further. I felt like they didn’t want to be forgotten.”

A 26-year-old Chicago-based artist, Watkins wants to ensure that these ancestors are remembered. His undergraduate thesis at the Art Institute in 1990 was Black Heart Man, a video pairing images of black historical figures such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman with Native Americans Geronimo and Sitting Bull. “It was all about the spirit of self-sacrifice,” he says. “Real leaders are always servants of the people.” The video draws a link between the struggles of black people throughout the diaspora and the Native American battle for land and dignity.

Watkins began painting murals and pictures of Native Americans alongside African-Americans. Ode to the Unsung shows Native Americans and shackled slaves fighting slave owners. Remembrance portrays African-Americans and Indians tilling a field together.

Last January Watkins began working in the cultural programming division of the Chicago Park District. For Black History Month he developed a program on African-Americans in the west. The turnout was so good that he proposed a show on black Indians and began organizing it in March.

The result is the monthlong program Zambo–A Black Indian Cultural Arts Celebration, which includes an art exhibit featuring the work of 26 African-American, Native American, and mixed artists, including Watkins, and a series of events and workshops. Zambo is the historical term used for people of mixed African and Native American blood.

Saturday’s Zambo event includes a ten-minute screening of Watkins’s Black Rivers, Red Valley–In the Spirit of Our Ancestors, a documentary in progress, which explores the roots of African and Native American interrelation in the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes. Art Burton, Loyola’s associate dean of multicultural affairs, will provide commentary.

It’s estimated that between 40 and 80 percent of African-Americans have Indian ancestry, a result of slaves finding refuge on reservations. “I’d like people to get inspired and motivated to take action, research their family tree,” says Watkins. “This could bring communities together that have been driven apart. I’d hope that African-Americans would investigate this and become empowered. I’d like Native Americans to know the debt we feel for what they did to help us.”

Watkins’s Lakota name, Wakinyan Hoksile, means thunder boy, and was given to him by his “adopted” Native American family, the Foolbulls of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, whom he met while attending a vision quest. He returns for the retreats a couple of times a year. He also practices capoeira, a martial art created by Brazilian maroons, or runaway slaves. It incorporates stick fighting, which Watkins says is actually a celebration of Africans meeting Indians.

Watkins hopes his work will help more people become aware of the bond between cultures. “I remember when I saw Dances With Wolves and I was shocked that all these people were crying. I saw a fiftyish white man with tears in his eyes. I waited for him to turn around and catch my eye so I could nod my head, acknowledging him as a brother and fellow human being. But he looked at me like “What do you know about the Indians?’ He didn’t see the connection between how African-Americans and Native Americans have been treated, how everybody is interrelated.”

There will be a presentation of African and Native American drumming, dance, and story telling at 7:30 PM this Friday night at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive; admission is $5. Watkins’s documentary footage and Burton’s lecture will run from noon until 2 PM on Saturday; it’s free. A traditional bead and feather craft workshop will then be led by Ferdinand Bigard, chief of the Cheyenne Mardi Gras Indians, from 2:30 to 4:30 PM. Call 747-2536 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.