Unreserved

He may have been the first Black and Indigenous person to seek U.S. presidency. Why don't you know his name?

If George Bonga had had his way, the United States would have elected a Black president nearly 200 years before Barack Obama, and that leader would also have been Indigenous. 
Historian Robert Keith Collins called George Bonga, "one of the most fascinating people in U.S. history.” (Field Museum)

If George Bonga had had his way, the United States would have elected a Black president nearly 200 years before Barack Obama, and that leader would also have been Indigenous. 

Bonga, born in 1802, became one of the first African Americans and Native Americans to seek the U.S. presidency, according to historian Robert Keith Collins, who teaches American Indian studies at San Francisco State University, and specializes in Black Indigenous identities and ancestry.
Robert Keith Collins teaches American Indian studies at San Francisco State University. (Submitted by Robert Keith Collins)


"He's one of the most fascinating people in U.S. history," Collins told Unreserved host Falen Johnson.

Bonga's cultural identity — being born to an Ojibwe mother and African-American father — represents a complex history of Black and Indigenous kinships that is still very misunderstood, Collins said, and far more prevalent today than most people realize.

Bonga grew up near what is now Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior. He was raised by his mother, who taught him Ojibwe cultural practices and her language, Anishinaabemowin. His father was the son of a man formerly enslaved by a fur trader, who, once freed, also began working in the fur trade. 

Bonga followed in their footsteps and worked within the Northwest Fur Trading companies, Collins explained, where he engaged in trading practices in accordance with Ojibwe aims and values.

He also became extremely educated, Collins said, even studying in Montreal. Able to speak English, French, and Native American languages, Bonga served as a translator and voyageur. 

He would go on to become a diplomat, and helped to negotiate fair trade agreements and treaties as an outspoken advocate for the rights of Ojibwe people. 

Bonga married an Ojibwe woman, Ashwinn, and together they raised a family. She literally, and figuratively, made the foundation on which he walked, Collins said. 

Robert Keith Collins says c. 1870 photo shows George Bonga wearing the moccasins his wife made. (Field Museum)
"If you look at his shoes, he's always wearing the moccasins that his wife made for him," said Collins. "That was not only a way of him maintaining Ojibwe identity, you kind of get a sense of something even more important — the role that women are playing in his life, especially his wife." 


But their family's history, like so many others of Black and Indigenous lineage, has been greatly hidden from public knowledge and history textbooks. Even more so for those who have mixed roots from both Black and Indigenous ancestors, Collins emphasized. 

The majority of Black people in North America today have Indigenous roots, Collins said, himself included. Collins is African American and of Choctaw descent. 

It's often "petty racism" that seeks to divide and exclude people from communities, Collins said. But stories of families coming together across cultures inspire him. 

Collins' research focuses on kinship — families formed through love, caring for one another, and sharing cultural practices, rather than bloodlines.   

"Love transcends race," the historian said.

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