A Uighur (Turkic) girl
An Inuit (Eskimo) girl
Two Melungeon boys
One of my favorite TV shows is The Turkish Hour, which runs on the local cable access channel in New York on Sunday night from 10 to 10:30pm (yes, I know it should be called The Turkish Half-Hour). You can watch segments from past shows at their website.
Last Sunday night, there were two eye-opening segments on admittedly remote connections between Turks and the peoples of North America. Even if they are impossible to establish with 100 percent accuracy, they certainly are intriguing.
In the first segment, we see a meeting at the Turkish Center in New York with American Indians performing music and dance, while scholars from both Turkey and North American Indian nations exchange ideas about the possibility that the two peoples are related ethnically!
That thought first entered my mind when I discovered that the word for boat in Turkish is “kayık”. (When the ‘i’ is not dotted in Turkish, it is pronounced almost like “uh”. With the dot, it is more like the ‘i’ in it.) A kayak, of course, is the boat favored by Inuits in Alaska and across northern Canada.
It is generally accepted that the Inuits and other indigenous peoples came across the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America up until about 5000 BC. It is also generally accepted that they originated from Eastern Siberia, the homeland of the Turkic and Mongol peoples.
Polat Kaya, a Turkish engineer and amateur scholar, wrote a paper titled “Search For a Probable Linguistic and Cultural Kinship Between the Turkish People of Asia and the Native Peoples of Americas”, a version of which can be read here. Kaya’s ideas are highly speculative, but other more mainstream scholars have made some of the same points. For example, Rene Bonnerjea’s “A Comparison between Eskimo-Aleut and Uralo-Altaic Demonstrative Elements, Numerals, and Other Related Semantic Problems” that appeared in the Jan. 1978, International Journal of American Linguistics.
Throwing caution to the wind, I will accept Kaya’s amateurish speculations on their own terms, if for no other reason it opens up huge avenues of literary and philosophical investigations about mankind’s common ancestry.
Kaya includes a table demonstrating the similarities between the Turkish words for father (ata, as in Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, the name adopted by Mustafa Kemal; in more intimate settings, the word baba is used) and mother (anne) and various American Indian peoples. The Eskimo word for father is atataq and mother is ananaq.
Going even further out on a limb, The Turkish Hour had a segment on possible ties between Turks and the Melungeon people of Appalachia, a group that I had never heard of before. The term Melungeon seems to be derived from ‘mélange’, or mixture, a reference to the mixed ethnicity of this group. A wiki article on the Melungeons states:
A common belief about the Melungeons of east Tennessee is that they are an indigenous people of Appalachia, existing there before the arrival of the first white settlers. But genealogists working in the late 20th century have documented, through a range of tax, court, census and other colonial, late 18th and early 19th century records, that the ancestors of the Melungeons migrated into the region from Virginia and Kentucky as did their English, Scots-Irish, Irish, Welsh, and German neighbors.
The likely background to the mixed-race families later to be called “Melungeons” was the emergence in the Chesapeake Bay region in the 17th century of what historian Ira Berlin calls “Atlantic Creoles.” These were freed slaves and indentured servants of European, West African, and Native American ancestry (and not just North American, but also Caribbean, Central and South American Indian: see Forbes (1993)). Some of these “Atlantic Creoles” were culturally what today might be called “Hispanic” or “Latino”, bearing names such as “Chavez,” “Rodriguez,” and “Francisco.” Many of them intermarried with their English neighbors, adopted English surnames, and even owned slaves. Early Colonial America was very much a “melting pot” of peoples, but not all of these early multiracial families were necessarily ancestral to the later Melungeons.
“The historical and anthropological evidence … suggests that in general a significant portion (though not necessarily all) of the ancestry of the Magoffin County, Kentucky, and Highland County, Ohio, enclaves originated principally from an admixture of African Americans and Whites in the early colonial period (from the late 1600s until about 1800) and secondarily from an admixture with presently unknown Native American groups in the mid-Atlantic coast region.”
The article also dismisses the claim of any kind of Turkish connection:
More recent suggestions by amateur researchers as to the Melungeons’ ethnic identity include Gypsy, Turkish, and Jewish. There is no evidence that Melungeons themselves ever claimed any of those ancestries. Nor does any creditable historical evidence exist to support such theories. There is ample evidence from the research of David Beers Quinn and Ivor Noel Hume that all the Turks rescued by Drake in the sack of Cartagena were repatriated to their homeland.
The reference to Turks being rescued has to do Drake’s freeing of Ottoman Turks being held captive by the Spaniards in the Caribbean. They were originally enslaved by the Spanish in Europe and brought over to the New World where they worked as galley slaves. Apparently Francis Drake brought 500 of these men to Roanoke, Virginia where they were going to be ransomed back to the Ottoman Empire. Some Melungeons believe that the Turks were never returned and remained in Virginia where they became their ancestors.
The Melungeons, who are generally understood to be part American Indian, might have been descendants of a group of people who shared blood ties to the freed Turkish slaves, Roanoke colonists and native peoples. One amateur Melungeon historian writes:
About one hundred miles inland, from Roanoke Island, and adjacent to the South Carolina border, was an area called Robinson County, North Carolina. In 1719, a group of hunters and trappers strayed into the hilly landscape and stumbled upon a tribe of Indians. The Indians had light skin, gray/blue eyes and light brown hair. But most astonishing was the fact that they spoke nearly perfect Elizabethan English. These Indians said that their ancestors “talked from a book.” Their customs were similar to the early English Roanoke Colony. This sighting brought about a theory that the starving colonists at Roanoke took refuge with the Croatan Indians during the first winter when Governor John White didn’t return. To this day the descendants still live in Roberson County, North Carolina. They are known as the Lumbee Indians. The surviving remnants of the Roanoke settlement may have been assimilated into the indigenous tribes. The existence of fair skinned Indians in Roberson, North Carolina substantiates the theory that the Roanoke colonists and perhaps the abandoned Turks and Portuguese and Moors blended in with the Croatan and other Tidewater, Virginia Indian tribes, including the Powhatan and Lumbee Indians. Dr. Robert Gilmor, a Melungeon researcher, suggests the people of the legendary “Lost Colony of Roanoke” intermarried with the Powhatan Indians who had already intermarried with Jamestown Colony. Adding the surnames White and Dare to the Indian population.
Now some of you might remember that the Lumbees have a very proud tradition of fighting racism. In 1957, when Robert F. Williams was arming the NAACP in Roberson County against Klan terror, he found allies in the Lumbee Indians who had been the targets of racism themselves as Timothy Tyson recounts in “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power”:
The rout of Catfish Cole’s bedsheet brigade by the Monroe NAACP on October 5, 1957, crushed the evangelist’s aspiration to unite the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas under his charismatic leadership. His manly honor in tatters, Cole retreated from Union County to Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina to rebuild his following. “Both counties,” one observer noted, “were Catfish Cole’s territory.” In Robeson County, which had a history of strong support for the Klan, Cole hoped to rally his forces in a population divided almost evenly among African Americans, whites, and Lumbee Indians. “There’s about 30,000 half-breeds in Robeson County and we are going to have a cross burning and scare them up,” Cole announced. Asked whether he intended to use violence to stop the race-mixing in Robeson County, Cole replied that the guns his Klansmen carried “speak for themselves, and if they don’t, they will.” On January 13, 1958, the Klan burned a cross on the lawn of an Indian woman in the town of St. Pauls as “a warning” because, Cole claimed, she was “having an affair” with a white man. The cross burnings continued, with the former carnival barker ranting at each gathering about the terrible evils of “mongrelization,” the loose morals of Lumbee women, and the manly duties of white men “to fight [America’s] enemies anywhere, anytime.” As one visitor to Monroe later wrote to a friend, “Cole was in a particular mad dog fury” because of rumors that Ava Gardner, eastern North Carolina’s own homegrown movie star, was having a Hollywood affair with Sammy Davis Jr., whom Cole contemptuously referred to as “that one-eyed nigger.”
The climax of the Klan’s Robeson County campaign was to be a heavily armed rally on January 18, 1958, near the small town of Maxton, at which, Cole predicted, 5,000 Klansmen would remind Indians of “their place” in the racial order. “He said that, did he?” asked Simeon Oxendine, who had flown more than thirty missions against the Germans in World War II and now headed the Lumbee chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Well, we?ll just wait and see.”
Cole’s references to Lumbee women were particularly galling. Robeson County sheriff Malcolm McLeod visited the grand wizard at his South Carolina home and “told him that his life would be in danger if he came to Maxton and made the same speech he?d been making.” That Friday night, as a few dozen Klansmen gathered in a roadside field in darkness lit only by a single hanging bulb powered by a portable generator, more than five hundred Lumbee men assembled across the road with rifles and shotguns. The Lumbees fanned out across the highway to encircle the Klansmen. When Cole began to speak, a Lumbee dashed up and smashed the light with his rifle barrel. Hundreds of Indians let out a thunderous whoop and fired their weapons repeatedly into the air. Only four people were injured, none seriously; all but one were apparently hit by falling bullets. The Klansmen dropped their guns and scrambled for their cars, abandoning the unlit cross, their public address system, and an array of KKK paraphernalia. Magnanimous in victory, the Lumbees allowed the white supremacists to escape. The war party even helped push Cole’s Cadillac out of the ditch where his wife, Carolyn, had driven in her panic. The grand wizard himself had abandoned “white womanhood” and fled on foot into the swamps. Laughing, the Lumbees set fire to the cross, hanged Catfish Cole in effigy, and had a rollicking victory bash. Draped in captured Klan regalia, they celebrated into the night. “If the Negroes had done something like this a long time ago, we wouldn’t be bothered with the KKK,” Oxendine said in a remark that kept his Lumbee troops clearly on a side of the color line different from that of African Americans.
Now, I have no idea whether the Turks are related to the Eskimos or the Melungeons, but I would suggest that this is a powerful theme for an epic novel. Start with a character crossing the Bering land bridge from Eastern Siberia in 7000 BC and his ancestors ending up fighting General Custer, or maybe an Ottoman slave’s ancestors confronting the Klan in 1957. Now that’s a novel that I would buy, one with a message—namely that we are all brothers and sisters under the skin.