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AFRICAN AMERICANS AND AMERICAN INDIANS
Don't call me black. We are black, all right . . . [But] when you refer to us in the Seminole Nation, refer to us as freedmen. . . . Every black is not a freedman. . . . It's a
distinctive category." These words spoken in 1993 by Lawrence Cudjoe, a representative of the Seminole Freedman band, illustrates the difficulties of the questions surrounding the
Seminole Freedmen's search for cultural identity. The term Seminole Freedmen was first used in an 1866 Seminole treaty to designate "persons of African descent and blood." To assert
that freedmen are a category distinct from other blacks is not to diminish their affiliation with the black community; rather, it is an attempt to illuminate a sparsely researched and barely
written chapter of American history.
Relationships between African Americans and American Indians date to the first African arrivals in the English colonies at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Close proximity and shared
situations of invasion and enslavement served to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps between the two groups. Although an awareness of their interconnected history exists in the significant portion of the
modern African American community that also shares Indian ancestry. Scholarship has thus far failed to document the experience. Rather than a simple connection between two imperiled communities,
their shared history is the story of combined quest for freedom, cultural identity, land, and ultimately self-determination.
———Complexities surrounding the issue of mixed racial identity have arisen in both the black and Indian communities. What determines membership or identity in either group? What cultural, linguistic,
physical, or ceremonial markers are necessary? For blacks the "one-drop rule" has traditionally determined their racial identity. As noted by the historian Paul Spickard, even when individuals had
ancestors that were overwhelmingly nonblack, law and custom dictated that one drop of black "blood" would make someone African American. On the other hand, the federal government as the
arbitrator of Indian affairs has dictated that some tribal benefits be allocated only to those individuals at least one-fourth of whose ancestors are descended from a single federally recognized tribe. Thus
Indians must struggle to prove their tribal affiliation, whereas blacks are arbitrarily and often superficially designated as African Americans.
———Historically, further confusion arose from unions between blacks and Indians. Much of the intertwined history of these two groups unfolded in the colonial Southeast and along the eastern
seaboard in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when European powers were vying for control over indigenous people and their land. With the infusion of a market economy that thrived on the
importation of black slaves, the number of Africans increased as warfare and disease decimated Indian populations. In a polarized and violent era, the lack of available partners for both blacks and
Indians led to relationships between the two groups.
———The tendency of Indians and blacks to form interracial communities also reflected the resistance of some whites to the idea of intermarriage with either group. This hostility was not reflective of
earlier colonial periods, however, when racial categories and attitudes were less rigid and gender imbalances created opportunities for such unions. From the New York and New Jersey areas, examples
of communities featuring mixed black, Indian, and white unions included Jackson Whites, Shinnecocks, Poosepatucks, and Montauks. Other seaboard communities formed similar groups, including the
Narragansetts in Rhode Island, the Mashpees and Gay Heads in Massachusetts, the Melungeons in Tennessee, the Brass Ankles in South Carolina, and the more numerous Lumbees in North Carolina.
These and other groups are often described as "triracial isolates" because of their infusion of black, white, and Indian heritages and their practice of settling on the fringes of black or white areas.
———For some of these triracial isolates, the process by which they designated their racial and ethnic backgrounds was often a response to external forces rather than an internal decision. To distance
themselves from black communities, they focused on aspects of their Indian heritage — a practice that reflected the eastern and southern racial hierarchy that relegated blacks to the bottom of the social
order, Indians close to that, and mixed-race people somewhere between Indians and whites.
———On the other hand, a rather lax attitude toward runaway slaves prevailed in Spanish Florida, an area that provided sanctuary and fertile ground for the emergence of separate settlements
comprising blacks and Indians. In Florida, both blacks and Indians needed military allies to thwart the advances of white settlers into the region. The historian Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., even asserts that
General Andrew Jackson's Florida invasion was not aimed at the Seminoles but was instead intended to break up the Maroon settlements that attracted runaway slaves.
———Fears of cooperation between blacks and Indians fueled many attempts to create an atmosphere of suspicion that would prevent further alliances. For example, whites urged southeastern Indians
to accept their views of slaveholding. Earlier forms of Indian slavery, both of Indians and blacks, often served to replace tribal members lost in wars or epidemics. As their land base in the Southeast
decreased, Cherokee Indians became more sedentary and introduced plantation-style agriculture, which benefited from large groups of slaves. Observing white slaveholders' treatment of their slaves as
inferiors, these Indians were encouraged to create legal distances from their own slaves. By the 1820s, situations, enacted strict slave codes that forbade intermarriage between Indians and blacks,
prohibiting blacks from owning weapons, and ordered the two races to live in separate towns.
———The African-American historian Kenneth Wiggins Porter wrote extensively in the 1930s and 1940s of the cooperation between blacks and Indians on the American frontier. He noted that the
delineation and the structure of the frontier often promoted collaboration U.S. Army would have more swiftly routed southeastern Indians in Georgia and Florida for removal to Indian Territory. It was
such an alliance that prompted army officers to offer bribes and promises of freedom to blacks affiliated with the southeastern tribes. This tactic produced tensions between former black and Indian
———Elsewhere in the continent, blacks encountered and befriended American Indians in the contest of the fur trade. James Beckwourth, for example, a freedman from Virginia, spent several years
as a Rocky Mountain trapper before moving on to Carolina and producing his memoirs (The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth) in 1856. Other blacks went west with wagon trains and
military columns and made common cause with the Indians they encountered there.
———Following the forced removal of southeastern tribes to Indian Territory in the 1830s, the remaining tenuous associations between blacks and Indians were tested by external factors such as the
Civil War, slave raids, and the allocation of land to blacks and Indians — events that drove the groups further apart. The opening of Oklahoma Territory to settlement by black and white settlers
following the Civil War was often regulated by black soldiers, who won the hatred of local tribesmen. Rifts between blacks and Indians were heightened by the black cavalrymen called Buffalo Soldiers,
who aided the federal government in the divestiture of tribal lands.
———In testimony before Congress in 1906, the Creek leader Chitto Harjo expressed sentiments felt by other Indians as well: "I hear the government is cutting up my land and giving it away to
black people. I want to know if this is so. . . . These black people, who are they? Are they Negroes that came in here as slaves. They have no right to this land." Chitto Harjo raised an
important question" Who are they? Are they members of the tribe? Are they members of the black community? Are they black Indians?
———The 1866 treaties negotiated between the federal government and the so-called Five Civilized Tribes following the Civil War provided tribal citizenship to all persons of African descent who were
formerly associated with those tribes. However, this provision left room for many abuses and inaccuracies, and many eligible freedmen were denied full tribal membership. In addition to restricting tribal
status, curtailed membership resulted in reduced land allotments. Oral interviews collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s revealed that one man, Henry Battiest, of Indian and black
heritage, reported that he "came to enroll with [the Dawes Commission] as my father was an Indian, but the Dawes Commission did not put me on the rolls. . . as an Indian but put me on the rolls as a
freedman, so I selected forty acres of land as a freedman." Had his Indian ancestry been recognized, he would have received 160 acres.
———Although all of the Five Civilized Tribes signed the 1866 treaties, some never did adopt the freedmen or extend political and civil rights to their former slaves. Neither the Choctaws nor the
Chickasaws adopted freedmen as citizens, and the Cherokees extended treaty provisions only to freedmen who had resided in the Cherokee Nation prior to the war and who had remained there through
1866. Those who had fled the war and returned later were disenfranchised. The Seminoles were the first to sign the 1866 treaty and to grant citizenship, voting rights, and positions on the tribal council to
freedmen. Today the Seminole Nation is the sole tribe of the Five to retain freedmen on its council, as stipulated in the most recent Seminole Constitution, amended in 1969.
———For many black and Indian groups, their racial formation is reflective of their group identity. Even though their origin is complex and in many cases lost to historical evidence, there is a memory of
what the sociologist Brewton Berry called "an unbroken thread which binds them to the past." For the Lumbees of North Carolina, names common to their group denote that past. For others, such as the
Jackson Whites of New Jersey, their origin speaks of a shipload of British women, purchased to satisfy soldiers, who died and were replaced with African women. The women and children from those
unions later removed themselves from main populations and intermarried with other displaced groups. Official records have obscured this history by means of arbitrary designations on census documents
and by deliberate acts designed to marginalize and separate the groups.
———The necessity to provide a historical context for relationships between blacks and Indians is only one part of an attempt to provide direction for a quest for identity and to build a healthy basis for
future interactions between the two groups. For those who have shared ceremonies, language, customs, and marriage, the connections between them should be greater than their distances. Illuminating
the history of black and Indian alliances provides the initial step of their separate and combined histories.
Edited 3/12/2003 5:25:01 PM ET by CTJ527