BLACK HISTORY EVERY MONTH
BLACK INDIANS AND FREEDMEN OF THE FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES
By Barbara Harris
Jackson Advocate News Service
Copyright 2003. Barbara Harris. Published in the October 16, 2003 edition of the Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Posted by permission.
Writer’s Notes: October is National Family History Month. Perhaps, now is the time to research your family history if you have not already done so. In keeping with a continuing effort to bring untold history to our readers, in this column, we salute the Native American heritage of African people in this country. This is their story!
When Europeans first began to settle this country, they found at least 10 million Native Americans from hundreds of tribes across North America. However, over the next 300 years, the settlers initially, and later the U.S. government systematically eradicated the indigenous people to the point where by the turn of the 20th century, they constituted only about 10 percent of the nation’s population.
The first intimate relations between African American and Native American peoples were forged in the late 18th century. In the fields and homes of colonial plantations, these relationships grew out of the common and collective oppression of the two peoples at the hands of European zealots.
“The institution of slavery, as it developed in the New World, was based upon the lessons learned in the enslavement of traditional peoples of the Americas,” writes Patrick Minges of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
In spite of a later tendency in the southern U.S. to differentiate the African slave from the Indian, African slavery was in actuality imposed on top of a preexisting system of Indian slavery, Hinges contends. In North America, the two never diverged as distinct institutions, however.
Many of the early explorations of the New World were quite simply slaving expeditions. The colonial predisposition to cite Indian depredations as justification for Indian wars was often nothing more than rhetorical exercises to cover the seizure and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
However, the unsuitability of the Native American for the colonists’ labor-intensive agricultural practices, their susceptibility to European diseases, the proximity of avenues of escape for Native Americans and the lucrative nature of the African slave trade led to a transition to an African-based institution of slavery.
As relationships between African Americans and Native Americans evolved, the lines of distinction began to blur. The evolution of red-black people began to pursue its own course; many of the people who came to be known as slaves, free people of color, Africans or Indians were most often the product of integrating cultures.
Historians agree that in colonial times, Native Americans made no racial distinction between Europeans and Africans, presumably because they almost always encountered the two together.
According to Theda Perdue in her work “Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society 1540-1866, she contends that the Cherokee regarded Africans “simply as other human beings… since the concept of race did not exist among Indians and since the Cherokees nearly always encountered Africans in the company of Europeans, one supposes that the Cherokees equated the two and failed to distinguish sharply between the races.”
African American historian Kenneth Wiggins Porter concurs. We have “no evidence that the northern Indian made any distinction between Negro and white on the basis of skin color, at least not in the early period and when uninfluenced by white settlers.”
TRAIL OF TEARS
After the American Revolution the newly established states of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi took the lead in forcing the Southeastern Indians into exile. By then the white populations of these states already greatly outnumbered the Indians, who were now living in relatively small enclaves. Yet, even these domains were to be denied the Indians.
The state governments, under pressure from their citizens, demanded the removal of the tribesmen to the regions far to the west. One rationale for their demands was that the tribes were uncivilized and therefore unworthy of maintaining their hold on land desired by white Christian farmers.
Ironically, the Indians had, by then, adopted "civilization" and its entire works. The remaining major tribes of the Southeast - the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee – were known as the Five Civilized Tribes, and many of the natives had adopted both European agricultural methods and Christianity.
Many Americans, apprised of this assimilation by publicists from the tribes themselves and by missionaries who had long lived among them, championed the cause of the Five Civilized Tribes. But the real power to dispose of the Indians’ lands remained with the state governments, and they were adamant for removal.
Between 1790 and 1830, the population of Georgia increased six-fold. The western push of settlers created a problem. Georgians continued to take Native American lands and force them into the frontier. By 1825, the Lower Creek tribe had been completely removed by the state under provisions of the Treaty of Indian Springs. By 1827, the Creek were gone.
These state governments, in the early 19th century, passed laws that "legalized" the eradication of the Indian communities and opened their lands to settlers. Such legislation even denied the Indians any right of appeal by depriving them of standing in court.
It was this denial of the Indians’ most fundamental rights that led to a celebrated confrontation between two branches of the federal government in the persons of the venerable chief justice of the United States, John Marshall, and the president, Andrew Jackson (served 1829 - 1837).
The Georgia law depriving the Indians of their rights was argued up to the Supreme Court in 1832, where it was ruled unconstitutional. Jackson, who was determined to rid the eastern part of the nation of its Indian population, was reputed to have said of the decision: "John Marshall has rendered his decision; now let him enforce it."
In 1830, Congress passed the “Indian Removal Act. Although many Americans were against the act, most notably Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett, it passed anyway.
“I would sooner be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized,” Crockett declared.
Crockett’s political career was destroyed because he supported the Cherokee. He left Washington and headed west to Texas, where he died at the Alamo.
Without the power of the federal executive behind him, Marshall’s decision in favor of Indian rights was, in effect, null and void. And on May 28, 1830 Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, a bill requiring all Indians living east of the Mississippi to leave their homes and be relocated far to the west in what was called Indian Territory.
Now the federal government moved swiftly and brutally to enforce the new legislation. The first to feel the impact were the Choctaws of Mississippi. Bribed by agents of the government, a minority of Choctaw leaders in 1830 signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. All of the Choctaw land in Mississippi was ceded in exchange for territories in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Only eastern Choctaws managed to evade federal authorities and escape removal by scattering in small bands throughout the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana, there to live for decades on the periphery of non-Indian society.
Early in the 20th century, the federal government finally abandoned efforts to expel those who remained. The Bureau of Indian Affairs established an agency among them in central Mississippi and purchased land there for a reservation, land now held by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
In successive marches from 1830 to 1833, thousands of Choctaws set out on foot, under the watchful eyes of soldiers. These long, cold marches, difficult at best, were made worse by shortages of wagons, horses, blankets and food.
Woefully inadequate funds were quickly exhausted, and along the way people began to die. By the time Oklahoma was reached, more than a quarter of the migrants had succumbed to hunger, disease, or exhaustion.
The journey was equally horrible for the other Southeastern tribes when their turn came. Between 1834 and 1838 most of the Cherokees, Chickasaws and any remaining Creeks suffered removal, as did many of the Seminoles.
Ordered to move on the Cherokee, General John Wool resigned his command in protest, delaying the removal. His replacement, General Winfield Scott, arrived in New Echota, Ga. on May 17, 1838 with 7,000 men. The invasion of the Cherokee nation began shortly thereafter.
Men, women and children were taken from their land, herded into makeshift forts with minimal facilities and food, and then forced to march 1,000 miles (some made part of the trip by boat under equally horrible conditions).
Under the generally indifferent army commanders, human losses for the first groups of Cherokee removed were extremely high. Chief John Ross made an urgent appeal to President Martin Van Buren, requesting that his people be allowed to lead the tribe west. Van Buren agreed.
Ross organized the Cherokee into smaller groups and let them move separately through the wilderness so they could forage for food.
Although the parties under Ross left in early fall and arrived in Oklahoma during the brutal winter of 1838-39, he significantly reduced the loss of life among his people. About 4,000 Cherokee died as a result of the removal. The Cherokee of Northern Georgia numbered about 17,000 before the removal began.
The route they traveled and the journey itself became known as “The Trail of Tears” or directly translated from Cherokee, “The Trail Where They Cried (“Nunna dual Tsuny”).
Some of the eastern Seminoles forged themselves into a guerrilla army and waged bloody warfare against federal troops to retain their foothold in the East.
One war lasted for seven years, from 1835 to 1842; a second war, in the 1850’s, was much shorter. For almost 30 years after the fighting stopped in 1856, the remnants of the eastern Seminole peoples lived in isolation.
Like the Seminoles, a minority of Cherokees remained in their region by fleeing to land that was inaccessible to the outside world and generally considered worthless. Before the 19th century ended, the eastern Cherokees were all living legally on reservation lands purchased for them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the mountains of North Carolina.
Although the tribes in their new Oklahoma territories never recovered the vitality of the old days, they did reassert their former way of life, albeit in somewhat diminished form. They established farms, built schools and churches, revived their political institutions, and the Cherokees resumed publication of their newspaper.
FREEDMEN OF THE FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES
The five nations – Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Creek – prior to European occupation shared common histories of matrilineal societies, with tribal citizenship coming through the mother, through marriage to a tribal member and through the adoption of captives into the tribe.
Prior to their forcible removal by the government from their lands, tribal members fished, hunted small games and had small farms. The natives had well-established, prosperous societies prior to the removal and had incorporated numerous Europeans ideas, including their dress and religion.
The increasing number of Europeans being adopted into the five nations through marriage to Indian women brought significant changes to the old tribal ways.
These “Indians” brought enslaved individuals of African descent into the tribes, and eventually brought about the enacting of tribal constitutions and tribal acts restricting the rights of people of African descent to obtain citizenship in the tribes and to marry other tribal citizens, even though eventually, many of the individuals of African descent had Indian fathers who were tribal citizens.
Eventually, most of the tribes also had some restrictions against free Blacks living in the tribe. The tribe, which treated the Blacks with the greatest equality prior to the Civil War, was the Seminoles. Whites adopted into the tribe or their children who were known as “mixed blood” tribal members owned the vast majority of slaves.
It should be pointed out that some of the “slaves” were only slaves on paper since the U.S. government had tried to stop large numbers of free Blacks from moving to Indian Territory with Indian tribal members.
Also, free Blacks living in the tribes were often stolen by white intruders and carried off to slaveholding states. The Indians, who were often the relatives of the stolen free Blacks, recovered some with great difficulty.
At the time of the Civil War, except for the Chickasaw nation, only a very small minority of tribal citizens owned slaves. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, each of the five nations’ governments signed treaties with the Confederacy, although only in the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were the majority of the tribal citizens united behind the Confederacy.
During the Civil War, only the Cherokee nation repudiated the treaty with the Confederacy. All slaves owned by the Cherokee were freed in 1863 and the Cherokee nation ended discriminatory statutes against people of African descent.
At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government took vast amounts of land in order to punish the five nations for entering into agreements with the Confederacy. In 1866, each of the five nations entered into an agreement with the U.S. agreeing to end slavery forever and to treat their former slaves (and free Blacks) equally.
The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations immediately adopted the “Freedmen” in order to give them tribal citizenship, while the Choctaw nation did not adopt the Freedmen as citizens until the 1880s. The Chickasaw nation, at one point, adopted the Freedmen as citizens, but then rescinded the adoption.
After the Civil War, until Oklahoma statehood, the Freedmen tribal members obtained education, held positions in tribal government and shared in the tribal resources in the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations.
During this time, the five nations were steadily invaded by whites, especially from the South, who placed extreme pressure on the U.S. government to disband the tribal governments and to confiscate the majority of the lands and minerals of the five nations to give to whites.
Eventually, the five nations were forced to sell vast amounts of land to the U.S. government for minimal payment. Prior to the land sale, the U.S. government empowered the Dawes Commission to set up rolls of tribal citizens so that each tribal citizen would receive a share of the tribal resources in accordance to agreements with the tribe and the government.
The Dawes Commission used the earlier citizenship rolls of the tribes to determine who would be placed on the U.S. government rolls as a citizen of the various tribes. It must be noted that the tribal rolls did not list degrees of Indian blood for tribal citizens; there was no concept prior to the turn of the century of “blood quantum” in the five nations, only a concept of tribal citizenship or non-citizenship.
The Dawes Commission, when encountering a tribal citizen who they believed to have African descent almost always categorized such an individual as a “Freedman,” with no degree of Indian blood listed on his Dawes application, although the Freedman often listed an Indian father on his application for enrollment and gave testimony of having an Indian father or grandfather.
The final rolls of the five tribes had separate roll numbers for Freedmen and in no instances were degrees of Indian blood recorded on these final rolls for Freedmen, or contained in the applications for enrollment. However, the Dawes Commission enrolled those with mixtures of white and Indian ancestry as “Indians,” with varying degrees of Indian blood.
Although many Black Indians protested their categorization as Freedmen, most were unsuccessful in persuading the Dawes Commission or later the federal courts in being reclassified by them as tribal citizens by blood. Each Freedman received 40 acres and 160 acres, depending on the tribe, as his share of the tribal assets.
Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen received 40 acres although Choctaw and Chickasaw by blood received 320 acres. In the other nations, all tribal citizens received the same amount of tribal land.
The original intent of Congress in recording the blood quantums was to determine which tribal citizens would have land restrictions as to whether or not the tribal member would be allowed to sell his allotted land and minerals without permission from the Indian Bureau (now the Department of the Interior).
“Restricted Indians” have blood quantums of greater than one-half Indian blood.
After Oklahoma statehood, the Freedmen were subject to Jim Crow laws as people of African descent, and were forced to join Black non-tribal members (state Negroes) in fighting Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and grandfather clauses (enacted to stop non-white voting), in contrast to their full participation prior to statehood.
After Oklahoma statehood, tribal leaders worked tirelessly to reestablish tribal governments. At first, after Oklahoma statehood, the Freedmen tribal citizens received the same tribal payments for minerals, etc. and educational benefits from the Indian Bureau as other tribal members.
However, the U.S. government, through the Department of the Interior, began issuing “Certificate of Indian Blood cards” as a prerequisite for participation in federal programs set up for Indians. These CDIB cards were based on the blood quantums listed on the final Dawes Commission rolls about 1900.
The Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association contends the CDIB card program has resulted in the exclusion of Black Indian people from participation in such programs as Indian Health Service since degrees of Indian blood were generally not recorded for Indian people with Black ancestry by the Dawes Commission.
Additionally, when the five nations reestablished tribal governments, the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek nations enacted constitutions which restricted membership to those who had an ancestor on the “blood rolls.”
Although the Cherokee nation constitution allows the Freedmen descendants the right to apply for membership in the Cherokee nation, in actuality, Freedmen descendants are not enrolled because the tribal council passed a tribal act requiring that the applicant for enrollment receive a CDIB card as part of the enrollment process.
Until recently, the Seminole nation did enroll Seminole Freedmen tribal members. However, a constitutional change was enacted in which Freedmen tribal members would be removed from the tribe. The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not recognize the revised constitution.
In an effort to regain federal recognition, the Seminole tribal council, in late 2002, seated Freedmen representatives on the tribal council.
Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes and their descendants have had an ongoing battle with the Department of the Interior for more than 150 years. They are still being deprived of full voting rights and full recognition of the native citizenship guaranteed to all Americans.