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Anti-Black Racism in Indian Country: Jim Crowfeather Lives

Over the years I have visited and fellowshipped with a great number of tribes situated in the Eastern and Southern regions of the United States. Through this experience I have noticed a telling reality that has long been silently acknowledged, but rarely publicly spoken about. On one exceptional occasion thirty-five years ago, this silence was broken.

In 1978 Terry Anderson and Kirke Kickingbird (Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma) were hired by NCAI to research the federal recognition issue and present a paper on their findings to the National Conference on Federal Recognition which was being held in Nashville, Tennessee. Their paper, “An Historical Perspective on the Issue of Federal Recognition and Non-recognition” closed with the statement, “The reasons that are usually presented to withhold recognition from tribes are 1) that they are racially tainted with the blood of African tribes-men or 2) greed, for newly recognized tribes will share in the appropriations for services given to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The names of justice, mercy, sanity, common sense, fiscal responsibility, and rationality can be presented just as easily on the side of those advocating recognition.”

Of 55 continuous, identifiable, cohesive Indian communities in the Eastern and Southern regions of the United States (of whom I have intimate knowledge of) were found that of the 29 federally-recognized entities, all but six have been listed in historical records as having mixed-white ancestry, as well as some of course being listed as of primarily Indian ancestry. In the remaining six (all of who battled the BIA more so than the other 23), as well as 26 more that were not federally recognized, it was found that all had some perceived or real association in historical accounts to have some measure of mixed-black ancestry. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs is run by whites, mixed-white Indians, and a smaller number of racially identifiable Indians, with few black employees or employees of mixed-black and Indian descent, it is clear that recognition is not about one’s racial proximity to Indian, but rather one’s racial distance from black. This is entrenched racism and the most obvious double standard one can imagine rearing its head in the Indian political spectrum. While tribes who are perceived or do have some black ancestry, as well as significant Indian ancestry, are being denied, tribes with large amounts of white ancestry and less significant Indian heritage have been acknowledged.

This correlates with many BIA records including those produced during the boarding school era. In Professor K. Tsianina Lomawaima’s book They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School, it states, “…Offspring of Indian and black parents certainly existed at the time, but the government was not interested in making a place for them in federal schools. ‘Too dark’ was the euphemism used in school records of suspect students. At the other end of the spectrum, employees favored lighter-skinned students…”

Black admixture was meticulously followed, researched, and designated within the schools. The Indian Division of Hampton Institute records reflect this in concise form and go so far as to mention if the Indian Hampton alumni married a black person later on in their adulthood. The case of Hampton student Henry Thompson Brodette bares this out: “Thompson, Henry Brodette: Shinnecock & Negro (NY) October 1900 until graduating in 1906. Also awarded a carpentry certificate in 1904. Golf course employee and stableman.”

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These types of designations foreshadowed a generational battle the Shinnecock would engage in with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to gain federal recognition. This war of rhetoric and words would force the Shinnecock, despite inhabiting one of the nation’s oldest Indian reservations (the other 8 oldest Indian reservations in the country currently being occupied by historic “non-federal” tribes), to sue the federal government and eventually force the hand of the BIA. This action, coupled with nearly $30 million dollars in gaming backed financing to complete their federal recognition petition, would eventually overcome the constantly restocked quiver of lobbyists, government officials, and neighboring federal tribes who contested their petition. The light at the end of their tunnel, which included multi-generational attendance at federal Indian boarding schools, would not come within sight until 2011. In a similar scenario, the Massachussetts based Mashpee Wampanoag would not find relief until 2007.

Aside from Hampton, there was also disdain amongst Haskell and other boarding school administrations as mentioned in Voices from Haskell: Indian Students Between Two Worlds, 1884-1928 by Myriam Vuckovic, “Marriage was desired and promoted by Haskell’s superintendents if the spousal choice of the girl met with the school’s approval. Haskell clearly made a distinction between “good marriages” and “bad marriages,” the former referring to liaisons with self-supporting progressive Indian or white men, the latter to “camp Indians” or African Americans.”

This racial animosity has continued to the present day. In 1995, Lee Fleming, Director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment agreed with highly controversial statements at a genealogical conference in Alabama which was being sponsored by Samford University a year prior to his appointment to OFA (then BAR). A conference attendee, Professor Don Rankin, stated in written form that the following conversation occurred during the course of the conference, “Someone brought up the MOWA Choctaw and their attempt at federal recognition. At this stage, several people had gathered around and were talking. Ms. Brown responded in an even professional tone of voice that she felt that they would not be successful. When asked why, she responded that they had black ancestors and in her opinion were not Indian. Mr. Lee Fleming, who was at the time the Tribal Registrar for the Western Band of Cherokee and one of the lecturers, agreed with her. I was shocked at their statements.”

Those other few who have been able to break through the process, including the Pequot in Connecticut, were able to leverage their white phenotype members as the public face of the tribe during their petitions only to be sharply criticized post-recognition when it was found that many of the Pequot tribal members were of mixed-black heritage. And let us not even go down the path of the continued real and attempted expulsion of the Indian Freedmen members of the Five Civilized Tribes.

It seems Jim Crowfeather is alive and well in Indian country.

Cedric Sunray (MOWA Choctaw) is a longtime educator and current student in the University of Oklahoma Indian Law Program. For a list of the 55 tribes surveyed in the article or for other inquiries please contact him at