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COINTELPRO, Cherokee Freedmen and Survival Tactics: Black History Month For Natives Pt.2

The Thing About Skins: COINTELPRO, Cherokee Freedmen and Black History Month
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They kept the pot of animosity boiling. Whites turned Indians into slave masters and slave-owners, and Africans into “Indian-fighters.” Light-skinned Africans were pitted against dark-skinned, free against enslaved, Black Indians against ‘pure’ Africans or ‘pure’ Indians.

- William Loren Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage

Make no mistake: there are folks and institutions that profit when people of color fight each other.

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Disruption and Misdirection

“COINTELPRO” (or COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a program conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations. COINTELPRO’s job was breaking up political activism such as the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Young Lords, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Nation of Islam and other groups by any means necessary. Agents were supposed to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate" the activities of these movements and their leaders. 

One of COINTELPRO’s favored techniques of “disruption” and “misdirection” was to turn one person committed to social justice against the other. The FBI accomplished this by having their agents pose as political activists who joined organizations with the intent to disrupt the political activities and turn actual activists against each other. These agents were called Agent Provocateurs; many folks call those agent provocateurs “moles” and others “informants.”

When the provocateur’s disruption and misdirection worked, the members would turn their attention from working for justice to working against each other. They would start fighting with each other instead of fighting with the enemy, whomever the enemy was at that time. 

The FBI loved to use agent provocateurs to pit progressive people of color who should have been allies against each other. In fact, agent provocateurs effectively crushed many meaningful social movements for people of color, including the brutal murder of Fred Hampton and contributing to the brutal murder of Anna Mae Aquash . 

Why Am I Telling You This?

Because there have been many people who have provided evidence about how Native and Black communities have similar histories since the US has been in existence, how there are similar interests between the two communities, and how the respective communities can work together. Yet every single time someone shows these commonalities and explains tangible ways to work together, some genius has to be the person to show why they shouldn’t work together.

Those folks’ behavior is that of moles. Rats. Agent provocateurs. 


It’s almost as if there is an effort to prevent the two communities from working together. That wouldn’t surprise me—I’ve read about Roy Mitchell and Williams O’Neal infiltrating the Black Panthers and John Ali talking with Malcolm X’s murderers right before he was killed. I’ve read about Douglass Durham infiltrating AIM and trying “to discredit anyone he did not control,” according to Peter Matthiesson. I’ve read about John Stewart a.k.a. Daryl Blue Legs accusing the amazing and beloved Native sister Anna Mae Aquash of being an informant herself and creating the environment that ended with her murder. Evil. These moles, these agent provocateurs love to stir stuff up and get folks riled up about everything except about what oppresses them. 

It’s happened for a long time. 

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

And now, oftentimes when someone brings up Native people and black folks working together in meaningful ways, some informant-like Native person will say, “Well, what about the Buffalo Soldiers? They were killing Natives. I mean, according to Kevin Mulroy, the Seminole Negro Scouts played a key role in breaking the resistance of Southern Plains Native nations and forcing us onto reservations.” And then some informant-like black person will say, “Well, what about the Native nations that owned slaves? They were just like the white people who owned slaves.” Or alternatively, that informant-like person will say, “Well what about the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma? They are kicking black Freedmen out of the tribe.”


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Those are fair conversations to have. They were real moments in time. There are some Cherokee who are doing some repugnant, racist stuff by discriminating against the black Freedmen who are specifically named within their treaty. But if I had to inquire deeper, my guess is that, like every other situation, it is in fact probably just a few powerful Cherokee who are discriminating against the black Freedman and all Cherokee are being implicated by their racist actions (Point of Information: there was a vote and 76% of voting Cherokee members voted to remove the Freedmen descendants—however, it was a small percentage that actually voted. Vote folks!!). 

In either event, the numbers are clear: it wasn’t “black people” who discriminated against Natives; it was a small percentage of black people. It wasn’t “Natives” who discriminated against black folks; it was a tiny percentage of Natives.

Let’s be clear. 

If a person takes the time required to take an honest look at the history of Native and black relations they would see that there is zero systemic history of black folks discriminating against Native people or Native people discriminating against black folks. Now, let’s be clear—there are absolutely instances where Native people did (and sometimes are still doing) destructive isht against black folks, and there are absolutely instances where black folks did destructive isht against Native people. But those are anomalies. Exceptions. Once again, to repeat, there is ZERO evidence of any systematic pattern of behavior by either group against the other. Never. And there are many, many more instances of Native people working with black folks for both groups’ survival. Unlike systematic discrimination, of which there is no proof, there is systematic proof of cooperation between Native and black people. 

That history of cooperation makes you wonder when the first thing folks bring up when talking about Native and black interaction is discord and separation.

Moles. Agent provocateurs. 

We’ll explore some of those instances of Natives falling victim to anti-blackness in the next two installments of this series; moreover we’ll also talk about those times when black folks fell victim to anti-Nativeness. There is an evil rumor that “Natives” had black slaves—no, my friends, that’s just not true. Instead, there is only a record of FIVE tribes ever holding black slaves, and those were those Five Civilized Tribes. Five tribes. Out of over one thousand tribes at the time. And one of those Tribes—the Seminole—became one of former slaves’ greatest allies. And also within the five tribes, it was only a few very well-to-do Natives who held slaves. It wasn’t “Natives” who held slaves—it was a few Natives from a few tribes who held slaves. 

Likewise, there is an evil rumor that “black people” fought against Native people on behalf of the United States government. Like the “Natives had slaves” offering, that is an evil informant lie—it wasn’t “black people” who fought against Native people on the Great Plains and in the Southwest. No, it was only a few thousand black folks, largely former slaves, who stayed in the Army after the Civil War. A few thousand out of 3.6 million black people in the United States; this wasn’t “black folks fighting Natives”—this was like the “Natives” who owned slaves, in fact only a tiny fraction. 

Provocateurs. Looking to pick fights amongst people who should be working together. 

If you look deeper at the “Natives owning slaves” narrative, the Natives who did own slaves—even the tiny group of Natives who actually did—mainly did so for survival reasons. Those few Natives who owned slaves were trying to prove that they too could be civilized and thus should not be exterminated, removed and/or displaced by white colonizers. Likewise, if you look deeper at the “black folks fighting Natives” narrative, the black folks who did fight Natives—even from the small group of black people who actually did fight in the military against Natives—was mainly for survival reasons. Those few black folks were very recently removed from slavery and were certainly weren’t employable so they had to feed their families in any way that they could. 

That’s definitely not to make excuses or make light of any of these situations; we need to have these conversations. Internally. But many times the people who perpetuated these oppressions were just trying to stay alive. 

Also, importantly, those interactions were just tiny drops in a huge bucket of history—those negative interactions comprised a tiny fraction of the interactions that black folks have had with Native people on this continent. We definitely should learn more about those and also learn from those interactions. Yet, some folks love to amplify and focus a disproportionate amount of energy on those few negative interactions to try to stir stuff up.

Back in the day, they called those people who tried to stir stuff up informants or moles or agent provocateurs. We can’t fall for that nonsense anymore.

Happy Black History Month. Native style.

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

Instagram: BigIndianGyasi