Eleanor Cook rolled out of bed, nervous, but excited about what the future held that day. Shunned from attendance at the local white and black schools of rural Virginia, state officials and Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives had for years been informing tribal members about eight of the state’s tribal communities where they would be sent to get accredited high school educations in Bacone, Oklahoma, Cherokee, North Carolina, Hampton, Virginia, and Haskell, Kansas.
As the pick up pulled away from the Pamunkey reservation she readied herself for a 1,000-mile journey that would begin momentarily from the train station in Richmond, Virginia. The year was 1944.
Annawon Adkins knew that she wanted to go beyond the final grade offered by her little Indian school in her Chickahominy community. Eighth grade would not enable her to pursue the many dreams she had developed in her mind over the years. Like Eleanor, she would take the long journey and end up her classmate at Bacone, an all-Indian school, in far off Oklahoma. Four years later in 1949, she would accept her diploma and jump on another train waiting to take her home to her beloved Virginia.
This same year would mark the admittance of Pecita Norwood into another boarding school, Haskell, more than 1,000 miles away from her home in Delaware. A member of the Nanticoke tribal community, she too was prohibited from high school education due to the segregation based policies of the day. In Kansas she would attend school with another member of Eleanor Cook’s Pamunkey community, Kenneth Bradby, who had begun there two years earlier.
In 1951, Murphy Reed and Carol Johnston, members of a small Indian community in Alabama, now known as the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, would also take the journey out west to Bacone in an attempt to free themselves from the “Jim Crowfeather South.” There they would attend school with tribes from throughout the country including North Carolina’s Haliwa-Saponi. Gallasneed Weaver, a fellow tribal member who had previously attended Acadia boarding school with members of the United Houma Nation and Tunica-Biloxi tribes, joined them. All were intent on breaking the chain of poverty and prejudice, which had enveloped their home environs.
Not a year later, Pearl and Edith Custalow would show up on the steps of Cherokee Boarding School in North Carolina in an attempt to begin a high school course of study unavailable to them back home on their Mattaponi Reservation; a reservation established in the 1600s by the British Crown which has been continually inhabited ever since.
But the Custalows, along with other Virginia tribes such as the Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, and Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division who had been recruited by the Indian boarding schools, were recent additions in comparison to Clarence Branham from Virginia’s westernmost tribe the Monacan. He attended Hampton in 1914.
This path to an education was nothing new to the many small Indian communities in the East and South who had been pushed far to the margins of American society. Though their communities were left without many government subsidies distributed to federal tribes, they were not “overlooked” when time came to educate them.
Beginning with the Lumbee Tribe’s attendance at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Institute in the late 1800s, historic “non-federal” tribes have attended government and mission-run schools for Indians such as Acadia Baptist in Eunice, Louisiana (Acadia was an anomaly in the South to integrate Indians into the racially mixed campus long before the days of desegregation.) Other schools attended by tribal members included Bacone in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Cherokee in Cherokee, North Carolina, Chilocco in Chilocco, Oklahoma, Choctaw Central in Choctaw, Mississippi, Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas, and Hampton in Hampton, Virginia where the Indian program was housed separately from the predominantly black student body. The historic “non-federal” tribes from the East and South attending these schools included the Abenaki (Vermont), Chickahominy (Virginia), Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division (Virginia), Euchee (Oklahoma), Haliwa-Saponi (North Carolina), Houma (Louisiana), Kansas Muncie (Kansas), Lumbee (North Carolina), Mattaponi (Virginia), Monacan (Virginia), MOWA Choctaw (Alabama), Nanticoke-Lenape (Delaware and New Jersey), Pamunkey (Virginia), Rappahannock (Virginia), and Upper Mattaponi (Virginia), along with others whose stories are still coming to light. This is not to forget other historic “non-federal” tribes from the central and western regions of the United States who also attended.
Today, the reality is that eight of the nation’s oldest reservations are inhabited by historic nations who are somehow non-existent on the BIA list of tribes. These include the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Reservations, Golden Hill Reservation held by the Paugussett Tribe, Hassanamisco Reservation of the Nipmuc Nation, Eastern Pequot Lantern Hill Reservation, Poospatuck Reservation inhabited by the Unkechaug Nation, Fall River/Watuppa Reservation under the care of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe, MOWA Choctaw Reservation, and the Schaghticoke Indian Reservation. In addition to these tribes in the East and South, there are other communities of “non-federal” Indian people retaining their traditional lands in the West, some designated as reservations and rancherias.
Other tribes from the East and South that gained federal recognition many years after their boarding school attendance include (with dates of their federal recognition) the Aquinnah Wampanoag (Massachusetts; 1987), Alabama (Texas; terminated 1950s-1987), Mashpee Wampanoag (Massachusetts; 2007), Narragansett (Rhode Island; 1983), Passamaquoddy (Maine; 1970s), Pequot (Connecticut; 1983), Penobscot (Maine; 1970s), Tunica-Biloxi (Louisiana; 1981) and the Shinnecock (New York; 2010.) While some of these tribes do not reside on reservations, those who have for countless generations are only now having their existence on reservations acknowledged post-federal recognition. There also were children from indigenous communities outside the United States who attended various government Indian schools. These brave children became integral parts of the histories of these institutions. Many of these historic tribes who cannot be found on the BIA list today are the grandmothers and grandfathers of the reservation system.
More than 80 percent of the tribes mentioned in this article hold one clear commonality that has continued their “lack” of federal recognition, or which was responsible for their delayed and highly contested eventual granting of recognition. This commonality is their real and/or perceived connection to some degree of mixed-black ancestry. This reality is the uncomfortable conversation that Indian country still struggles to come to terms with despite the overwhelming evidence before us.
NCAI’s 1978 paper, “An Historical Perspective on the Issue of Federal Recognition and Non-recognition” closed with the following 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.”
Indian country – and the federal mechanisms and academic institutions that impact us – hold a collective moral and ethical obligation to these tribal members. Institutional integrity and equality will become Indian country’s legacy as a result.
Cedric Sunray is exploring the Red and Black divide in Indian country with a series of three editorials. The next editorial discusses the current issues and contestations of race being experienced by the Pamunkey in Virginia and the Chitimacha in Louisiana. Sunray is husband to an articulate and beautiful Kiowa/Ponca woman, father of four, is a full-time teacher in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, and a culturally connected and enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians.His entire personal, community, and professional life has been dedicated to issues of social justice.