Last month’s racially motivated killings in Oklahoma, perpetrated by Cherokee Indian Jake England and his white roommate against members of North Tulsa’s black community, once again bring to light the prejudicial tendencies held by many in our Indian communities.
This reality is the literal “Negro Elephant in the Room," which many tribal communities attempt to pass off as issues of sovereignty, enrollment decision making, “and, well we had it as bad as them” rhetoric. However, the real effect is that our children grow up in environments where tribal governments and tribal members broadcast their racist ideologies -- such as in the more recent case of the Cherokee Freedmen—to an audience of young people who are not provided with the full histories and realities of their historical connections to the black community.
I have seen one too many times where the half-black grandchildren of Indian people are even marginalized by their own Indian families or are viewed as the “lone exception” to their prejudicial leanings due to their blood connection.
In 1978, Terry Anderson and Kirke Kickingbird were hired by the National Congress of American Indians to research the issue of federal recognition 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 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.”
Professor Don Rankin from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama has recounted by letter a disturbing incident occurring during a June 1995 genealogy seminar conducted by Sharon Scholars Brown at Samford University. His letter states:
“Someone brought up the MOWA Choctaw and their attempt at federal recognition. At this stage, several people had gathered around as we 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 Cherokees and one of the lecturers, agreed with her. I was shocked at their statements.”
Lee Fleming, a Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) citizen, is now the Director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment and was the responsible party for the denial of the MOWA Choctaw petition.
Another CNO tribal member, Darrin Buzzard, remarked in an email in referencing the Cherokee Freedmen, “...they will suck you dry. Their children will suck you dry…protect Cherokee culture for our children. For our daughter, for the American people as a whole. Fight against the infiltration.”
Some tribal members attempt to disassociate their own ancestry from any black connection. At a conference a few years back I was speaking with a member of a federally recognized Northeastern tribe who told me he had no black ancestry, his afro hairstyle not withstanding, I assumed.
In 2005, my wife was invited as a judge overseeing the annual Mississippi Choctaw Princess Pageant. The only entrant of mixed Indian and black heritage amongst the 20 competitors was crowned, much to the dismay of many in attendance. Radmilla Cody, the first Miss Navajo Nation of mixed Indian and black ancestry has relayed the reality of the racial prejudice she experienced from her own people as well.
Aside from perceived gaming competition is the primary reason why historic “non-federal” tribes such as the Lumbee, Chickahominy, MOWA Choctaw, Nanticoke, Houma, Haliwa-Saponi, Unkechaug, and others in the eastern and southern US regions remain without recognition. They all share the “burden” of being either of some or presumed to be of some black ancestry. On the contrary, many federal tribes who are of predominantly white ancestry are never questioned as to their racial reality.
Black ancestry within Indian communities does not nullify or lessen Indian social, cultural, and familial fabrics. Black people, Indian people, poor whites and others have endured great atrocities throughout history.
In the end, the greatest atrocity may be that we don’t recognize that commonality fully in one another and that Jake England, as a young, identifiable Indian with a murdered father, incarcerated mother, girlfriend who committed suicide, and one with responsibilities as a single, teenage father to a young child, is as much a victim as a perpetrator in the historical narrative that is race.
Cedric Sunray is one of four generations of enrolled family members of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama.