Skip to main content

Wilkins: Red, black, and bruised

A specter is haunting Indian country - the specter of First Nation-African American relations. Unlike communism, however, which has seen better days in Europe and elsewhere, this particular specter, one of many that continues to bedevil Native nations, continues to fester and poses increasing problems for a number of tribal nations, African Americans, mixed-blood black Indians, and the federal government as well.

This volatile issue was recently discussed by Brent Staples, an African American columnist, in an editorial column in the New York Times titled "When Racial Discrimination is Not Just Black and White."

After giving a short history lesson in which he accurately recounted the not insignificant amount of intermarriage between Africans and permanently settled African Americans and the darker reality that some Native communities held African Americans as slaves, he arrived at the gist of his argument.

While noting that some whites were finally confronting their own mixed-race heritage which includes black-white connections, after generations of denial, he then argued that "the attitudes of some Native Americans have not evolved in the same way. Both the Seminole and the Cherokee tribes have employed discriminatory policies to prevent black members from receiving tribal benefits and to strip them of the right to vote in tribal elections."

For Staples, this type of Native discrimination against African Americans is particularly egregious, given the history of colonialism, slavery, and discrimination members of both these groups have and continue to endure at the hands of Euro-Americans and policymakers and given the reality of close indigenous and African American relations in many parts of the country.

The bulk of the column then focused on the historically, legally, and culturally complicated situation of the Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee nations in present-day Oklahoma, each of which allowed the enslavement of African Americans until the Civil War.

The Cherokee, however, by an act of their National Council in 1863, had already abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, but as a result of the participation of some their nation's members on the side of the Confederacy, federal officials forced them in their 1866 treaty to reaffirm their pledge never to enslave African Americans and to extend to their former slaves and their descendants "all the rights of Native Cherokees."

Former slaves under the Creek's 1866 treaty were also entitled to similar rights "including an equal interest in the soil and national funds, and the laws of the said nation shall be equally binding upon and give equal protection to all such persons ..."

The 1866 treaties were, it is important to note, coercive documents forced upon the Five Tribes by the victorious federal government and they contain a number of punitive and detrimental provisions - the loss of thousands of acres of their reserved lands, lands that would thereafter be unavailable to both the Freedmen and other members of these nations, among them - that wreaked havoc on the Indian communities, including Black Freedmen.

The subsequent allotment years for the Five Tribes (and all allotted Indians) in the 1890s and beyond were even more trying and led to additional federal impositions on the tribal nations: the ultimate one being the loss of additional vast swaths of communal and individually held lands and the construction, by the federal government, of membership rolls for the allotted nations which, as Staples correctly pointed out, were segregated, with "Indians by blood" on one roll and the black "Freedmen" on another.

Staples maintains that these segregated rolls have poisoned indigenous and African American relations and that the tribes "have used them time and again to argue that black Native Americans are not tribal members at all." In fact, he goes so far as to say that "the Freedmen sometimes had clearer Native American blood lines than non-black brethren on the Blood Rolls." Precisely what Staples means by "clearer" blood lines is, unfortunately, not clear.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

As David Chang, a historian, has noted, a person whose mother was enrolled as a "full blood" Creek and whose father was enrolled as a "Negro Freedman" would be enrolled as a "Negro Freedman," although Creeks are matrilineal. More interestingly, a person with significant Euro-American ancestry and very little Creek ancestry "by blood" would be enrolled as Creek "by blood." That is, of course, as long as those individuals had no known African ancestry.

The interracial and intergovernmental tension today in Oklahoma between the Seminole and the Cherokee, enrolled and disenrolled African Americans, and the BIA, is palpable, frustrating, and will not be easily resolved.

This prickly situation is not, however, limited to Oklahoma. The real and perceived relationship between indigenous communities and African Americans has also affected the inherent rights and status of the Mashantucket Pequot and other Northwest tribal groups who have been embroiled in controversy because of commentators like Jeff Benedict and his controversial work, Without Reservation.

It has also affected the efforts of tribes like my own, the Lumbee of North Carolina, and other southeastern tribes in their quest for federal recognition. Some federal lawmakers and other recognized tribes have made the specious argument that due solely to their perception that Lumbees had historically intermixed or intermarried with African Americans that this had somehow diminished their tribal consciousness or identity.

Interestingly, for those groups petitioning for federal recognition who have a real or perceived admixture of English, French, or German blood, the same argument is generally not used to deny them political or cultural status as a bonafide First Nation.

I am convinced that the specter of indigenous and African American relations, and the situation of those mixed blood individuals who consider themselves African Indians will continue to haunt Native communities, cloud our relationship with African Americans and those of African American/indigenous ancestry, and will continue to be wielded by some in positions of political, economic, and media power as a means to deny or discredit those being challenged.

I disagree with Mr. Staples comparison of tribal governments who have or are in the process of disenfranchising their African American citizens with Southern states' rights political officials in the mid-20th century who winked and looked the other way when African Americans were being hanged, beaten, and harassed for trying to vote, looking to be seated in restaurants and movie theaters, or desiring nothing more than to be allowed to sit in any open seat on buses or trains. But his urging that African American citizens of tribal nations should and must be treated fairly by both tribal and federal officials is unassailable.

A key point not mentioned by Staples in his discussion of the Seminole situation is that black members who can trace lineal descent through their mother's line to a Seminole ancestor are considered full members of the nation.

Tribal nations are, by definition, sovereign nations and do indeed have the right to determine their own citizenry. That said, federal officials have at times acted to interfere or override tribal decisions on who can legally and politically belong to a tribal nation. Cultural and kinship connection in a tribal nation is an altogether different creature, however, than legal affiliation and I hope that tribal membership or citizenship deliberations on this crucial and complicated issue will take full stock of the wide range of historical and social developments and interpersonal relationships that have shaped and determined each First Nation's unique population and social character today.

As one writer put it, "if we don't form history, history will surely form us." Let us, then, as First Nations, form a realistic understanding and appreciation of our respective and diverse tribal histories that draws from rather than shirks or denies any aspect or component of our cultural, genetic, political, or legal past or present. Let us choose not to act from bigotry and racism. There is enough of that still being leveled on us psychologically, emotionally, and structurally by the larger state and society.

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.