Black, indigenous, and reclaiming history

By Michelle Chen May 14, 2009

Blacks and American Indians have been bonded by hardship and social upheaval since the dawn of the country, and now the government that has historically oppressed both communities is mediating the crossroads between them. Lawmakers and activists are pressing for federal action to establish the rights of the freedmen: Black Americans with ties to five major tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) through enslavement prior to the Civil War. Controversy over the citizenship rights of the freedmen’s descendants—who may number more than 100,000, according to a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder from several members of Congress—has sparked federal litigation and bitter debate around cultural identity, racial authenticity and social justice. A Cherokee Nation ballot referendum in 2007 effectively purged from the tribal rolls about 2,800 freedmen and others claiming citizenship. The Seminole Nation, whose history of Black-Indian cultural and political intermingling dates back to the Revolutionary War, waged a legal battle for years over the rights of Black tribal members. At the Root, Kenneth Cooper reflects on the disenfranchisement, both literal and cultural, that he has experienced as a descendant of Cherokee slaves. Though he empathizes with the massive displacement and ethnic cleansing suffered by the Cherokees, he wrote:

…in recent years, I have found myself as angry with the Cherokees themselves as I am with the white settlers who wronged them in the past. From the end of the war until Oklahoma statehood in 1907, black Freedmen were accorded rights as citizens of Cherokee Nation, if not exactly equal rights. A century later, Freedmen descendants find themselves battling the Cherokee Nation in the courts to restore their tribal citizenship. By rejecting a people whose history is so bound up with their own, the Cherokees are engaging in a massive case of denial. The history of every family descended from Freedmen reflects close relations with Cherokees, down to some last names still in use today.

The politics of recompense, especially between two oppressed groups seeking self-determination, will inevitably bring anxiety and conflict. Part of the problem relates to material wealth: freedmen have been denied access to federal benefits and funding, and in some cases, revenues from tribal casino enterprises. As a kind of nativism carried out by actual natives, the debate seems to faintly echo anti-immigration arguments about the "stealing" of American jobs and entitlements. Does affirming indigenous identity and sovereignty necessitate drawing boundaries? In excluding Blacks from nationhood, are the Cherokee replicating historical injustices they themselves suffered? Should a shared legacy of dispossession encourage unity, even if it means grappling with a historical blight? Cooper tells of a tense encounter with a descendant of a Cherokee chief, John Ross, whom Cooper once described as a slaveholder. Gayle Ross insisted that her ancestor was “much more than that.” To some, that’s all the more reason for an honest reckoning of Cherokee history in its totality. The question of the freedmen resonates with every community that has rooted itself in America, and especially its first inhabitants: we’re all more than our past, but nothing without it. Image: 1836 wood engraving printed for Blanchard’s narrative of the war. Caption reads: "The above is intended to represent the horrid Massacre of the Whites in Florida, in December 1835, and January, February, March and April 1836, when near Four Hundred (including women and children) fell victim to the barbarity of the Negroes and Indians." (Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, via Rebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, the First Black Rebels to Beat American Slavery.)