By Hannibal B. Johnson
The historical relations between African Americans and Native Americans, particularly in Oklahoma, “Indian Country,” receive little attention in curricular materials or in popular discourse. As such, the current controversy over the rights of persons of African extraction who claim ties to Native American tribes is, for many, perplexing, if not downright bizarre.
Some Indians enslaved Africans? Some Africans claim to be Indian? Affirmative answers to these questions are revelatory precisely because most of us lack a full appreciation of the degree to which these two demographic groups interacted over the course of centuries.
Important legal, political, economic, social, and moral issues surround the present controversy over the tribal citizenship of persons of African ancestry with tribal ties. Wrestling with these challenges around identity and rights will illuminate and advance the American dialogue on race and culture.
Though Native and African Americans engaged with one another long before the nineteenth century, Indian removal is a critical event in that shared history. The United States government forcibly removed the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee [Creek], Cherokee, and Seminole) from their homelands in the southeast to Oklahoma Territory in the 1830s and 1840s. Persons of African descent accompanied the tribes on these journeys. Later, all five tribes ostensibly sided with the South in the American Civil War, though many tribesmen fought on the side of the Union or remained neutral. At the conclusion of that internecine war, the federal government negotiated treaties with the five tribes. All five, except for the Chickasaws, agreed in these treaties (collectively, the “Treaty of 1866”) to adopt their “Freedmen” as tribal members. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Tribes jointly negotiated a treaty with the federal government which included an optional Freedmen adoption provision. The Choctaws adopted their Freedmen in 1883. The Chickasaws never did.
The Freedmen are persons of African ancestry and their descendants who lived among the Five Civilized Tribes, some enslaved, others as free persons (i.e., in both bondage and affinity relationships). Freedmen often intermixed with Native Americans, socially, culturally, and intimately.