Kendall Moore, PhD
Professor, Journalism & Film/Media
University of Rhode Island
This History We Don't Know:
The Relationship between Descendants of Slaves and Indigenous People
The late historian, Jack Forbes, wrote that even though so much had been written about the encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, the story about the interrelationship between Africans and Indigenous people had been "sadly neglected" (1, 1993).
This History We Don't Know will begin with an exploration of the early relationship between Native Americans and enslaved people with a particular focus on the story of the Manisee Indian Tribe of Block Island, Rhode Island.
Black Indians: A Brief Historical Context
The year was 1526, when Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, a wealthy Spaniard founded a colony in eastern South Carolina. When he launched his expedition to South Carolina, he took with him, from Hispaniola, five hundred Spanish men and women and one hundred enslaved Africans. Once they landed, he ordered the slaves to begin building his new colony, “San Miguel de Guadelupe.” When Ayllon ordered the Africans to begin building homes, he launched slavery in the United States.
In nearby marsh lowlands, Native Americans hid from the white settlers but kept a watchful eye on them. When they realized that enslaved Africans were instigating rebellions, by burning houses, the tribesmen joined their fight. Katz writes that within five months, the Spanish had retreated back to their home in the Caribbean; the Africans remained with the Native Americans--eventually, together, the community would become known as the “Black Indians of the Pee Dee River.”
Soon history would witness tribes east of the Mississippi providing a safe harbor for runaway slaves. Between the American Revolution, and the Civil War, black-Indian societies were reported in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, Katz writes that the Narragansett Tribe was found to be “ nearly all…of mixed blood and color, in various degrees and shades.” On Florida, historian Joseph Opala wrote, “Politically, Florida was in the hands of its new inhabitants,” as members of the Creek nation combined with runaway slaves to become the Seminole Nation of Florida.
Politically, this presented a major challenge to the U.S. government. For example, in 1843, the colony of Virginia had to re-examine its tax-exempt status for Native Americans, because, according to Katz, “whites looked at Native American villages in the South, and found black faces staring back at them.” Now, because of the bi-racial configuration of the local tribes, where “not one individual can be found among them whose grandfathers of grandmothers…is not of Negro blood,” legislators were prompted to investigate the “authenticity” of the Native Americans that had been given exemptions from the federal government. This eventually led to the end of tax-exemption for some Virginia tribes and the beginning of an investigation of the “subversion” of Virginia.
One solution was to introduce institutionalized domination to the First Nations, so in the mid-1700s, the British colonists introduced the five federally protected Nations—the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles— to slavery. The Seminoles ultimately rejected slavery, but the Cherokee adopted “Slave Codes” that controlled all aspects of a slave’s life. For four of the five tribes, by interjecting slavery into Native culture, so were racism and the notion of racial superiority.
While some accounts report a history of severe brutality, other historians write that because the bondage was inherently inconsistent with the Native American value system, “Indian territory” slavery did not resemble that of the Southern colonies. Katz writes, “[White] Slaveholders viewed this leniency as a sign Native Americans did not understand bondage.” He adds that slaveholders perceived this as empathy towards their black laborers.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was proposed as a way to solve the Eastern Indian “problem.” Some 60 thousand black, black-Indian, and Native Americans were pushed west to Arkansas and Oklahoma, to land that was considered uninhabitable.
After the Civil War, in 1866, Cherokees were required to grant their slaves citizenship and membership in the tribe. Thousands of these “freedmen” elected to stay, marry, and integrate among the tribes of the Midwest. Whites also came to the tribal territory as the U.S. government was offering land to settle accounts with the Native American tribes.
Today, a cloud of controversy hangs over the descendants of “freedmen” (descendants of slaves) and the Nations that adopted them willingly and unwillingly, nearly one hundred and fifty years ago.
Among the Cherokee, Seminoles, and Narragansett, descendants of slaves that were adopted into the tribes, are now being eliminated politically and economically from the tribal rolls.
In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation took its freedmen citizens off its rolls in the early 1980s, stripping them of voting rights and citizenship. Then, in 2006, the freedmen protested and were re-instated again. A year later, in March 2007, The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma voted again to revoke the enrollments of some 2,800 tribal members who are descendants of slaves once owned by the tribe.
This turn of events was described in The New York Times as a “moral low point” and a direct violation of a 140-year-old treaty and other federal court decisions that have protected the sovereignty of the Cherokee tribe.
Expulsion led to the federal government intervening to protect the rights of the tribe’s black and black-Indian members who have been expelled. This is a critical problem because 2,800 members would have lost access to housing, medical, and other tribal benefits.
The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, in 2006, also began to systematically exclude members from their rolls as well.
And in 2000, the Seminole Nation of Florida, also voted to revoke the membership of the tribe’s members who were descendants of freedmen. When the tribe attempted to ratify the change, the federal government would not recognize the election and then ultimately cut off most federal programs to the Seminoles.
These recent developments have been called racist and motivated by greed--aimed at preventing those with African-American heritage from gaining tribal revenue and government funding.
According to the Washington Post, “…people on both sides of the issue say the fight is also about tribal politics. Advocates of expelling the freedmen call it a matter of safeguarding tribal resources, which include a $350 million annual budget from federal and tribal revenue, and Cherokees' share of a gambling industry that, for U.S. tribes overall, takes in $22 billion a year.