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Indians Owned Africans: How Do You Teach This History?

“You never saw such a people in your life. Their manners and action are wild in the extreme. They are in a perfect state of nature and would be a curiosity to any civilized man.”

“At that time the Indians did not have anything but small farms, and of course the freedmen were reared among them, so they didn’t work like they should but just raised enough corn to make their bread.”

“The Negro is more like the white man than the Indian in his tastes and tendencies and disposition to accept civilization. The Indian rejects our civilization. It is not so with the Negro. He loves you and remains with you, under all circumstances, in slavery and in freedom.”

“The peopling of the national domain with an enterprising, intelligent and hardy race of emigrants—transforming the savage wilderness into flourishing civilized communities, multiplying new States, and adding immensely to the wealth and productive industry of the Nation…[would] extend the area of Freedom [and] would increase the power of the North and West—the power of the people—would menacingly the perpetuity of the institution of slavery and the Democratic slaveholding aristocracy built upon it.”

What do you make of these four quotations? How judgmental are you? Should the people who wrote these words be cancelled? Should they be taught in our schools? What do you do if actual history does not comport with your preferred way of understanding the past?

The first quotation comes future Choctaw Nation chief Peter Pitchlynn in 1828 about his visit to Indian Territory, now eastern Oklahoma. He was scouting the lands the Five Tribes or Civilized People, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians, would be relocated to in what became known as the Trail of Tears. When he encountered the people already living there he reacted in accordance with the Myth of the Empty Land (The Myth of the Empty Land: Creating a National Narrative). As a civilized person, meaning one used to a settled life of agriculture and writing, Pitchlynn saw wild people who to all intents and purposes were savages. This meeting of Plains Indians and the Choctaw may not conform to expectations but it really happened in history: when the Indigenous People of the southeast encountered the Indigenous people of Indian Territory they saw uncivilized wild people living in a perfect state of nature who would be a curiosity to any civilized person (as in suitable for museum display). Such encounters are typical of the human experience when an agricultural society (Neolithic) and a nomadic society (Paleolithic) society meet. The latter are always considered savage by the former.

The second quotation comes from Blain Holman, Chickasaw freedman who had lived among the Choctaw. He was referring to events following the Treaty of 1866. In that treaty, the victorious Union obligated the independent Five Tribes to emancipate their slaves and later to provide individual allotments of 40 acres to them. The Union forced this action on the Indian Nation, a foreign country or dependent nation per the Supreme Court. Such an action may be considered unjust regardless of what you think of the terms. The Cherokee had emancipated its slaves in 1863 but we will never know what the other Tribes would have done on their own without the Union intervention. Based on traditional Myth of the Empty Land, Indians did not own land the way Europeans and Americans did so it was permissible to take it and allot it to individuals. Holman was disparaging the lack of productive use of the allotted land.

The third quotation comes from Frederick Douglass. He opined what could be considered a white view towards the Indian. He was attempt to secure a more privileged position for the Negro in the social hierarchy in this ranking of the different peoples.

The fourth quotation also is from Frederick Douglass. Here he expands on the previous sentiments. It is an expression of progress.

Meantime a changed circumstance had occurred in Indian Territory. With the allotment of individual parcels to the freed Africans, the area began to draw similar people from elsewhere in the country. During the 1880s and 1890s, the word spread about the success of the Indian Freed People as the wealthiest Negroes in the United States. One result was the creation of black towns. Many of the founders of these black towns and the editors of its newspapers expressed similar views to those espoused by Douglass. The city of Tulsa grew out of these developments until it became the wealthy Wall Street of the Indian Freedmen and African migrants from elsewhere in America. The centennial of its destruction is only days away.

Combined, these four quotations expose the complexity of history. One oppressed people can oppress another people. One victim of settler colonialism can practice the very same on another people when given the opportunity to do so. History can be problematical. Are we ready to wrestle with troubling truths?

So asked Alaina Roberts, author of I’ve Been Here All the While, at the conclusion of her online presentation on May 6, 2021, for the American Philosophical Society. Only because of the changes wrought by the COVID-19 crisis was I able to see this talk. The four quotations, historical information, and terms come from her talk.

Roberts herself is a self-acknowledged mixed Indian-African person and her African family was owned by Chickasaw and Choctaw. The Indian Removal Act is a foundation story for the Five Tribes. Frequently overlooked are the African slaves who also made the journey. Another overlooked event was the effect these Five Tribes had on the native Plains People. They were dispossessed when the newcomers from the southeast arrived and the newcomers now became the new native peoples. As noted, Roberts drew attention to the Union imposing its will on the independent Indian Nations. For Roberts, the question she asks about wrestling with these troubling truths is both an academic challenge and a personal one her given her ancestry.

While the Freedman are Americans, are they also citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes? The answer for the Cherokee Nation is “yes” but only as of 2017 after much legal action. For the other four Indian Nations, the Freedmen are not recognized on full citizens. Sometimes the impact is practical. Certain Federal programs such as in housing or vaccinations only apply to members of the individual Indian nations. Sometimes the issue involves rights and heritage – the now Freedman have been part of the history of the Five Civilized Indian Nations for two centuries. Their histories are intertwined geographically, biologically, and culturally but not always legally or politically. The struggle is ongoing.

One must add to the conclusion of Hamilton the musical of “who will tell the story” what story will you tell? Roberts interview with CNN concluded with the comment:

“It has made me realize that this is still an issue, and that we need to talk about racism and prejudice as it is in all of our communities, and not just the White community.”

Organization of American Historians Conference: II

This blog is a continuation of posts on the cancelled conference of the Organization of American Historians. For the first post go to The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference: What Would Have Been Presented?

This blog focuses on the sessions related to American Indians as did the first one. There seem to have been quite a few sessions dedicated to this topic. It may also be that as I reviewed the online abstracts and schedule, I was drawn to these sessions. The sessions covered in the first blog tended to be about Plains Indians and not Woodlands Indians who live in New York where I live.

Urban Indian Country: Segregation and Disaster in Twentieth-Century Rapid City

In 1972 a flood tore through Rapid City, South Dakota, killing 238 people. Many whose lives and homes were destroyed lived in a predominately Native American neighborhood known as “Osh Kosh Camp.” This paper asks: Why did those people live in that neighborhood at that time? I argue that white Americans racialized certain spaces under the conceptual framework of Indian Country as part of the process of American conquest on the northern plains, creating continuities between policies of removal, the institution of the reservation system and twentieth-century urban segregation. The American project of racializing western spaces erased Indians from histories of Rapid City. The importance of a tourism industry rooted in white conquest narratives to the region’s economy played an important role in keeping Indians out of urban spaces. Despite this, Indians continued to live and work in the city, particularly after the imposition of the federal policies of termination and relocation. In Rapid City restrictive housing laws and rampant discrimination forced Native Americans in Rapid City to live in poor neighborhoods cut off from city services, including one neighborhood along Rapid Creek’s floodplain. After the flood, activists retook the concept of Indian Country as a tool of protest. My paper claims that environment and race must be understood together in the twentieth-century American West.

Presented By Stephen Hausmann, University of St. Thomas

For me, the key word in this abstract is “erased.” “Who will tell the story” is the line from the musical Hamilton and that is indeed a question for many historical societies, museums, and scholars. Here we have a local event. There is no inherent reason why someone not from Rapid City should or would know about the meaning of this flood in 1972. But as an example of microhistory, it is an excellent example of using a local event to tell a larger story. It makes me wonder how many other such local events are being ignored or forgotten especially with statewide testing in the communities throughout the country.

P.S. The University of St. Thomas is in Minnesota and not the Caribbean.

The Catholic Sioux Congress of 1910 and Indigenous Mobility in the Northern Plains

In the summer of 1910, over four thousand Indians from across the northern Plains converged on the Standing Rock Reservation for the annual Catholic Sioux Congress. The congress brought together delegates from reservations throughout the region and a number of Catholic officials, including the papal delegate to the United States. It was the largest gathering of its kind. Yet Indigenous peoples would continue attending not only Catholic convocations but also large Episcopal and Congregational meetings in the upper Missouri River valley through the mid twentieth century. As scholars have shown, Indigenous peoples used these meetings for their own purposes, melding Christian and Lakota religious practices and carrying on Indigenous traditions of gift giving. This paper situates the religious convocations from the early twentieth century within the longer history of Indigenous diplomacy and communication in the upper Missouri River valley. By traveling throughout the river valley to attend the convocations, delegates visited homelands, communicated with friends and relatives on neighboring reservations, and crossed reservation borders. While Catholic officials believed that these meetings would supplant Indigenous ceremonies, Indigenous peoples used them to maintain older Indigenous networks along the Missouri River.

Presented By Christopher Steinke, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Here is another fascinating facet of the relationship between the Europeans and the American Indians – religion. Recently I have been doing a lot of reading about modern Angola in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Portuguese arrived there. I am doing so because in 1685 nine Angolans were brought to the Town if Rye where I live. It is not exactly “erased” history but it is not well-known or taught here. The odds are these people were Catholic. The King of the Kongo (in modern Angola) became Catholic in 1491 and eventually there were Catholic schools, priests, a bishop, and direct contacts with the Vatican. The Kongo was an independent country. Yet to tell the story of Kongo and next door Ndongo without including their Catholicism is not to tell the whole story. The same applies to the American Indians.

Great Lakes Indians, Monarchical Rituals, and the Making of the U.S. Government

During negotiations for an 1826 treaty between the United States and several Great Lakes peoples, Lewis Cass noticed an Ojibwa speaker wore around his neck a medal imprinted with the British King’s face. Cass, Michigan’s federally appointed territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, asked the Indian to affirm that he wore the British medal “not as an authority, or power, but as an ornament” before the American would smoke the calumet (sacred peace pipe) with him. In response, according to the memoirs of another American official, the Ojibwa “took [the medal] from around his neck and laid it on our table, saying, he put no value on it. The pipe was then smoked, and an American medal given him to take the place of the English one.” The American medal was nearly identical. It featured the face of President John Quincy Adams. A half century after Americans declared independence from the British monarchy, U.S. political culture remained monarchical in a key respect. American officials sought to dislodge Great Lakes Indians from the British sphere of influence not by presenting the Republic as a fundamentally different polity from the mother country, but instead by co-opting British modes of diplomacy. In this context the president was a rival to the British King, and, for that very reason, an analogue. Both British and American officials in Indian country used such methods as gifts, oratory, marriage alliances, and trade to encourage native peoples to feel a sense of kinship with a powerful yet benevolent “Great Father” to the East. My paper will explain how this phenomenon came to be and delve into some of its specific manifestations.

Presented By Zachary Isaac Conn, Yale University

Here in New York, we celebrate Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783. It is the day the British evacuated New York City after seven years of occupation. When the Lower Manhattan Historical Association (LMHA) successfully sought to rename part of the Bowling Green Plaza as “Evacuation Plaza” there was some resistance. People thought it had to with evacuating for Superstorm Sandy or due to a disease. I mention this because Evacuation Day didn’t mean the end of British influence in the United States…especially as the new country expanded westward beyond even the areas William Johnson, British Indian Superintendent, had dealt with until his death in 1774. The British influence continued. It would be interesting to a have a session comparing how the different superintendents of Indian Affairs operated.

Memory and Erasure in Native Histories

Early Native-Colonial Conflicts in Native American Literary Tradition

The relations between English colonists and native inhabitants of New England in the 17th century were rife with tension. While both sides generally tried to avoid open conflicts, out of self-preservation if nothing else, the cultural differences were overwhelming, and the colonial expansion was a constant source of conflicts. On two occasions tensions rose into all-out war. The Pequot War and King Philip’s War had in many ways shaped early New England history and had a profound effect on New England colonies’ economy, politics and, perhaps most importantly, world view. Colonial-era writers and preachers examined in meticulous detail both the history of the wars and their implications for native-colonial relations and colonial world view. Colonial intellectuals, such as Cotton Mather and William Hubbard, were the first to explore those conflicts, but not the last—both wars still draw attention from historians and are still analyzed, reexamined and reevaluated. The question of how the colonists perceived the conflicts was answered numerous times (sometimes in contradictory ways). The native point of view of early native-colonial conflicts, however, remains underexplored. Reconstructing the native perceptions of the conflicts based largely on European-written sources is an important aspect in a number of studies, the place that those early confrontations have in the collective memory of native peoples is less known. Native Americans created throughout the 18th and 19th centuries a number of texts almost unknown to the general public, and even to anthropologists and historians. While a key part of Native American culture is, of course, its oral history tradition, it is worth noting that there exists as well a literary tradition, one created by the authors who have successfully navigated the dominant Euro-American culture while firmly maintaining their Native American identity. This paper examines the perception, the role, and the place of the Pequot War and King Philip’s War in 18th- and 19th-century Native American literary tradition.

Presented By Gleb Aleksandrov, International Center of Anthropology, National Research University Higher School of Economics

Here again there is the issue of “erasure” and “who will tell the story.” My impression from these sessions is there is a much greater effort now to tell the stories in American history that have been erased, forgotten, or overlooked. Something similar also has been happening at the local level where there is more to the story of the community than the colonial mansion and family that once may have dominated there.