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African American Indians

This column first appeared on It is the inaugural column of McAuliffe's Redlines, a = weekly=20 look at Native American 'hed'lines, published every = Wednesday on=20

Posted Sept. 17, 2003

By Denny McAuliffe

The New York Times weighed in this week = on the=20 controversial topic of African American Indians with an = opinion=20 piece entitled "When Racial Discrimination Is Not Just Black = and=20 White." The author, Brent Staples, criticizes some = Oklahoma=20 tribes for not accepting black members who are descendants = of those=20 tribes=92 freed slaves.

Staples correctly acknowledges the news to many readers: = =93that=20 black Indians exist at all=97and that Native Americans = actually held=20 slaves.=94

Black Indians and Indian slaves are areas of denial = bigger than=20 Oklahoma. Some former slaveholding Oklahoma tribes, in fact, = have=20 concocted modern mythologies, typically unchallenged, that = they were=20 actually havens=97destinations even=97for runaway slaves, = and that=20 explains all the blacks claiming tribal descent.

Staples=92 opinion=97like it or not=97is his opinion, and = he=92s entitled=20 to it. Many Native Americans go ballistic at the slightest = hint of=20 criticism of Indians, their issues and their tribes, = especially by=20 outsiders (non-Natives). My own opinion, which isn=92t = important here,=20 is that you should be informed before formulating and = especially=20 voicing opinions about Indian issues=97and there are few = things in=20 life, genetic engineering perhaps, that are more = complicated.

But criticism of tribes? They're fair game, because = tribes are=20 governments, and if you can=92t criticize government, life = would be=20 pretty dull and conversation awfully limited. Plus, we = journalists=20 would be out of a job.

Staples doesn=92t soften the blows he delivers to the = tribal=20 sovereign body:

=93The tribes argue that they are sovereign nations and = can do as=20 they please. But this sounds suspiciously like the = =91states=92 rights=92=20 dodge raised by the South when blacks were being murdered = for=20 seeking the right to vote. Congress placed clear limits on = Indian=20 sovereignty in treaties and laws that also guaranteed = minority=20 rights. The question is whether Congress will act to ensure = those=20 rights or look the other way while they disappear.=94

He charges that =93both the Seminole and the = Cherokee=20 tribes have employed discriminatory policies to prevent = black=20 members from receiving tribal benefits=97and to strip them = of the=20 right to vote in tribal elections.=94 And he says that = =93the Bush=20 administration could conceivably change course and actually = validate=20 these discriminatory policies.=94

Hey, that=92s his opinion=97and it=92s printed on the = opinion page, so=20 it=92s not masquerading as news. The news value, by the way, = takes a=20 microscope to find. It seems to be this, buried at the = bottom of the=20 third to last graph: =93Court documents suggest that the = Bureau of=20 Indian Affairs might formally endorse elections in which = black=20 Cherokees are barred from voting.=94 That election, = completed in July,=20 resulted in the reelection of Cherokee Principal Chief = Chad=20 Smith.

Like news stories, opinions should be free of factual = errors.=20 There=92s a big one in Staples=92 piece: the fallacy of his = seminal=20 interpretation of Oklahoma tribal history. He says:

=93Like the white slave owners they emulated, Native = Americans=20 often fathered children by enslaved women and occasionally = =85 treated=20 those children as family. As a result, millions of black = Americans=20 are descended from black people who were either members of = the=20 tribes during slavery or adopted into them just after = Emancipation.=94=20

Man, that=92s a lot of fathering. No wonder Indians = couldn=92t stop=20 the white man=97they were exhausted!

In his article, Staples cites the Choctaws, Seminoles, = Cherokees and Creeks, four of the Five = Civilized=20 Tribes that were marched out of the southeastern United=20 States=97with their slaves=97and onto land that became = Indian Territory=20 and Oklahoma.

Here=92s the part Staples left out:

In the Civil War, these slaveholding, formerly southern = tribes=20 joined the South, fighting for the Confederacy. Their = territory=20 became a battleground of some of the bloodiest guerrilla = fighting in=20 the war: All-Indian Union brigades from Kansas fought = all-Indian=20 Confederate brigades in a free-for-all that resulted in the=20 slaughter of lots of civilians, who by the way also were = Indians.=20

When the war ended, the North punished the Cherokees and = the=20 other tribes who dared to side with the South. The federal=20 government forced the tribes to accept their freed slaves as = tribal=20 members=97regardless of any aforementioned fathering. The = feds also=20 took land away from the Cherokees to create a dumping ground = for=20 dozens of tribes left homeless by white expansion=97and that = land=20 became Indian Territory.

It=92s important to remember that this was punitive. = Staples=20 overlooks that point when he refers only to =93the treaties = of 1866,=20 which required the Seminole, the Creek and the Cherokee to = adopt=20 their former slaves as members of the tribes in return for = being=20 recognized as sovereign nations.=94 The latter part of the = statement=20 also is wrong: Their tribal sovereignty was never in = doubt=97the=20 Supreme Court recognized that 30 years earlier. Their = survival and=20 very existence were very much in doubt, however, in those=20 vindictive, post-war days.

Should tribes today be held to different standards from = southern=20 states, which long have been let off the hook of = Reconstruction-era=20 retribution?

Staples mentions the unfortunate tribal Freedmen Rolls of = former=20 slaves, part of the allotment rolls required by the General=20 Allotment Act of 1887. The Dawes Act, as it was called, = busted up=20 reservations by parceling out tracts of land to individual = tribal=20 members and making the =93surplus=94 land available for = white settlement=20 (thus bringing us those photogenic Oklahoma Land = Rushes).

The allotment rolls became the first printed list of = tribal=20 members, and some Oklahoma tribes use the allotment rolls = today as=20 the basis for tribal membership: You must be a direct = descendant of=20 someone who=92s named on the rolls.

But for the Cherokees and some other tribes, if your = ancestor is=20 on the Freedmen Roll, you=92re out of luck.

Is it unfair? Absolutely.

But is it discrimination?

African Americans aren=92t the only people who say = they=92re being=20 discriminated against because they can=92t get Cherokee, = Choctaw or=20 other tribal membership. Many people who claim descent from=20 ancestral members of these tribes say the old allotment = lists were=20 incomplete. Their ancestors were left off, they say, because = they=20 were out hunting when the list was formulated=97or because = they were=20 hard-core Indians who refused to have anything to do with = the=20 federal government, so they rejected any attempt to list = them, much=20 to their descendants=92 chagrin today.

They can=92t get tribal membership, either.

Is it unfair? Absolutely.

But is it discrimination?

Tribes, like all sovereigns, be they states or countries, = have=20 the right to set their own citizenship rules. For tribes,=20 bloodlines, with or without a quantum, are a determinant. = Having an=20 ancestor on the Freedmen Roll does not necessarily mean you = are a=20 descendant of a tribal member.

If you want to be a member but don=92t get to be one, you = don=92t=20 like it. Complain=97it=92s your right. Complain bitterly = even. Raise=20 Cain. But be correct=97especially if you=92re writing in The = New York=20 Times.

It=92s a tough issue, one too large for an 800-word = newspaper=20 article that, by necessity, has to take too many blind = shortcuts=20 through the minefield of our very complicated, and = controversial,=20 and tragic, American history.

Maybe someday, when the denial, misinformation and=20 misunderstanding have all diminished, the responsible = parties=97the=20 tribes and the feds=97can reach an equitable solution.

In the meantime, read books, starting with Annie = Heloise=20 Abel=92s =93American Indian as Slaveholder and = Secessionist=94 and=20 =93American Indian in the Civil War, 1862-1865=94 (first = published in=20 1915 and 1919, respectively) and D.S. Otis=92s =93The Dawes = Act and the=20 Allotment of Indian Lands=94 (1934).

This issue shouldn't be news to anyone.

Denny McAuliffe, Osage, is the project director of and teaches at the University of Montana School of = Journalism. Tell=20 him what you think:<= /I>

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