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Darnella Davis, Ed.D.
Presented at NAISA 2016 Annual Meeting, University of Hawaii, Manoa
In the last twenty years, a number of scholars have been grappling with transformations in the literal, metaphoric, and symbolic meanings of racial categories among the five nations removed from the southeast to the Indian Territory and formerly known as the Five Civilized Tribes. These scholars’ work argues for the use of racial terms that transcend colonialist/settler perspectives to convey the complexity of triracial mixing while acknowledging that such terms may be inadequate, problematic, or merely transitional. This paper discusses the self-identification among members of a Cherokee Freedmen/Muscogee Creek family, tracing the 130-year evolution of their racial and cultural identities from Allotment to the present. Their tribal status serves to interrogate revisionist frameworks as developed by Chang, Krauthamer, Miles, Perdue, Sturm, and Yarbrough. Each of these scholars has examined or anticipated the influences that shaped tribes’ “race thinking” as it played out during the Allotment Era. The scholars’ challenges are in forging more appropriate terminology as they contest the arbitrary boundaries imposed in racial designations of blood quantum or phenotype found in policy instruments such as the Dawes Rolls.
To move beyond criteria that erased the racial complexity of individuals with African heritage, scholars have employed terms such as “Black Indians,” “people of African descent,” “Black Creek citizens,” or “Afro-Cherokee.” Without a clearer explication of individuals’ cultural grounding, in contrast to legal citizenship, the conflation of racial purity and cultural integrity may continue to hamper the historiographical progress of triracial studies. Looking forward (and setting aside the sovereign rights of tribes to define citizenship), this paper aims to enhance current dialogue on how triracial scholarship among these tribes might be framed. As the title suggests, placing a personal account within a scholarly movement aimed at reframing the ideology of race among the Creeks and Cherokee during the brief existence of Indian Territory presents opportunities to reconsider acculturationist policies from the perspectives of those whose progeny have survived. Those impacted by Allotment Era racial designations have survived and are able to speak about how those policies have played out in the present.
Historical Context, Brief Summary of Personal History, Scholarly Revisions
For those unfamiliar with the assimilationist movement, that is, the movement to prepare native peoples for U.S. citizenship, a couple of events provide a bit of context. Under the Jackson administration, the Removal Act of 1830 set in motion a segregation of Indians from White communities. Many know the story of the resulting Trail of Tears, when federal agents rounded up thousands of Indians for a forced march to new settlements beyond the Mississippi, ostensibly to more readily protect them from zealous expansionism on the part of impatient White settlers. Most are less familiar with the fates of those who survived the trek west, and fewer still ponder the long-term outcomes of Removal.
For the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, establishing new communities in Indian Territory meant joining a pitched battle for power along the western frontier. Rival factions comprised of mixed and pure bloods, traditionalists and progressives, vied for dominance, in the struggle for autonomy that was promised to the tribes as an enticement to quit their native woodlands in the East. Fragile coalitions were overlaid by shifting military alliances during the Civil War, sparking renewed friction among previously feuding factions as some embraced slavery and some favored emancipation. Whether Creeks and Cherokees saw promise in adapting White views or distanced themselves from exclusionary practices, internal differences threatened a peaceful coexistence on the western front.
Fifty-seven years after the Removal Act, the Allotment period signaled a further master plan to address America’s uneasiness with the Indians in their midst. With the Dawes Act of 1887, the federal government began a policy of land allotments designed to accelerate acculturation through individual land ownership and the adoption of commercial farming. The policy sought to discourage the communal activities among tribal peoples that, from a White perspective, were barbaric. To allocate land, the federal government devised a sliding scale for Indians of varying purity and another for those associated with the tribes whose blood was tinged with Black. Under the Dawes Commission, charged with overseeing the allotment process, the stronger the blood quantum, the greater the restrictions on selling land. Government officials believed that full bloods were less civilized and therefore needed protection against those who would exploit their naïveté, quickly depriving them of their land, and thus their livelihoods. Such restrictions were more lax for those who agents identified either as mixed bloods or as Black (in the latter case, often relying on phenotype, their status as former slaves, or simply drawing on the “one drop rule”).
Agents were charged with establishing eligibility for inclusion in the Dawes Rolls, and thus for allocation of land, under three categories: “Indian,” “intermarried White,” and “freedman.” Language barriers, racial prejudice, and outright corruption contributed to a system that can only be viewed as deeply flawed. Far from being corrected, the legacy of this era, the long shadow of racial categorization, hangs over us to this day. Appeals for the removal of members of the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations with Black blood are being contested in our highest courts by families whose forebears served as stalwart tribal citizens for generations. Nearly 130 years later, I’m called to tell this story from a unique perspective. It is the story of my family, my people, the Reds, Whites, and Blacks who converged during the Allotment Era, and survive today.
As Cherokee freedmen and Muscogee Creeks, my forebears were the recipients of allotment land but also different racial designations conferred by federal agents. In a manuscript currently under academic press review, I relate their stories, tracing their shifts in racial identification over the last 130 years. In researching their histories and the fate of their land allotments, the significance of their saga to revisionist history emerged. Untangling a Red, White, and Black Heritage, A Personal History of the Allotment Era, contributes fresh perspectives to this neglected chapter in the historical narrative, detailing their struggle to maintain their lands from that time to the present (see redwhiteandblackheritage.com).
The Dawes Commission agents shoehorned people who had intermixed for centuries into the three categories calculated to expedite land allocations. They would pigeonhole my forebears along with other mixed bloods, but our stories are more complex and our identities were more nuanced. Still, with the stroke of a pen, they erased the mixed blood pedigree of many who appeared Black in the eyes of the census taker. Fortunately, the record can be corrected. History can be revised.
Traditional histories of the Allotment Era have tended to focus on acculturation or land cessions during this moment, brushing aside the larger impacts of racial categorizations. Little thought was given to the legacy of such classifications for those subjected to acculturation via yeoman farming. My family was typical of the racial blending that occurred among the Creek and Cherokee, early and often. Yet under Allotment, my maternal forebears were designated as full-blood Creeks. My paternal ancestors are listed as Cherokee freedmen. Although my paternal great-great grandfather was a full blood Cherokee, a prominent judge during the Civil War, his daughter, being the child of his slave, could make no claim to citizenship by blood. On the other, hand, my maternal great-great grandfather, as Attorney General for the Creek nation, could use his position to alter the records. According to the family, he protected his more vulnerable daughters by preserving their designations as full blood, while making his sons, half Creek, and thereby, rendering their lands more fungible when he needed cash. Over time, the two branches of my triracial family would stress the identities that offered advantage, some passing for White, some claiming their place within the American Indian Movement, while others took pride in being Black and proud. Each has held onto the land allotted to them over 100 years ago, the land where, I was born.
During my many years of research, I pieced together archival documents, amassed family photos, and talked with relatives whose lives had taken them far from our ancestral home. I was lucky that my forebears’ application for Cherokee freedman status comprised 50 pages in the National Archives, and that the lives of my illustrious Creek ancestors were noted throughout the years. Best of all, my elders, now in their 90s, learned their history and they remember.
Meanwhile, historians, anthropologists and waves of genealogists were beginning in fill gaps in the historical record. Since I began my search, a new generation of scholars has been advancing the study of racial identity as it relates to the pivotal moment marked by Allotment in Indian Territory. They are tendering theories that reframe the intersection of race, culture, politics and gender, offering new perspectives on the dynamic interplay of Red, White, and Black lives in social constructions of identity. Shifting through extant materials, they are bringing to light neglected facets of the record, while I have woven the documented trail of my family’s history with our personal stories and reflections. As scholars grappled with racial categorization, my concern was with our fit or lack of comfort with America’s racial silos. I was delving into the legacy of my family’s experiences as people of color and beginning to realize the uniqueness of our story, a story that might elucidate and humanize the reclamation of racial identity that so many others were seeking, especially the dearth of firsthand accounts. Fortunately, I was able to question my elders about our forebears, to query them about how, over the years, we’ve identified racially. My family can attest to the long-term impact of their assigned racial classifications, and comment on their benefits and constraints.
In the time since I began this quest, journalists, historians, and students of culture have begun to replace potted histories with more carefully researched stories about the varied experiences of people of color. In the 1960s, as my family joined in Civil Rights marches, traditional historical narratives became a battlefield of contested knowledge. Historians began to redress the neglect of people of color as well as the contributions of women. Their work highlighted the limitations of a male dominated Eurocentric point of view and underscored the gaps to be filled in representing the full range of human experience. Traditional histories were criticized for silencing ordinary voices in favor of lauding the elite, of celebrating success while skimming over failures and the problematic. Calls for equality demanded a new history that embraced complexity, one that shunned biased and overly simplistic renderings of social and political conflict.
As a result, scholars have provided a more balanced account of our nation’s history but also lamented the dearth of materials that could render the record complete. Primary sources might have illuminated a richer understanding of our collective development had the views of women, minorities, and the poor been safeguarded. To quote Napier, “The new history has brought us different stories, new actors, fresh images…If they are not all pleasing, they do reflect a recognition that life past and present is complex, a study in shades of grey, rarely black and white.” In fresh analyses of extant archival data, historians have realized the centrality of Native Americans and people of color in the American West. Looking at how and why these groups resisted and adapted to the challenges posed by life on the frontier gives us a richer, grittier understanding of our shared experiences. We now recognize that rethinking the past may aid us in re-imagining the future, even as we struggle to grasp its complexity, especially as regards triracial peoples.
In 2004, the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University launched a collaborative effort to change how scholars approach identity and culture. Shifting Boarders of Racial Identity, A Research and Teaching Project on the Native American and African American Experience, supported a series of conferences, lectures, seminars, and workshops that challenged academics to move beyond binary concepts of “race” and to rethink our notions about identity.
Among others revising historical accounts of the comingling of Reds, Whites, and Blacks, one focus has been on understanding the evolution of “race thinking” among indigenous peoples. Some scholars are tracing the shifts from early colorblind tribal traditions that readily incorporated outsiders through adoption or intermarriage, to the exclusionary policies that echo White supremacist views and help explain efforts to safeguard tribal integrity today. Reexamining the interplay of tribal encounters with White traders and settlers is now being contextualized within the ideology and practice of chattel slavery among Indians originating in the Southeast. Revisiting formerly accepted analyses highlights the limitations of earlier accounts written from a colonial or settler point of view, and the problematic categories employed to describe evolving notions of race and racial mixtures.
Katja May (1996), brings together a wealth of data and a trove of neglected interviews in reconsidering the Creek and Cherokee nations as they adapted to new lands in Indian Territory. She plumbs census data that highlight the two tribes’ commonalities as well as their differences, especially as they confronted the realities of accepting their former slaves as fellow citizens of equal stature. Her work raises many questions about conflicting ideologies surrounding race as the Cherokee enacted many laws to keep their race pure.
Foremost among the ideological culprits skewing historical perspectives is “blood.” Theda Perdue (2003), traces the evolution of that term from the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century as designations of purity or mixture were used and abused in the pursuit of power and influence in the early South. Fay Yarbrough (2008), targets the Cherokee Nation as the bellwether of tribal legislation among the Five Tribes. Her study sheds light on regulations governing intermarriage and the legal rights of citizens as they were enacted, practiced, and resisted. Those rights would be defined and redefined in a hierarchy of influence that shifted along with the demographics of the frontier and the need for greater centralization of governance as the authority of clans and traditional tribal towns waned. While CeliaNaylor, (2008), and Claudio Saunt (2005), revisit the neglected records of Blacks among the Cherokee and Creeks, respectively, Tiya Miles (2005), exposes the hypocrisy of race based policies invoked by the Cherokee in mirroring a White ethos. Naylor, Saunt, and Miles each shed light on the lives of the slaves and freedmen who lived among these tribes.
Miles, for example suggests that mixed bloods might have gained some legitimacy as a distinctive group had their Indian and Black pedigree breeched the tripartite Allotment Era classifications of Indian, intermarried White, and freedmen. In the same vein, Barbara Krauthamer (2015), writing about the Choctaw and Chickasaw, laments the lost histories that erased the complex stories of families enrolled in the catchall category of “Freedmen.” She carefully mines the remnants of their archived chronicles to uncover the antecedents of Allotment policies during Reconstruction when claims to property and race fuelled debates over who would command tribal lands. She describes the social and political forces that eventually shaped the allocation of land for most mixed race tribes.
Each of these scholars has stared into a void and decried the lost stories of nameless individuals whose fates go unsung. Undeterred, they are engaged in disassembling the social construction of “race” as they reinvigorate the dialogue about this unique time when three races comingled. They agree on the pivotal influence of Black Indians residing in Indian Territory—whether born into tribes, bought, adopted, intermarried, or free—that distinguishes their experiences from those whose lives played out in the southern states.
David Chang (2010) invites a fresh perspective in looking at the intersection of race and landownership among the Creeks, prior to, during, and following, Allotment. For Chang, the tragedy was in the conflation of race, blood, and culture that, as mentioned above, devalued people of color and undermined their ability to manage the land ceded to them. He affirms that the shift of loyalties from matrilineal clans and tribal towns to paternalistic families and nations was realized through a change from a regard for land that was commonly held by the tribe to the acceptance of individual ownership. For, traditionally, women had worked the fields and improved the land. Under allotment, men were expected to quit their former roles as hunters and pick up the plow. Chang describes how Allotment forced the settler practice of having land, rather than making land. Among other tribes, the shift to individual ownership took 150 years, but within Indian Territory the change was concentrated in a mere 40 years. In examining landownership and its relation to slavery, western expansion, Indian resistance, the creation of wealth, and—as Indian influence waned—the rapid shift to White supremacy, Chang views Oklahoma’s borders as a condensed version of American history. It was the land of the Red man, for a time fostered the Black Belt, and yet, can still be called “White Man’s Country.”
Circe Sturm’s (2002) work on race and nation building among the Cherokee broaches the topic of how far a blood connection can stretch and still warrant a tribal identity. Sturm’s ethnographic research among the Cherokee offers personal perspectives on the cultural versus the biological basis of the term “full blood.” Such research is critical as the Cherokee include Whites with 1/1000th or even less of Indian blood among their members while ejecting those whose forebears might have been three quarters Cherokee but displayed some “African” feature that placed them among the Freedmen for whom no degree of Indian blood was, or ever will be registered—unless tribes relinquish their reliance on the Dawes Roll and revert, perhaps, to using DNA (Tallbear, 2013).
Each of these scholars is asking more interesting questions about notions of race, which over time, evolved among the continent’s indigenous peoples. They are probing the utility of adopting such notions, and, where such convictions will lead us. Each has a piece of the puzzle that lends greater authenticity to the story we will pass on to future generations. Their work underscores the value in my family’s extraordinary ability to resurrect their racial identities in contrast to those conferred on them by federal policies. The path each followed in reformulating, accepting or resisting such designations may broaden as we shed outmoded racial classifications. I am grateful for the opportunity to revise the narrative, as we recount our stories, in our own voices, relaying the richness of our mixed race past to the 10th generations of children. In doing so, we honor our elders and an expanding web of American revisionists.
Chang, David A., The Color of the Land, Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Krauthamer, Barbara, Black Slaves, Indian Master, Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2025.
May, Katja, African Americans and Native Americans in the Creek and Cherokee Nations, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1996.
Miles, Tiya, Ties that Bind, the story of an Afro-Cherokee family in slavery and freedom, Berkley, CA: The University of California Press, 2005.
Perdue, Theda, Mixed Blood Indians, Racial Construction in the Early South, Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Saunt, Claudio, Black, White, and Indian, Race and the Unmaking of the American Family, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Strum, Circe, Blood Politics, Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: The University of California Press, 2002.
Tallbear, Kim, Native American DNA, Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Yarbrough, Fay A., Race and the Cherokee Nation, Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.