Reading between the Lines with a New Lens:
Tribal “Race Thinking” on the Eve of the Indian Reorganization Act
Darnella Davis, Ed.D.
Presented at: NAISA 2017 Annual Meeting
University of British Columbia, Vancouver
In 1934, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier traveled throughout Indian Country promoting the merits of an Indian Rights Bill. In less than a generation after the Allotment Era signaled the end of tribal sovereignty, members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations had become U.S. citizens in a newly “White” majority state of Oklahoma. The bill sought to restore a measure of local autonomy to tribal communities embroiled in the tangle of jurisdictional wrangling that allotment of their communal lands had left in its wake. This paper discusses the racial tensions at play as the Muscogee Creek grappled with how to leverage power at this critical juncture. Part of the record of Collier’s meeting in Muskogee, is a petition from the Unrestricted Indians of the Muscogee Creek Nation. It pleads for time to mend the divisions that plagued the tribe, alluding to the policies that created gulfs among tribal members whose control of allotted land was more or less constrained according to their blood quantum. Allotment policies that conflated racial purity with lack of expertise in land transactions deepened fissures among the tribe’s “full-bloods,” “mixed-bloods” and Freedmen. These tensions can be read in the efforts of the Adams family, “mixed-bloods” who helped craft the petition in an effort to rebuild a unified Muscogee Creek Nation. Deconstructing the petition serves to advance current dialogue on tribal “race thinking” as well as the historiography of triracial studies (see Chang, Cottle, Hampton, Krauthamer, and Strum).
Because my forebears were not only witnesses, but active participants in these events, this story is mine, it’s part of my heritage. I have followed my parents’ accounts into the archival record, finding a complex story only parts of which we can touch on here. I do not have all the answers. Yet, confronting a skewed telling of these events, it is my obligation to look at land, people and policies with my triracial lens and to clarify the record.
Land Few stories about indigenous America can be divorced from land. Removed from the Southeast, the Five Tribes lived for scarcely two generations before Allotment offered yet another opportunity to open land to White settlers. Allotment, sought to accelerate assimilation by ending the practice of cultivating crops on commonly held tribal lands. Religious groups and federal agents saw the collective ownership of tribal lands as antithetical to capitalist enterprise. The idea that Natives’ lands might lie fallow when popular sentiment was consumed with maximizing productivity, incensed land hungry settlers.
Although the Five Tribes, were originally exempted from the General Allotment Act, by 1898, they too fell under its dictates. Creek lands were divided into 160-acre parcels comprised of 40-arce homesteads where a male head of household might tend a kitchen garden, a poultry yard, hay fields and pastures for livestock to serve the needs of his family. The remaining 120 acres, the “surplus portion,” could be dedicated to supplementary produce for small scale commercial use, making Indians self-sufficient.
The Allotment process took several years, first to create a roll of eligible allottees, then to survey the land, and finally to process requests for the land, reconciling conflicts or preferences among claimants. The issues involved in imposing a Township and Range grid over hilly terrain and adjusting relative values for sites with varying geographic features, made insuring equitable value for each allotment problematic from the start.
The People The Muscogee Creeks are a mongrel people. Their history is traced back to settlements and towns covering a wide swath of the Southeast. Initially speaking a variety of languages but living along a cluster of waterways, eventually one language dominated, and during the colonial era, they formed a confederacy. As Britain, France, and Spain vied for dominance, an early dichotomy emerged, first in the geographic hubs of the Upper and Lower Creeks, then in their social and political differences. Logistically, the Lower Creeks had increased contact with White settlers and their slaves, while the Upper Creeks, at a greater remove, retained a more “traditional” culture. It followed that “mixed bloods” were more numerous among the Lower Creeks while, broadly speaking, Upper Creeks maintained a tighter grip on traditional customs and values. These divisions ran deep, persisting even as the tribe moved west to Indian Territory, endured the Civil War, and, in the early 20th century, succumbed to Allotment.
Policies The Five Tribes had initially resisted allotment partly because, through prior treaties, they actually owned the land they occupied in Indian Territory. Allotment meant turning over control of their settlements to federal authorities. In contrast, reservations could be carved up as the federal government saw fit. Nonetheless, under the Curtis Act, the Five Tribes were forced to relinquish control of their lands which the federal government would hold in trust. When the allotment was sold, the land was released from federal protection and any heirs were then subject to taxes and the costs of probate. In many cases, these heirs were already working their own fields and, unable to pay probate or taxes on small parcels of land, lost their inheritance to foreclosure. White settlers were eager to move in, often paying a pittance to allotees with a limited grasp of their property’s value. The rapidity with which allotted land shifted from Indian to White hands was accelerated among “mixed-bloods” and Freedmen. The tiered allotment restrictions illustrate the government’s intention to protect those deemed incompetent to manage their real estate, but between the lines, makes clear the racial divisions exacerbated by the Allotment process as unrestricted land owners were vulnerable to unscrupulous individuals offering ready cash. Historian Angie Debo wrote, “…the general effect of allotment was an orgy of plunder and exploitation probably unparalleled in American history.”
When Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Territory were joined to form the state of Oklahoma, the majority Indian population became a one third minority. As White farmers and ranchers snapped up parcels of land, the greater restrictions on the sale of Indian homesteads turned many into 40-acre islands floating in a sea of Whites. Misunderstandings and conflicting values added to Allotment’s failure. A Competency Commission provided certificates to allottees deemed ready to manage their lands and financial affairs. Until 1933, officials devised algorithms to decide which educational attainment combined with what blood quantum or skin color might best gauge competence.
Early on, Chitto Harjo led the Crazy Snake Rebellion, forming a separate government as a voice for traditional Creeks who refused to accept the Allotment program. The Snakes attracted Creeks of every color, including many Blacks. They were adamant in cleaving to the old ways and rejecting the parcels allocated to them. In short, Allotment fractured the Creek Nation, deepening divisions among allottees and fanning the flames of old rivalries between Upper and Lower Creeks, the traditional and progressive, and between those eager to meld into a White world and the Freedmen citizens hoping to thrive in burgeoning colorblind settlements.
While the size and scope of the jurisdictional nightmare of Allotment claims unfurled, the horrific conditions among tribal communities following the Great Depression, and detailed in the 1928 Merriam Report, brought the dysfunction of Indian policies into the national spotlight. With the Wheeler-Howard bill, Collier was intent on restoring a measure of autonomy to tribal peoples and putting an end to the Allotment system which in his own words was “an absolute disaster.” Under his tenure, the Office of Indian Affairs aimed to restore a degree of dignity to tribes whose languages, arts, crafts and lifeways, were national treasures, but under assault.
To promote the proposed bill, Collier set an ambitious schedule, traveling the country and soliciting “input” from tribal groups. In addition to offering a measure of self governance and ending Allotment, the bill offered a means to restore lands to the tribe. The commissioner also promised to create a special court to handle the backlog of Indian claims, for Allotment had left many Indians deprived of their lands and utterly destitute.
On March 22, 1934, the Five Tribes convened in Muskcogee. Officials counted 947 attendees but noted that due to the large numbers, several hundred could not be registered. The meeting lasted all day with resolutions from Cherokees and Creeks, the two largest tribes, becoming part of the record, along with a letter from President Roosevelt, and a statement from Collier.
TriRacials Revisionist history cautions us to dig deeper than the records of the elite, to look further than the signal events in our nation’s development, and to give voice to our personal stories. My family’s Allotment story is laid out in my forthcoming book, but the family continued to be active into the era of the Indian New Deal. The National Archives holds many documents detailing their efforts and this paper allows me to share some of what I’ve found.
My Creek grandfather, Crugee, and his uncle, Washington Adams, attended Collier’s convention. Washington was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson Adams, who’d been a Supreme Court Judge for the Muscogee Creeks and a member of the House of Warriors. As a well regarded lawyer, Tom Adams saw that his family had choice allotments along Adams Creek. Over 4,000 acres of their land spread south from the vicinity of Beggs towards Okmulgee, the site of the Creek Nation’s Council House. The Adams family was typical of the Creeks, with both Black and White mixtures. Over the years, the Five Tribes had mixed liberally with pioneers such as the Scotts Irish and by 1891, just over a third were “one-half” or more by blood, and nearly a quarter were Freedmen or colored. While Tom and his wife Mahala Grayson were “full-blood” their children’s status diverged. In my forthcoming book, Untangling a Red White and Black Heritage, I note the discrepancies in the blood quantum of Tom’s children. While his daughters’ “full-blood” status protected their allotments, his sons were listed as “half-blood,” rendering their lands more fungible if cash was needed. Tom’s “half-blood” son Washington, or Stipet, took part in tribal affairs as secretary for the Unrestricted Indians of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and subsequently for the National Council.
The Meeting Two years before Collier spoke to the Five Tribes, Stripet’s group set an objective of overcoming the racial, political, and cultural divisions churning under Allotment. On March 19, 1934, the group drew up a resolution asking for more time to consolidate their interests with those of the “restricted” Creeks, before considering the Wheeler-Howard bill. It pointed to treaties, still in force, requiring a Creek National Convention, elected and approved by the President to speak on its citizens’ behalf. Since organizations already existed representing both those holding restricted and unrestricted allotments, the resolution proposed that a National Council be elected with equal representation from the two groups. The hoped for collaboration would bridge the growing racial divides in pursuit of a unity based on strength in numbers and the power wrought by consolidating the tribe’s land base—and, under the previous treaties, it would be binding.
Stripet’s group faced pressure from Collier’s well intentioned but paternalistic policies to accept “the Indian New Deal.” But, if the Creeks worked together, they might minimize government control and counter the influence of the religious and federal elements that underestimated the considerable progress that Creeks had already achieved on their own. There was also the American Indian Federation, a pan-Indian movement, with a Creek champion in the wealthy “full-blood,” Joseph Bruner, who was also at the meeting. Members of the Federation believed that tribal sentiments should be abandoned in favor of assimilation and attaining the full benefits of individual citizenship. Already mentioned were traditionalists, like the Crazy Snakes, who refused to accept land ownership. In terms of race thinking, Stripet Adams and his cohorts were attempting nothing less than to unify the Red, White and Black Creeks whose mixed heritage and views they sought to reconcile. Whites were well aware of these divisions. Abetted by Oklahoma senator, Elmer Thomas, they carried out campaigns of misinformation designed to raise dissent and confusion among Oklahoma’s tribes while enhancing their own chances to grab land and power.
Amid this turmoil, John Collier acknowledged the request of the Unrestricted Indians of the Muscogee Creek Nation. The group worked with the “Restricted” Creeks, calling for an elected National Council and formation of a Resolution committee and delegation. In July, the Creeks gathered in Okmulgee and elected Charlie W. Ward as President, Stripet Adams as Secretary, John T. Ward as Vice President, and W. J. Berryhill as Chairman of the Delegation Board.
Collier was eager to engage the Creeks and approved the election results, paving the way for the White House’s confirmation. To the extent that it reflected the unified sentiments of restricted and unrestricted allottees, the newly formed National Council’s consensus was that the Wheeler-Howard bill, which had become the Indian Reorganization Act on June 18, 1934, did not reflect their aspirations as a people.
Although the Creeks refused the IRA option, Senator Thomas and his sympathizers pressed for further action to relieve the federal government of responsibility for the Five Tribes while empowering state officials with that task along with its funding. It was Thomas who, without consulting the Five Tribes, had negotiated their exclusion from the IRA. (Recall that Oklahoma was still a frontier where corruption was rife and White citizens of all classes formed a bulwark against upstart Indians and “mixed-bloods” in a burgeoning Klu Klux Klan).
In October 1934, Collier joined Senator Thomas, ostensibly to hear from Oklahoma’s diverse tribes, but in essence to quell resistance. They visited seven Indian agencies around the state, and on October 17th met in Muskogee. There, Charlie Ward represented the Creeks, voicing his concern that a proposal to extend the IRA policies would deprive thousands of “half-blood” Indians of their rights. Ward hoped that despite great differences among their tribal communities, Oklahoma’s tribes would come together for the good of the whole.
In 1936, Senator Thomas worked with Congressman Will Rogers, drawing up a bill that became the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. The OIWA brought the Five Tribes under all the provisions from which they’d been excluded in the IRA. It extended the trust period, restored a measure of self governance, facilitated charters and loans, as well as the ability of tribes and their members to purchase land. The two acts shared the objectives of halting the Allotment process, and slowing the loss of Indians lands.
Creek factions, pro- and anti-assimilationist, “full- and mixed blood,” Freedmen and intermarried citizens, all fell under the OIWA. Despite its passage, the hopes that fueled Collier’s efforts to improve Indian affairs began to unravel. Creeks reverted to insularity as a host of towns penned constitutions that varied widely and hostilities based along racial lines became entrenched. When Charley Ward and Stripet Adams pled their case in Washington, the Creeks were described by officials as “several scattered groups or bands holding meetings from time to time, the principal groups meeting at Newtown Church” in Okmulgee Whether elected by its citizens or appointed from Washington, the only gap in the succession of Creek chiefs was the interval between 1931 and 1935.
During these uncertain times, a Creek Indian Council was purported to have been duly elected by a convention of all citizens, but it was not recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it excluded Freedmen, a race policy embodied in constitutions adopted by a number of Creek bands and towns. Historians looking for the seeds of current dissent among the Creeks, either in attempts to oust Freedmen from the tribe or to allow for election of officials with less than ¼ Creek blood, would do well to revisit this moment.
In the capital, Collier fought to retain support for his cultural projects but the pendulum of influence was swinging away. The Creek National Council elected on his approval, the one that sought to unify the Creeks in a bid for tribal autonomy (and racial unity) became a pawn in a game of influence. In Oklahoma, Senator Thomas had initially facilitated dialogues between the Creek National Council members and the Commissioner, urging federal officials to respond to their requests for an accounting of all properties held in trust and all monies in the Treasury’s coffers to the credit of the tribe. Thomas strove to maintain open channels, encouraging the Creeks to pursue their missions to Washington while bolstering his power at the state level. But, the senator would eventually distance himself from Stripet’s group. From 1934 until the end of Collier’s appointment in 1945, eleven years, Stripet’s correspondence passed from the White House to the Department of the Interior and was copied to local agents and state officials. My granduncle traveled many times to Washington, often returning without meeting the officials whose doors began to close for the Creek delegates. By the time Collier stepped down, federal officials no longer recognized the group’s authority. Instead, a chief and council, approved by official Washington, held that position.
Among the scholars revisiting Native histories and exposing the biases inherent in a canon composed by outsiders are those interested in unpacking and rethinking the dynamics at play among the three races. They are interrogating notions of white supremacy and the evolution of race thinking among the Five Tribes and asking how those notions are playing out in Indian Country today. I am indebted to their work for exposing the political expediency seen among tribal peoples in emulating White privilege, but also for highlighting the integrity among more traditionally minded individuals and communities who eschewed exclusivity. They have helped me focus my triracial lens.
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