It was a shock for the Hollywood actor Don Cheadle to discover recently that his great grandfather, William, was enslaved not by whites, as most African-Americans were, but by Native Americans. The descendants of these former slaves are now seeking citizenship in the Chickasaw ethnic group, as their ancestors tried to do without success 100 years ago. Leslie Goffe reports.
Don Cheadle is a star of the films Ocean’s Eleven and Hotel Rwanda. He was stunned when it was revealed to him on American TV that several generations of his family had been the slaves of members of the Chickasaw Indian ethnic group (commemorated in the statue, right) in Oklahoma. At its height, more than 10,000 African-Americans were kept as slaves by Native Americans. “One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is the treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians,” wrote the pioneering African-American historian, Carter G. Woodson, in 1920. The Cheadles were owned by Jackson Kemp, a wealthy and powerful Chickasaw leader who was said to be so brutal that one in three of his slaves, fearful for their lives, fled at the very first opportunity. “It’s crazy,” Cheadle told Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard University professor who unearthed the actor’s Chickasaw slave history for a TV programme on African-American genealogy.
Cheadle had played slaves in movies and played former slaves on television, but had no idea he had a unique link to slavery. “You feel like the two biggest blights on the way this country started (are) slavery and the genocide of Native Americans,” he says.
For Cheadle, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a Hutu who saves Tutsis from genocide in the film Hotel Rwanda, it beggars belief that Indians who suffered so much at the hands of whites would participate in a system which caused Africans so much suffering. After all, Indians faced near genocide at the hands of whites and some, among them the Chickasaw, were forcibly removed from their fertile homeland in the American South and sent west to semi-arid Oklahoma by the US government to make room for white settlers.
“That’s mind-blowing,” says Cheadle, struggling to understand how Indians, oppressed by whites, became oppressors of blacks. But Kziah Love could help Cheadle understand. A former Chickasaw slave herself, Love told an interviewer in 1937, when she was 93 years old, what life had been like for an enslaved person in Indian Territory. “That was a sorry time for some poor old black folks,” explained Love, who remembers living in fear of one particularly violent Indian slave owner.
“I believe he was the meanest man the sun ever shined [sic] on… He was sho’ bad to whup niggers… He’d beat ’em most to death… One time he got mad at his baby’s nurse and he hit her on the head with some fire tongs and she died.”
Almost everything American Indians knew about slavery, they learned from the European-descended people in the country. Within a short time of encountering natives in the American South, the Europeans altered their [natives’] way of life beyond all recognition.
The Native Americans had been principally hunter-gatherers with their own spiritual and religious beliefs. Soon they were Christian converts who dressed and acted like whites. So much like the Europeans did the Chickasaw, the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Seminole become, the Europeans even called them, approvingly, “The Five Civilised Tribes”.
But to be truly “civilised”, Native Americans had to be convinced to become slave owners like the whites and view slavery as good and not an evil. It was the only way to protect and preserve an economic system built on human bondage. Thus did the Chickasaw and other natives embrace chattel slavery and become allies of the white slavers and enemies of enslaved Africans.
“It has always been the policy of this government,” admitted the governor of South Carolina, James Glen, in 1758, “to create an aversion in Native Americans to negroes.”
Alienating Africans from Native Americans was essential for the slave system to succeed in America, says historian William Loren Katz, author of the book, Black Indians:
A Hidden Heritage. “Their acceptance of bondage was considered vital,” he says. “In short, a major escape route and potential set of allies had dried up for millions of Africans held in chains.”
It didn’t take much for whites to win the Chickasaw over to slavery. The Chickasaw were eager for the metal pots, guns, and the alcohol that white traders brought to their territory. One of these traders, James Logan Colbert, a Scotsman, had a particularly devastating impact on the Chickasaw. Glad of the trinkets Colbert brought to them, and impressed by his links to the big trading companies, the Chickasaw allowed the Scotsman to set up residence among them. He brought with him dozens of enslaved Africans and put them to work on land he had them carve out of the bush. The Chickasaw elders were eager to have the influential Colbert as an ally, and so arranged for him to marry several of their daughters, which led, in time, to the creation of a “mixed race aristocracy” that came to dominate the Chickasaw people, and profoundly affect their views on race. “The mixed bloods were more assertive than their full blood counterparts,” says Arell Gibson, author of the book, The Chickasaws. The “mixed bloods” better understood the ways of the Europeans and were, crucially, Gibson says, “more like their Anglo fathers than their Indian mothers.” This “mixed race aristocracy” were the chief slave owners among the Chickasaw. Full blood Chickasaws owned very few slaves. Don Cheadle’s family, for example, was owned by two mixed blood Chickasaw families, the Cheadles and the Kemps. Chickasaw slave documents from 1860 show that Jackson Kemp owned 61 slaves. But the largest Chickasaw slave owner, with 150 slaves, was Pitman Colbert, a mixed blood descendant of James Logan Colbert, the white trader who helped introduce the Chickasaw to chattel slavery. Colbert and his clan’s ugly influence did much to shape the Chickasaw attitude to race and lead the group, in 1861, to fight alongside the pro-slavery Confederate states against the anti-slavery Union government in the American Civil War.
The rebel Confederate states lost the war and slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. But the Chickasaw refused to liberate their slaves. They claimed they were a semi-autonomous nation within the United States, and that Federal Law did not bind them. So they would do as they please in the matter of slavery.
Cheadle’s great-great uncle, Isaac Kemp, had been a slave of the Chickasaw before escaping and joining the anti-slavery Union side in the American Civil War. But his wife, Lizzie, his children, and his mother, Frances – Cheadle’s great-great-great grandmother – remained in enslavement in Chickasaw Country.
When Isaac got back from the war, he was desperate to reunite with his family. But he knew he could not return home to the reservation or he would be enslaved again, as his family still was. Isaac made a home for himself in one of the new, all-black towns with black mayors and black banks and black schools and black everything. These towns sprang up all over the place after slavery ended in the United States. Living in them were former slaves who had been enslaved by whites and Indians. Isaac’s allblack town was called Wiley, and was only a few miles from where he had been slave, and where his loved ones still were. Interestingly, in the Hollywood film Rosewood, which is set in an all-black town, Cheadle plays a man not unlike his relative Isaac Kemp. Cheadle plays Sylvester Carrier, a proud, independent businessman who fights to protect his family against a murderous white mob.
Isaac Kemp’s fight was not with white people. His fight was with the Chickasaw, the only Indian ethnic group which had still not, in 1866, freed its slaves. Isaac wrote letter after letter to the Freedman’s Bureau, a US government agency, for help reuniting his family. But there was nothing the Bureau could do for Kemp. Surprisingly, when freedom finally came to Indian Country, and the former slaves were free to go wherever they pleased, few chose to leave. The reason is they did not know whites and the white world. And what they had heard of the treatment of blacks by whites made them think their prospects were better among Native Americans.
Besides, what the former slaves knew best was Indians and the Indian world. They spoke some English but mostly they spoke Indian languages. They ate staple Chickasaw dishes like Pashofa, a stew made of cracked corn, hominy and pork, and they drank Chickasaw Sassafras tea. They were Black Indians and so most decided to make a life for themselves in Indian Country, amongst their former slave owners.
The Chickasaw Black Freedmen, as the former slaves came to be known, thought their future would be bright because the US government had signed a treaty with the Chickasaw in 1866 giving “all persons of African descent, resident in the said nation…and their descendants, heretofore held in slavery among said nations, all the rights, privileges, and immunities, including the right of suffrage.”
But the Chickasaw gave the Freedmen nothing. They reneged on the deal, leaving the Freedmen a people without a country. The Chickasaw were the only one of the Five Civilised Tribes who did not grant citizenship to their former slaves. In this event, the US had promised, in the 1866 treaty, it would remove the former slaves from Indian land and grant them citizenship in the United States. It did not. The US, and the Chickasaw, both reneged on their promises.
“Thus did the Freedmen live in the Chickasaw Nation, for over 40 years, without civil rights or protection of the law,” wrote the historian, Daniel Littlefield, in his book, The Chickasaw Freedmen: A People Without a Country.
In 1866, the same year the Chickasaw refused to honour promises made to the Black Freedmen, they extended special privileges to white men who married full blood Chickasaw women, which allowed them to become, for the first time, full citizens of the tribe. It became clear these white men – so-called “squaw men” – were marrying Indian women principally so they could become tribal members and thus gain access to tribal lands and resources.
By contrast, Black Freedmen, who had lived among the Chickasaw for generations, and whose slave labour had made the tribe rich and powerful, were denied citizenship and left in legal limbo in rundown log cabins on the margins of the reservation. They hoped the Chickasaw would have a change of heart one day. But they waited in vain. Occasionally, the Freedmen, who were unwilling to leave for the US, and fed up with non-violent resistance, took up arms. That’s what King Blue did in 1894, according to the newspapers. In 1888, the Freedman leader, King Blue, had been a man of peace and had gone to Washington with Fletcher Frazier to see what could be done.
Six years later, King Blue had taken up arms and led a “band of Negro Indians” in “open rebellion” on whites and Indians living in the eastern section of the Chickasaw reservation. King Blue and his men went out each day on “marauding tours” and, some reports said, “terrorised… peaceably inclined Indians. This gang of black-skins are in open rebellion against the government of the Chickasaw nation.”
King Blue’s special target was the “squaw men” who had married Indian women in order to grab Indian lands. On one marauding raid, he and his men turned up at a white farmer, George Truax’s, 500-acre spread. “Old King Blue,” one newspaper said, hog-tied Truax and his Indian wife and “then proceeded to destroy everything.” King Blue had tried non-violent resistance. He had first been up to Washington in 1877, and written letters in 1882. He went to Washington again in 1883, and then again in 1888. He had grown tired of going up to Washington and of writing letters and nothing being done about the plight of his people. But before anyone had the chance to drive the Freedmen out of Chickasaw Country, the US government, which had its own plans for Indian lands, turned up and started driving everyone out.
In the 1880s, the US government began plotting to take millions of acres of land away from the Chickasaw and from the other Civilised Tribes. It wanted to make a new state out of the Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory there and put more land in the hands of oil companies and the millions of white immigrants from Europe. To do all this, the government needed to somehow shrink the reservations and dilute the power of the tribal leadership. By 1893, the government had come up with a crafty scheme to end the tribal ownership of land. It would give tribal members an individual portion of land for themselves instead of them having to share tribal lands in common. It was a simple appeal to individual greed. The scheme did not seem sinister, at first blush. But the Indians, who had long ago noted that the “white man speak with forked tongue”, should have known better. It was the job of the government man Henry L. Dawes, and his Dawes Commission, to convince the Indians to accept the sweeping, new plan for tribal lands.
What Dawes did not reveal to the Indians was that once the roughly 20 million acres of land the tribes owned was shared out among tribal members, there would be around 4 million acres left over, in surplus. This land, the US government had craftily arranged to purchase from the tribal leaders at far less than the land was really worth. The Indians were deprived not only of the full price for millions of acres of their land, but also lost the rights, too, to mineral resources worth billions of dollars.
They were conned by the US government, who also took, at no charge, an additional 126,000 acres from the Indians to erect town sites and schools for white immigrants arriving from Europe, and to build churches and lay out cemeteries for the interlopers, as well.
To give a boost to white businessmen, the government took away 400,000 acres of Chickasaw and Choctaw land rich with coal and asphalt deposits. It also took a million acres of Indian land rich in timber. It was a free-for-all for white speculators and a wild land grab for white settlers.
“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them,” actor John Wayne said of American Indians in an interview. “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Watching all this happen to their former Chickasaw slave masters and other Indians must have been sweet revenge for Freedmen like King Blue and Isaac Kemp. Their revenge would be even sweeter when they discovered the government was creating a register of the members of the Five Civilised Tribes and would, additionally, create a special category in the register for the Freedmen themselves. This register was known as the Dawes Rolls, or more precisely the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilised Tribes. It would be the first time Freedmen were recognised, officially, as being associated, at all, with the Five Civilised Tribes.
Unfortunately, the Chickasaw Freedmen would not become citizens as they were adjudged not “Indians by blood”. Thus, they would have no legal claim upon the Chickasaw at all. But still, many thought, something is better than nothing, and they greeted the work of the Dawes Commission heartily. The Freedmen were disappointed they would not become Chickasaw citizens but were delighted each of them would receive 40 acres of land. Of the more than 250,000 people who applied for membership in the Five Civilised Tribes, just over 100,000 of them were accepted while 60% were rejected. Among the rejected were many whites trying to pass as Indian to get hold of lucrative land allotments.
“The Dawes Commission proved a disaster for Native Americans,” says Henry Louis Gates, pointing to the break-up of the reservations, ending of self-government for Indians and the grabbing of Indian land to create America’s 46th state, Oklahoma. By contrast, says Prof Gates, the Dawes Commission did “offer a chance for former slaves like Don’s ancestors to claim Chickasaw identity and get some land”. Cheadle’s great-great-grandparents, Mary and Henderson, received 40 acres of land each in the all-black Oklahoma town, Wiley. Their descendants remained in Oklahoma, near the Chickasaw reservation, for years before eventually ending up further north in the state of Missouri, where Cheadle’s father, Donald Frank Cheadle, a clinical psychologist, was born, and where his son, Don Jr., the actor, was born too. But it appears the Chickasaw have had the last laugh. Down on their luck for many years, after the US government had grabbed their lands and broken up the tribal system, the Chickasaw have recently become fabulously rich in the casino business. And unfortunately for the descendants of the Freedmen, the failure of their ancestors to secure citizenship in the tribe means they are not legally entitled to share in the Chickasaw casino riches.
Angela Molette is a founder of the Freedman Descendants of the Five Civilised Tribes. She and others have been seeking citizenship in the Chickasaw tribe. But Molette says today’s Freedmen are seeking recognition, not money.
“I hear all the time that black Indians are trying to get into the nations for money. That can’t be further from the truth,” says Molette, who lives in Oklahoma, not far from the Chickasaw tribal lands where her ancestors were enslaved. She says descendants of Freedmen like her are more concerned with preserving the graves of their ancestors on Chickasaw land and participating in sacred rights than in casino cash.
“We are making no demands (on) our host or parent nations,” Molete insists, hopeful that the Chickasaw and the descendants of their former slaves can find a way to cooperate and compromise. “If there is some fear about us trying to take over, they can just wipe that out of their mind.”