The Smithsonian has a new exhibit you might want to see. It’s all about the Native Americans who owned slaves, many had children together. Choctaw chief Greenwood LeFlore had 15,000 acres and 400 enslaved Africans.
This is his lovely home:
Take what you know about the Trail of Tears and the forced relocation of Native Americans and think slaves.
THE TRAIL OF TEARS WITH AFRICAN SLAVES
First of all, about the Trail of Tears, the Indians brought their slaves with them on the grueling march. Others were shipped en masse to what was to the future-Oklahoma on cramped boats by their Indian masters. Secondly, about that Indian removal, it was what the population wanted and was congressionally sanctioned by nine separate presidents, not only Andrew Jackson.
History isn’t always what we have been told or what we want it to be.
These uncomfortable complications in the narrative were brought to the forefront at a recent event held at the National Museum of the American Indian. Titled “Finding Common Ground,” the symposium offered a deep dive into intersectional African-American and Native American history.
HISTORY CAN BE DISAPPOINTING AND ENLIGHTENING
“I used to like history,” Smith told the crowd ruefully. “And sometimes, I still do. But not most of the time. Most of the time, history and I are frenemies at best.” In the case of the Trail of Tears and the enslavement of blacks by prominent members of all five so-called “Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole), Smith went one step further, likening the ugly truth of history to a “mangy, snarling dog standing between you and a crowd-pleasing narrative.”
“Obviously,” Smith said, “the story should be, needs to be, that the enslaved black people and soon-to-be-exiled red people would join forces and defeat their oppressor.” But such was not the case—far from it. “The Five Civilized Tribes were deeply committed to slavery, established their own racialized black codes, immediately reestablished slavery when they arrived in Indian territory, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebellions, and enthusiastically sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War.”
At the time, Indians held some stature as noble savages but Africans were thought to be beasts to bear their burdens.
There was a great deal of intermarriage and forced copulation between Native Americans and African slaves.
TWO HISTORIANS HOLD TWO VIEWS
Tiya Miles, an African-American historian at the University of Michigan, at the “Finding Common Ground” event, meticulously laid out primary-source evidence to paint a picture of Indian/African-American relations in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Native Americans, she said, had themselves been enslaved, even before African-Americans, and the two groups “were enslaved for approximately 150 years in tandem.” It wasn’t until the mid-18th-century that the bondage of Native Americans began to wane as Africans were imported in greater and greater numbers. Increasingly, where white colonists viewed Africans as little more than mindless beasts of burden, they saw Native Americans as something more: “noble savages,” unrefined but courageous and fierce.
The Indians allegedly took black slaves in part to demonstrate their “societal sophistication to white settlers.” [It’s still always the white man’s fault]
Miles doesn’t know that is true, but it could be part of the reasoning. The fact is it was lucrative to have free labor.
It’s important to remember, as Paul Chaat Smith says, that while most Native Americans did not own slaves, neither did most Mississippi whites. Slave ownership was a serious status symbol.
In truth,” Smith said, the Cherokee and other “Civilized Tribes were not that complicated. They were willful and determined oppressors of blacks they owned, enthusiastic participants in a global economy driven by cotton, and believers in the idea that they were equal to whites and superior to blacks.”
WHO ARE THE HEROES
Push back on simplistic notions of who are the villains and who are the heroes. It’s not that simple, which is why presentism doesn’t work.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that the policy was horrible or that John Ross fought hard for Cherokees.
A quote from African anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral suits the retelling of history: “Tell no lies, and claim no easy victories.”