Free Liberal

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Reparations, Freedmen, and Treaties

By Jack Forbes

The conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa highlighted the issue of reparations and apologies for the use of slave (captive) labor between 1492 and the nineteenth-century. But this issue has been (as usual) discussed without reference to Native Americans, millions of whom were captured and used as forced labor from Canada to Brazil, even being shipped across the Atlantic to Portugal, Spain, and Britain. (See my book Africans and Native Americans for details).

The United States is not alone in needing to offer apologies to the descendants of former captives. All of the states east of the Mississippi, plus Louisiana, Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona, need to apologize because Africans and/or American Indians were allowed to be sold and kept as slaves in these states. In California, for example First Americans were sold as captive labor as late as 1869.

And, of course, the major slaving countries, Portugal, Spain, Britain, France and the Netherlands all need to be involved because they profited immensely from the use and sale of captive labor for three and more centuries!

But we must also remember that some of our own American nations became corrupted by white-style slavery, including especially the Cherokee, Muskogee, Chickasaw, and Chakta republics. Between about 1800 and 1865 these nations allowed powerful wealthy men, usually mixed-bloods, to purchase large numbers of Black and Red-Black captives and to hold the children of these captives as slave labor for generation after generation. This usually violated traditional tribal law, wherein the children of captives had become free citizens in most or all of North America.

In any case, greed motivated some of our wealth-seeking Native people to hold other human beings as captives from birth and to seek more and more unfree laborers. This violated the egalitarian principles of our tribes and also led to many Red-Black mixed-bloods being kept as slaves. Of the Five "Civilized" Tribes, only the Seminoles largely refused to abandon their heritage of equality and freedom. (But that is now a contentious issue).

We are faced with the embarrassing situation that the Chickasaws, Chaktas, Creeks, and Cherokees all face the question of offering apologies and reparations to those whom their rich men exploited.

But there is still more to this issue: after the Civil War the five tribes signed treaties with the United States in which they agreed to grant full citizenship rights in the nations to all of the former captives (many of whom had fled to Kansas during the war, along with "full-blood" traditionals who opposed slavery and the white Confederacy). But several of the five tribes later refused to abide by the treaties and the rest, except the Seminoles, have since violated the terms by denying tribal citizenship to the "Freedmen" (descendants of the former slaves, often part-Indian, but not allowed by the Dawes Commission to document their "degree of Indian blood.")

This creates a dilemma for us: if treaties are to be upheld as the "law of the land" how can they be repudiated when they prove unpopular? Many tribes and leaders have made the upholding of treaties as a central pillar of the sovereignty rights issue. Is it embarrassing to find that some tribes have refused to follow their treaties? The U.S. government (BIA/Interior) has allowed this to happen. Could it be because it helps to weaken the treaty rights argument generally?

The entire issue of "Freedmen" rights in Indian Country needs to be fully and honestly discussed. Do the four tribes who allowed chattel slavery to flourish (in spite of customary law) have any moral or legal obligations towards those whom they allowed to be oppressed? And what about slavery among the Pacific Northwest tribes - a different type of slavery but nonetheless an often oppressive system which led to raids as far south as northern California seeking captives to be sold at Yainax and along the Columbia River. There are still people living today who can own no songs, et cetera, because of being of captive ancestry. Is this an issue deserving of discussion? Are there ways that we, today, can redress some of the wrongs committed against other Indians (and not so very long ago)?

In the south, evidence indicates that some Creeks and Chickasaws were major suppliers of Indian slaves to the English of South Carolina after 1680. The victims were our brothers and sisters from Florida tribes (including Catholic mission Indians), Chaktas, and Caddos, principally. By 1710 about 20% of the slaves held by the English in Carolina were Indians, the rest being Africans or mixed. It was the mixed descendants of Native Floridians, I believe, who often escaped to Florida in the nineteenth-century to join the Seminoles and Miccosukees in their freedom struggle.

There is no doubt but what the activities of Britain, Spain, France, and the United States in sponsoring a vicious trade in slaves and engaging in the blatant seizure of Indian lands, must bear the major burden of apologies and reparation (if any). Having said that, I wonder if we should not, as Native people, also offer apologies for our own complicit behavior? Holding people as captive who never committed any crime, including innocent babies from birth, goes against most traditional Native values, its seems to me.

Under the Dawes allotment system freedmen of the Five Tribes were able to receive the same amount of land in Oklahoma as "by blood" persons, and that does indeed provide a very superior example of equity as compared with the treatment of freed captives in white-controlled areas of the U.S.A.
Having said that, does that absolve us of all further responsibilities, under our treaties and in our hearts?

Of course with tribe after tribe kicking out members these days, can one expect much sympathy for "freedmen" descendants? Still, our traditional teachers tell us that a path of spirituality, justice, and fair play ultimately brings its own rewards.

Jack Forbes is professor emeritus of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. He has many published works, including Red Blood, Native Americans of California and Nevadaand Only Approved Indians.