Struggle of the Three

by Hannibal B. Johnson


Native Americans within the uprooted “Five Civilized Tribes” found a new home in “Indian Territory”— Oklahoma. Decades later, these Indians would seek, unsuccessfully, to create an Indian state—“Sequoyah”—in order to hold on to sovereignty and self-governance. Instead, the federal government combined Indian Territory, which by that time included only the eastern half of what is now Oklahoma, with the land to its west, “Oklahoma Territory,” to create the state of Oklahoma in 1907.

Persons of African ancestry, some enslaved, some free, lived among the Native American tribes who were forced to emigrate. The lives of these Africans and their Native American hosts became enmeshed.

Slaves owned by the tribes often felt multifaceted connections to their homes in Indian Territory, as evidenced by [those] who were fluent in tribal languages. They shared cultural and often family connections with their Indian owners, bonds that seem[ed] stronger than those of white-owned slaves and their masters. After the Civil War ended, former slaves of the Cherokees particularly expressed a connection to the Cherokee Nation in the Indian Territory. That was the only home many of these people had ever known, and they identified closely with the tribe.

Post-manumission, and after the collapse of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, still more persons of African ancestry migrated to Oklahoma. They sought escape from the stifling social, economic, and political conditions in the Deep South.

Eventually, white political leaders began a push to control the new Indian homeland. In 1878, leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes—P.P. Pitchlynn of the Choctaws; W.P. Adair and Daniel H. Ross of the Cherokees; John R. Moore, P. Porter, D.M. Hodge, and Yarteker Harjo of the Muscogee (Creek); John F. Brown and Thomas Cloud of the Seminoles; and B.F. Overton, governor of the Chickasaws—became concerned. They beseeched Congress to oppose measures that would: (1) open the land to white settlement; (2) extend United States legal jurisdiction to matters between and among Indians; (3) abolish tribal relations and grant United States citizenship to Indians; and (4) move Indians from a communal property system to a private property system.With arguable prescience, the tribal leaders asserted that the proposed actions would violate extant treaties and, if implemented, would ultimately devastate the Five Civilized Tribes. Their plea went unheeded.

By the late 1880s, whites, also seeking to escape harsh economic conditions in the East, moved west. These white settlers successfully pressured the federal government to open up for white settlement land that had been reserved for Native populations in Oklahoma. Before long, whites dominated Oklahoma in all spheres—social, economic, and political.

African Americans, Native Americans, and whites, seekers all, found their way to Oklahoma. Oklahoma promised opportunity—a fresh start; a new way of life. All three groups accepted her offer. For Native Americans, African Americans, and some European Americans, the story unraveled in the breach—the legacy of promises broken. Present reality cannot be separated from those initial bargains.

Native Americans yearned for sovereignty and a fresh start in a new land on the heels of forcible removal from their homelands in the southeastern United States. African Americans hoped to snare the full citizenship and economic parity denied them in the post-Reconstruction South. Whites, meanwhile, longed for a chance to fulfill their manifest destiny—to push forward with westward expansion and exploit newfound economic opportunities. As David A. Chang noted in his book on land ownership in early, pre-statehood Oklahoma:

‘Oklahoma’ means ‘red man’ in the Choctaw language, is run through by a ‘Black Belt,’ and has been claimed by some as ‘white man’s country.’It has been termed an Indian homeland, a black promised land, and a white heartland. All these competing racial claims to one place…reveal much about how the struggle over land has given shape to the way Americans—indigenous, black, and white—created and gave meaning to races and nations.

After the Civil War, the United States government secured promises from the Five Civilized Tribes to incorporate within their midst the emancipated persons of African descent whom they had enslaved prior to and during the Civil War (i.e., the Freedmen). As noted previously, only the Chickasaws rejected Freedmen citizenship outright.

Officially, the Five Civilized Tribes fought on the side of the vanquished Confederacy. Some Indians felt that the federal government foisted non-Indian people (i.e., Freedmen) upon them as punishment for their tribal alliances with the defeated South. For that reason, they resented the grant of Freedmen citizenship. Others frowned upon the influx of African Americans from the South, who they believed sought to “colonize” Indian Territory after Reconstruction.

Oklahoma promised opportunity—a fresh start; a new way of life. All three groups accepted her offer. 

Whites quickly dominated Oklahoma, both numerically and politically. Generally speaking, whites attempted to remake Native Americans in their own image—to assimilate them. Conversely, whites went to great lengths to set African Americans apart—to segregate them.

Whites routinely intermarried with Native Americans, sometimes as a ruse to obtain land. By contrast, whites strictly forbade miscegenation—intermarriage with persons of African

ancestry. Laws enforcing this taboo, as well as other forms of white/black social intercourse, soon proliferated.

A pattern thus emerged. Whites sat at the peak of a seemingly intractable tri-level racial pyramid. Native Americans occupied the middle tier. African Americans formed the base. These three groups struggled to define the relationships between and among one another.

In the modern era, a trilateral jockeying for power and privilege continues. It is more than just the relationships between African Americans and whites on the one hand, and Native Americans and whites on the other. Such a Eurocentric bent gives short shrift to the complex interactions between the two minority (i.e., non-dominant culture) groups, African Americans and Native Americans. Moreover, a black/white, red/white emphasis—an undue focus on dyads—tends to minimize the extent to which institutional racism—white supremacist ideology—molded race relations in Oklahoma from the beginning, with consequences not yet undone.

The onslaught of white migration into Oklahoma in the late 1800s hastened the reshaping of relations between African Americans and Native Americans. As whites ascended, key Native American leaders aligned themselves with the expanding institutional power base these Sooners represented.

Prior to the rush of whites into Oklahoma Territory, persons of African ancestry and Native Americans had, to some extent, peaceably coexisted, and sometimes even collaborated and commingled. Indeed, before the Civil War, some Muscogee (Creek) and Seminoles secreted African fugitives from surrounding slave states.Some Cherokees participated in the Keetoowah Society, a furtive abolitionist organization. The Keetoowah Society organized, at least in part, to preserve Native culture in the face of assimilationist forces:

The Keetoowah [S]ociety in the Cherokee Nation west was organized shortly before the civil war by John B. Jones, son of the missionary Evan Jones, and an adopted citizen of the Nation, as a secret society for the ostensible purpose of cultivating a national feeling among the full-bloods, in opposition to the innovating tendencies of the mixed-blood element. The real purpose was to counteract the influence of the ‘Blue Lodge’ and other secret secessionist organizations among the wealthier slave-holding classes, made up chiefly of mixed-bloods and whites.

White hegemony, both within Oklahoma and in the United States more broadly, cast Native Americans alternatively as incorrigible savages or cultural and social infants in need of paternalistic care. In either case, under the prevailing racial pecking order, “Indianness” implied inferiority vis-à-vis whiteness. White blood acted, however, as an antidote—a decontaminant. Thus, individuals of mixed Indian/white ancestry generally occupied a higher status in the larger society than did full-bloods.

At the time of Oklahoma statehood, whites conferred upon Native Americans honorary whiteness. They regarded Native Americans as “white” for purposes of Oklahoma’s black/white segregation laws. In exchange for this concession, however, Native Americans ceded a measure of sovereignty and self- governance. White powerbrokers, including some in Congress, denied them “Sequoyah”—the Indian state within Oklahoma for which they had lobbied. Voters in Indian Territory had approved the Constitution of the proposed state of Sequoyah by a large margin, but political considerations doomed the initiative.

Whites, and some Indians, relegated African Americans to the lowest rung on the racial ladder. African Americans were widely considered ignorant, debauched, and incapable of reaching the Eurocentric ideal of a “civilized” being. Such characterizations dogged “Negroes” for decades. Perverted images of blacks pervaded both press and politics as Oklahoma lunged toward statehood.

Excerpted from Apartheid in Indian Country? Seeing Red Over Black Disenfranchisement by Hannibal B. Johnson, Eakin Press, 2012.

Re-printed in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 10. May 15, 2013.