Nineteenth-Century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) was home to a wide array of groups including Native American Nations, enslaved Indian Freed-people, African Americans, White settlers, and others. In a conversation on Black Reconstruction in Indian Territory, Alaina Roberts discusses what Reconstruction might have meant for Black people in what is now called Oklahoma in the years immediately following the Civil War, and why it should be included in broader conversations about Reconstruction. Roberts’ new book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), ties African American and Native American history tightly together, revealing a western theatre of Civil War and Reconstruction in which Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians, their Black slaves, and African Americans and whites from the eastern United States fought military and rhetorical battles to lay claim to land in Indian Territory that had been taken from others.
“A Native American Tribe In Oklahoma Denied Black Citizens COVID-19 Vaccines And Financial Relief” by Joseph Lee (Buzzfeed News-https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/josephvlee/seminole-oklahoma-black-freedmen-vaccines )
- Alaina E. Roberts Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Today we are joined by Dr. Alaina E. Roberts, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on the intersection of African American and Native American history from the 19th century to the modern-day with particular attention to identity, settler colonialism, and anti-Blackness. Professor Roberts’ first book, I’ve been here all the while. Black freedom on Native land was just published through the University of Pennsylvania Press. Congratulations. And this book ties African American and Native American history tightly together revealing a western theater of Civil War and Reconstruction, in which Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians there. Black slaves in African Americans and whites from the eastern United States thought military and rhetorical battles to lay claim to land in Indian territory or modern-day Oklahoma that had been taken from others. And today I am super excited to be talking about Black reconstruction in Indian territory with you professor Roberts. Um and I’m super excited that people now have access to your book, which is a fascinating history of slavery and Indian territory, but also family history and a history of the Chickasaw nation in the history of kinship ties in that community. So I’ve gotten into the habit of asking our guests why you wrote this book?
Well, it started when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara doing a genealogical project that I was assigned in a class. And I always knew that my family owned land Oklahoma. Um and I knew that that was rare for Black people especially. Um and I knew that that had been in my family for generations. But what I didn’t understand is that it came from this history of enslavement by native Americans. And so when I realized that, and I began to look up books and secondary sources on this history and found that there really had not been much done, I realized that you know, maybe this was kind of my life mission. Um and so I really started doing that. Um started looking at more sources and writing specifically about uh Chickasaw and Choctaw people and the Black people that they owned. And now my book is really a broader look at all of the slave-owning tribes and how they, along with Black and white people came to call Indian territory and Oklahoma their home.
So I want to move into how you define settler colonialism for our listeners and how it operates in this book. There’s this great line in the epilogue about how different groups used hope for freedom against others, but also at the end of the day, only the American settler state truly benefited in the long run, which is, I guess the job of settler colonialism. But can you talk about what settler colonialism is and how your definition in this new book expands that?
Well, the most basic and traditional way, I think you can define settler colonialism is a group of settlers comes from another place. Usually, these settlers are white, and they institute a society in which their identity and their kind of culture is supreme, is on top of kind of a hierarchy and they move in and start to replace the people who are Indigenous to that location. And so it’s a physical replacement, but it’s also replacement of whatever cultural ideals that those people formerly had. So the way that my definition really differs is that I am looking at groups of people outside of that usual traditional white seller group and saying, you know, these people, these nonwhite people um are actually in certain instances taking on and utilizing these kinds of identity politics and language that the settler state has created and using them against other people of color.
So in the years between forced removal and what is now called what it was called Indian territory or modern-day Oklahoma and the civil war, not only our native nations moving there, but they’re enslaved people. People who are enslaved in those communities are moving as well. Can you talk a bit about why that was and kind of speak to? I guess the assumption that it’s only Indigenous folks that are moving or forcibly removed.
Well, so I like to say that my history really helps us to realize that Indian removal and the trail of tears is the intersection of Black and Native American history. And so first of all, the way to intersect is because Indian removal allows for the expansion of plantation slavery. And so we have these African Americans moving into the south with white owners through Indian removal, but then also um yes, I talked about in the book that on the trail of tears, Black people like my ancestors, of course, are forced to accompany their owners are forced to make their lives easier by performing the sorts of tasks that they do on a daily basis. Um, and so really it is a journey that is of course traumatic for native people, but also traumatic for their slaves who experience it at a different and usually worse way. And so this journey that changes and formulates and strengthens the native identity of many of these people also cements these Black people’s identities as part of these nations because they’ve endured this kind of horrific event along with these people.
I was also fascinated by in your book, you talk about the idea of property and what property is transferrable and Indigenous folks are forcibly removed from their land in the south and moved to what is now Oklahoma. And the only property that they can actually take with them are these enslaved people.
Yeah, So the Chickasaw especially uh sell a lot of their items um sell like whatever they can get their hands on so that they can purchase enslave people and enslave people then become um literally movable property. And so they have that value. And then enslave people of course, helped them to rebuild their plantations when they get to Indian territory and really help them transfer and maintain and improve upon that wealth.
I was also really appreciative of your care and your terminology and how you talk about kind of the different situations people were in um you distinguish between the experiences of formerly enslaved African Americans who were slaves enslaved in the United States and what you call Indian free people whose descendants now most likely identify as African American, but who were enslaved in native nations. Can you talk about why you chose to make this distinction? Not to say one situation was better than the other at all, but why, how these situations might have been different.
I think it’s really important to honor the difference in the experiences of these two groups of people and like literally their nationalities are different. Like if you are a Black person living in the Cherokee nation, you’re not African American And many times, uh, this becomes generational. Uh, so even if these people had not necessarily been living with these native people in the southeast after removal, by the time that I am looking at my sources that are taking place in like the 1890s, uh, there have been several generations. And so these people, I think it’s important to say this is a creek freed person. This is a Cherokee freed person to kind of honor that difference in experience. And also, especially after the civil war and after there is African American migration to this space. There are distinct differences that these historical actors see between themselves and then free people. And African Americans from the United States. And so to discuss these two groups of people, I have to talk about them is different. Who people who think about themselves differently. People who have different experiences and go on to think of themselves and their communities differently.
You write that quote as Black, white and native people constructed ideas of race belonging, national identity. This part of the West became for a short time the last place where Black people could escape. Jim Crow finding land and exercising political rights until Oklahoma statehood in 19 oh seven. Can you talk about what happens immediately after emancipation and what options there were for formerly enslaved people in native nations?
Well, so for people like my family, especially living in the Chickasaw nation, they don’t have the opportunity for citizenship. That’s why I talk about their experiences being different even from other Indian freed people. But for people living in the Cherokee Creek, Seminole and Choctaw nations, uh, they have the ability to, you know, vote to serve on juries, um, to settle on land that is community owned by their Indian nation. And that is really an experience and a group of opportunities that are not open to African Americans in the US. And so they have a period, uh, you know, different scholars kind of vary on the period of Reconstruction in which African Americans have the most kind of freedom and the backing of the federal government. But by the late 1870s, um, most African Americans are not voting. Most African Americans are being discouraged by white violence. And so Indian territory offers us a look at, you know, what if what if reconstruction was more successful? What if reconstruction did lead to land ownership and a longer period of time where Black people are successful politically, economically, socially?
So we’re talking about Black reconstruction in Indian territory today. Um so I’m really interested in this period of reconstruction and what that actually looks like on the ground. So I’m wondering if you could give us a few examples of what Reconstruction this period that’s generally viewed as this time for attempting to integrate Black people into broader American society look like in Indian territory or Oklahoma? Or you know, our Indian people staying in these communities? Or are they creating communities of their own? What does reconstruction actually look like for newly freed Black people in Oklahoma?
Well, because I argue that an Indian territory reconstruction is a longer period of time going up to Oklahoma statehood and even shortly thereafter, there is kind of time to see Black people creating their own communities. They have the resources, the backing of the federal government. Um, so they are creating churches, schools, uh, in especially the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, those are usually Black communities or mixed race communities. Um, but in other places like the Creek and Seminole nations, there are Black people who live like near native people who have cultivated close relationships with those people. And it’s really, I think important to think of this longer reconstruction as a time in which Black people are able to realize success partially because they are on their own. And this is why Oklahoma has the largest number of all Black towns because there are Black people coming saying, you know, we want to be on our own, we want to be free from white or native violence. But it’s also I think important to think of these as multiracial spaces because Black people are only able to have the opportunities they have because there are within native governments versus the United States.
So there’s this really incredible quote from I believe your cousin in the epilogue and you’re talking to your cousin about history and the research that they did about your family. Um, and there’s this really great quote about history kind of being the marker for where we can kind of move from and orient ourselves. So I wonder, you know, in this history that you present, how should we orient ourselves as teachers and educators on the topic of Reconstruction, on the topic of Black history or native American history? How should we do things differently after your history? How do you think we should teach reconstruction differently?
Well, first of all, I think my history allows us to look at Western expansion is different. So western expansion is not just um something white settlers are doing, but also Black Americans are looking to find their fortunes and to make new lives for themselves in the west. Often these Western spaces give them more opportunity for a period of time until there are too many white settlers and then it really becomes the same settler state. But also I would like people to rethink reconstruction as a failed experiment and more as different in different spaces. And when we combine Black and native history, we see that often the same republicans who are thinking about greater opportunities for Black people and who actually see those through an Indian territory are also looking at native people negatively and looking at things like legislation that can hurt them and kind of forced them into the box of white Americanness that they don’t want to be in. And so it’s, it’s more complicated when we combine these two histories, but I think it’s a richer narrative that our students can really see more of themselves in because it is, it’s multiracial and it looks at how people of color identify with one another and talk it and look at each other. And that is I think more emblematic of our society because it’s not just white and Black people this dichotomy or even just white people being racist towards Black people. Like there are far more complex relationships between all of us in this country. Well,
Thank you so much for that. I did have a follow up question to something we were talking about earlier, but um I remember taking in Oklahoma history class in undergrad. Um and one of the class assignments was to kind of map out what Indian territory looked like before the Civil war. Um and what happened right after it or into Reconstruction. And there was just a massive reorganization of whose territory belonged to which community. And so I’m wondering what after that reorganization took place, How that impacted um formerly enslaved people who were living in Indian territory at the time.
I think what we generally see is a breakdown of the kinds of rights and the kind of strengthen community that you have when Indian territory is Indian territory. And when Oklahoma becomes a state, there is kind of dispersal brought by the way land is allotted. And so um people aren’t able to live together in the same way at times, but then also the impact of discrimination makes it so that they don’t have the sort of political representation, for example, that they did when it was a territory and they don’t have the ability to, you know, go to a tribal court if a white person steals their land. And this is both Black and native people who really become disenfranchised with the transition to statehood. So I see the difference in land and settlement is inextricably connected to American sovereignty and the settler state really taking over from tribal nations.
Have a couple more questions. This next one is about kinship and what kinship looks like in your book and kinship between not just formerly enslaved Black people who all kind of lived in the same communities, but also with Indigenous people. What does that look like in the years after the Civil War? During Reconstruction,
Kinship with the Black people who live in Indian nations is complicated because many of these Black and mixed race people identify with these Indian nations. And yet they are consistently rejected by the native people whose ancestry they share, whose culture they share, whose history they share. And looking at kind of current events in these same slaveholding nations. Uh they still reject these Black people. Like even though by treaty they agreed to allow them citizenship. And so it’s a very long history of them having literal and symbolic connections and yet uh not being able to fully come together. And so you know, what does kinship actually mean if it is kind of forced through uh the U. S. Government and it is not actually recognized and acknowledged by, you know, actual tribal people.
So for our listeners to our students and teachers, what is one thing you would like them to take away from your book after reading it? Or maybe multiple things you would like them to take away from your book.
I think maybe the most important is that white, Black and native histories are pretty much always connected in various ways and I think we’re often taught them as if they are not so Indian territory. And the story that I tell is trying to show how the labor that created north America and the United States was linked through native Americans being slaves and then themselves owning Black slaves. And then the various ways that these groups of people settle on an occupy land and discuss land is also really a connection to the history of settlement in this country. And so thinking about it, not as you know, there were native people here now they’re gone and white people live here, but rather as various ways of immigration and really negotiations that take place between native people, white people and Black people.
And it is very much a current issue as well as descendants of freed people are continuing to advocate for their place in and their citizenship in these communities as they continue to value those connections.
Yes. COVID-19 has been a period in which we’ve seen extreme growth in one of the nation’s, the Cherokee nation now has become far more accepting. The current chief chuck. Hoskin has created a program where he’s acknowledging freed people history. Um, he has fought against discriminating against them and voting and allowing them tribal council seats. Um, Meanwhile, the Seminole nation um, refused to give Black Seminoles the vaccine. And so that was literally a life or death situation where racial discrimination was a huge part. And so when we think of racial discrimination, again, it is not just white people discriminate against Black people. These are native people saying we don’t think you’re native, we don’t even care about your humanity.