Neely Tucker is a journalist, novelist and creative director of Gum Branch Media. His most recent novel is “Only the Hunted Run.”
When Darnella Davis was a shy, “sandy-colored and sandy-haired” teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, she knew she was “part Indian.” It wasn’t entirely clear what that meant. In that era of Motown, the civil rights movement and the devastating 1967 riot/rebellion that wrecked that city, she knew that her Oklahoma-based family was not culturally kin to the black neighbors who’d fled sharecropping and the Deep South. As a standout arts student at the city’s premier (and racially mixed) high school, Cass Tech, she knew she wasn’t white, either.
Her dad talked of growing up as a Cherokee kid; people sometimes called her Muscogee Creek mom “Pocahontas,” and the family drove 19 hours to their ancestral spot in northeast Oklahoma every summer and school holiday. Her grandfather, Crugee Adams, had once grown rich there, drawing on the mineral rights of his land allotment for Native Americans dating back to the late 19th century.
So imagine her surprise when she applied for a post-graduate scholarship in Boston reserved for Native Americans and was told, both by the state of Massachusetts and the Cherokee Nation, that she wasn’t Indian, either. The resulting, decades-long experience of white and Native American bureaucrats telling her what percentage of Indian blood she must possess to qualify as a certified member of the tribe proved to be the background for “Untangling a Red, White, and Black Heritage: A Personal History of the Allotment Era.”
The only documents accepted as proof of tribal heritage were unreliable records, riddled with errors but regarded as fact, that were more than a century old. No one was allowed to be part of two tribes and thus be classified as a mixed Native American. Davis had to meet the full citizenship requirements of one particular tribe or another. Descendants who were almost entirely white, with a smidgen of Cherokee heritage, were accepted into the tribe, but descendants who were black and Cherokee had to demonstrate a far higher degree of Cherokee stock. And, lastly, African Americans who had been enslaved by the Cherokee were relegated to second-tier status of Freedmen.
Davis’s book is part family genealogy, part academic text and a completely sobering look at how former black slaves of Native American tribes, and mixed-race descendants, have been treated. It builds on a growing body of similar research, perhaps best exemplified in the 2005 work “Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom” by Tiya Miles, now a history professor at Harvard University.
“So, how would I describe myself now?” Davis asks, repeating an interviewer’s question, in a sun-splashed room in her house along Rock Creek Park in Washington. She laughs. She’s half a century removed from the timid teenager she was in Detroit. She’s married with adult children and is a lifelong artist, educator and scholar whose work has most often focused on education reform and civil rights. She’s slender, slightly built and smiles easily.
“I would say I’m a mixed-race person whose ancestors have gotten erased,” she says. The lightness of her tone belies the weight of her words.
The mixing of whites, blacks and Native Americans — which is to say sexual relationships that were governed by a bizarre range of laws and racist dictums — is a story as old as the nation itself. Crispus Attucks, the first fatality of the Revolutionary War, was part African and part Wampanoag Indian. As soon as white slave owners moved deeper into the frontier, blacks began escaping to Native American communities, in which they were culturally adopted, intermarried and blurred into a fuzzy history of Black Indians. The Seminoles, in northern Florida and southern Alabama, were particularly renowned for this.
But across the violent span of the 19th century, things grew far more complicated. Native Americans in the Southeast — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, the “Five Civilized Tribes” — began buying, selling and impregnating black slaves, just like their white neighbors.
That most of the members of these tribes were forced to relocate to what is now Oklahoma beginning in the 1830s is well known. That they dragged black slaves with them? Not so much. No one is sure just how many, as they were not counted, but their numbers were sizable. Fifty years later, the 1890 Census of Indian Territory looked like this: 109,000 whites, 50,000 Indians and 19,000 Negroes. In this frontier, post-slavery land (it would not become the state of Oklahoma for 17 more years), there was plenty of racial mixing, though nobody was writing such things down. As Davis writes eloquently, her book “distances itself from the comforting belief that racial mixing in the United States is limited and aberrant. . . . It asks more concisely ‘who we are’ as distinct from ‘who we think we are.’ ”
Meanwhile, as the Indian Wars spread toward the Pacific after the Civil War, a segment of African American soldiers, many of whom had fought for freedom with the Union, now reenlisted to fight and conquer western tribes. These all-black units came to be known as Buffalo Soldiers and, as time passed, a source of pride to black Americans — though they were distinct enemies of Native Americans.
In this morass of shifting alliances, the Dawes Act of 1887 set into play a series of federal acts that would abolish tribal sovereignty, force Oklahoma tribes to accept individual land allotments (rather than the traditional, communal model of tribal ownership) and strip millions of acres from tribal control. (Tribal governments on reservations were not restored until the 1930s.)
Yet the process also made it valuable to be a member of a tribe, since only certified members got titles to land. When oil was discovered on that land, suddenly the rules about who was, and was not, a tribal member became the key to wealth. The murderous lengths whites would go to marry into the Osage in this era, and thus gain access to their spouses’ oil riches, was the subject of David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Tribal membership, of course, had never been subject to written rules. And not surprisingly, many Native Americans did not trust the U.S. government or their white census-takers and refused to take part. Parents counted some of their children as white, perhaps to help them ease into broader society, and others as Indian, perhaps to retain some familial tie to the land. Blacks who were part Indian, or who were former Indian slaves, were relegated to Freedmen status or left out entirely. The white census-takers were known to arbitrarily deny some Indians tribal membership because they did not look Indian.
The rolls of tribal membership were thus hopelessly flawed — yet became, along with a U.S.-issued document called a “Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood,” the legal standard of tribal affiliation.
Herein lies Davis’s family saga. One key segment, teased out through years of patient research, reveals an ancestor named Amos Thornton. Born in 1810, he was a Cherokee who was forced to relocate from Tennessee to Oklahoma, settling near Fort Gibson. He was married to a white woman. But he was also a slave owner, and he impregnated an enslaved black woman named Georgeanna, who gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.
Georgeanna and Elizabeth Thornton were freed after the Civil War. On May 31, 1901, they applied for enrollment as Cherokee Freedmen. Several hearings (the transcripts of which are in the book’s appendix) and several years later, it was granted. Still, Freedmen status was second-tier, and descendants of Freedmen have continued litigation into the 21st century. To this day, the National Archives lists the “Index to the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory, March 4, 1907” with “citizens” and “Freedmen” as different categories. It’s as if census rolls for the former slave-holding states read “citizens” and “Negroes.”
Davis, for her part, was denied Cherokee recognition but was granted membership by the Muscogee Creeks, at “one-sixteenth degree of ‘Indian blood.’ ” She took two commercially available DNA tests, even though the Native American databases included are tiny and perhaps misleading. Still, the tests showed that she is about 50 percent African, 36 percent European, 8 percent Asian and 5 percent Native American. (The Asian tie, she writes, might stem from tests identifying long-ago migrants from Mongolia and Siberia who were the first humans to migrate into the Americas.)
In the end, the study is a fascinating exercise in personal identity and how we regard who we are. Here’s how Davis describes her family and relatives, as she saw them back in the hubbub of 1960s Detroit and on the rolling hills of northeastern Oklahoma: “Although most were fair, they had a dusky cast; some had dark brown skin while others were nearly white with eyes as blue as the sky on a clear, cold December day. Many had bone-straight hair that seemed to skip a generation, or dance from mother to son, then son to daughter.”
It’s a pretty damn good description of an American family.
Darnella Davis will discuss “Untangling a Red, White, and Black Heritage” at Politics and Prose at the Wharf on Jan. 9 at 7 p.m.
of the Allotment Era
By Darnella Davis
University of New Mexico. 293 pp. $45