Velie and Velie Indian Law

Race, money split tribe

Sunday, September 22, 2002
WEWOKA, Okla. -- Wilburt Cudjoe holds a piece of his identity in a black, wrinkled hand.

The white plastic card says he is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. It also says he is the descendant of African slaves, people who escaped plantations in the 1700s to join the Seminoles.

The card does not say Cudjoe, 78, is an Indian by blood. And that makes his soft, warm eyes turn sad.

Tribal leaders say Cudjoe and 1,500 other black Seminoles who cannot trace at least one-fourth of their ancestry to native people may not sit on the tribal council. And those without at least one-eighth native blood, they say, are ineligible to vote in tribal elections or share in the $42 million Congress allotted in the early 1990s as compensation for running the Seminoles out of Florida more than 100 years earlier.

The dispute, now tied up in federal courts, is ripping the Seminole Nation apart, threatening to break a bond that spans four centuries. It's a battle of race, money and the right of a sovereign nation to decide who is an Indian.

"We were just like brothers and sisters until this little money come up," says Cudjoe, a small, soft-spoken man. "They are forgetting their history. Their past is entwined with the blacks."


To understand what is happening to the Seminoles, it is necessary to know something of their unusual history.

Unlike other tribes, they were not a distinct people before the white man arrived on the coasts of North America. Their origins lie in small bands of refugees ---- members of the Creeks and about five other tribes who escaped white invaders by fleeing into the empty swamps of Florida in the mid-1700s. Soon, escaped slaves from plantations in South Carolina and Georgia joined them for the chance to live free.

Together, they struggled to survive in the Florida swamps, built communities, fought invading U.S. soldiers, and evolved into a distinct people.

Intermarriage and time have blurred the lineage of many Indian tribes. Black blood flows strong through the Narragansetts in Rhode Island, the Lumbees of North Carolina, the northeastern Pequots of Connecticut. And as bingo halls and casinos enrich some once-poor tribes, there have been frequent disputes over who has enough native blood to qualify as an Indian.

What makes the Seminoles different is that blacks -- "estelusti" in the Seminole language of Muscogee -- were part of the tribe from the beginning, owning land, serving as interpreters and negotiators with the whites, teaching the others how to grow rice.

"It was an Afro-Indian tribe, a multiethnic reliance," said anthropologist Joseph Opala of James Madison University in Virginia.

Even their name says so. "Seminole" is a corruption of the Spanish word "cimarron," meaning "runaway," he said.

In Florida, the Seminoles still could not completely evade the U.S. Army, which was intent on forcing tribes throughout the American South to move west of the Mississippi in the 1820s and 1830s to make room for white settlers.

Hundreds of Seminoles agreed to leave and were taken west by boat across the Gulf of Mexico and then on barges up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers to Oklahoma.

Some bands battled on deep in the swamps. Today, their ancestors make up the Seminole Tribe of Florida -- a tribe that never has signed a peace treaty with the U.S. government.

But for the Seminoles who moved to the golden prairies of Oklahoma, life changed quickly.

Black Seminoles found that their knowledge of rice cultivation and their resistance to swamp diseases, so important to the tribe in Florida, no longer had value. Worse, the federal government initially put the Seminoles under the control of the Creeks, another transplanted tribe.

The Creeks held blacks as slaves, Opala said; and by the mid 1850s, the Seminoles followed their example, enslaving black members of their tribe.

During the Civil War, several tribes including the Seminoles sided with the Confederacy. After the war, in 1866, the federal government imposed a new treaty on the Seminoles, reducing their land holdings in Oklahoma and restoring blacks to equal status in the tribe.

Relations between black and blood Seminoles were strained during the long era of segregation in America, when, even in Indian territory, blacks went to separate schools.

But for the last 40 years, the Seminoles have lived together mainly in harmony -- until the federal money came.