A Nation Divided
By Andrew Metz
Monday, December 22, 2003
WEWOKA, Okla. -- Kenneth Chambers, chief of the Seminole Nation, is absolutely sure of the truth of the matter.
"There is no black Seminole," he expostulated on a recent day, rising from his chair to drive the point home like a preacher warning of hell and damnation.
In this ink spot of an Indian town, however, not far from the tribe's headquarters on the Oklahoma prairie, the faces of Wewoka present a conflicting impression.
"My folks is Indian," said Roosevelt Davis, a man as dark as any of African descent. Walking through the long leaf pines he planted on land that has been his family's for almost 100 years, he put his hand on his chest and said simply, "I'm Seminole."
After two centuries of coexistence that has rarely made most history books, a chasm has opened between the descendants of the Seminole people, Indians and escaped slaves who banded together in Florida against the white onslaught and were eventually deposited here along what became known as the Trail of Tears.
Though history and intermingling made cousins of the two groups, time and money and the modern experiences of being black or Indian or both have chewed away at all they shared in common, leaving the ligaments of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma exposed and aching.
The blacks, still known around here as Freedmen,have been excluded from millions of dollars awarded to the Seminole in the early 1990s for the seizure of their land in Florida a century earlier. And three years ago they were stripped of their Seminole status altogether through the imposition of an ancestral blood standard for membership that few could prove.
The government later forced the tribe to restore their standing, but to this day the Freedmen are denied access to many benefits and services because they cannot show sufficient Indian heritage based on a 19th-century identification system that was stacked against them to begin with.
"You can't just judge us on the color of our skin," said Sylvia Davis, Roosevelt's daughter, who traces her ancestry to the legendary Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs, a warrior who helped battle the United States to a draw during the Florida Indian wars of the 1800s.
Davis, 49, has been waging her own legal fight for recognition as a Seminole and the rights that come with it.
"When they were on that Trail of Tears there weren't no Freedmen. When we were in Florida, there weren't no Freedmen. It was black Indians," said Davis, a former tribal council member representing a Freedmen band. "Who are these people to say I don't have enough Indian in my blood?"
Many who have peered into this conflict have written it off to another instance of bias against black Americans, albeit from an ethnic group with its own long history of oppression. Yet the intersection of these races is as much about the complicated legacy of frontier history and American Indians' modern struggle for self-definition.
"It is overly simplistic to say, 'Oh, these people are just being racist because they want to keep all the money,'" said Circe Sturm, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, who has written on native identity and the experience of black Indians. "There are deeper forces at work. ... People who have complicated histories like the Seminole have felt for a number of years the tension to pick sides."
As far back as the mid-18th century, escaped slaves and runaways from a smattering of tribes were coalescing in Florida, according to scholars of the subject, giving birth to the multicolored confederacy that came to be known as the Seminole. The name itself is taken from the Spanish cimarron, which evolved from meaning stray cattle to slaves who ran away.
While some tribes held black slaves, the relations among the Seminole were more egalitarian, though the two groups tended to maintain their own communities within the larger coalition.
The emerging tribe appeared so intermingled during the Indian wars that one of the U.S. commanders, Gen. Thomas Sidney Jesup, told Congress that he was fighting "a Negro war."
"The Seminole was never an Indian tribe," said Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University in Virginia, who has studied the Seminole since the 1970s. "It was a multiethnic tribe to start."
It was only once the tribe was transported to Indian Territory -- present-day Oklahoma -- that cracks formed, Opala said. The slave-holding ways of other Indians planted there infiltrated the Seminole, many of whom sided with the South in the Civil War.
In 1866, the tribe agreed to a treaty with the United States that adopted the blacks as members -- a watershed event that resonates today as the two sides grapple over entitlement to the $56-million land award, about $14 million of which was for Seminole still living in Florida.
The government and the tribe have held that the blacks were not officially Seminole members until the treaty and were not landowners at the time of the seizure of Florida in 1823. The Freedmen, however, insist that the treaty only put in writing a well-established status and that their ancestors were landowners even before the 1800s. Furthermore, they say, Congress intended the money to go to the entire tribe.
"The tribe is turning its back on its history. The irony of all this is that the Seminole were the first people in North America where blacks were at the highest levels of their society," said Jon Velie, the Oklahoma attorney representing Davis as well as the Cherokee Freedmen. "You can go through your entire life in this country and not know this story."
Perhaps the most injurious moment came at the turn of the century when the government began registering Indians as part of its effort to force assimilation and break up tribes. U.S agents established two sets of census rolls, one for Indians that listed their degree of native blood, and another for Freedmen. The rolls were used to allot land to black and blood Indians and still are employed by the federal government and most tribes as the baseline for ancestral heritage and entitlement.
"If you had one drop of black blood in you, you were considered a Freedman, and if you had one drop of white blood in you, you were considered an Indian. Now isn't that so silly?" said Bud Crockett, a Freedman whose roots touch former slaves, indigenous Americans and whites. "You aren't going to find nothing pure in this country.
"You ought to see some of my nieces and nephews; they are whiter than you."
The fissure that opened here in Oklahoma festered over the years, through Southern segregation, the civil rights movement and into the 1990s, but by most accounts didn't erupt until the land award, which funds tribal services and programs.
"It goes down to money," said Crockett, 62, a church deacon and gospel singer who recalls the days before the dispute when blacks and bloods attended Sunday services together. "Up to that point you really didn't hear of much bickering between the Freedmen and the bloods."
And while the Freedmen are only a sliver of the Seminole population -- about 2,500 out of approximately 14,000 -- their plight has brought turmoil to the tribe, as if pulling at this one thread started an unraveling of Seminole identity.
"They were always looked at as non-Indian. They were always a separate people," said Jerry Haney, a longtime chief who was ousted in a bitter power struggle with Chambers, the current chief, after the vote to change the membership rules in 2000. "I remember seeing black people speaking Indian, but now they go their own way.
"It is kind of like the military service," he said. "You fight with each other and you have things in common, but once you get out you lose those things. There were common things between us. We were both fighting the white man.
"Now the relationship is gone."
In general, tribes are free to set their own membership rules and have imposed regulations that have disenfranchised rivals and relatives and barred new members in disputes across the country. But after the Freedmen were sidelined here,the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped in and nullified the action.
"To me, the crux of this is that the Seminole Nation, Indian people, we have the right to determine our own membership just like other Indian people," said Jackie Warledo, an assistant chief of one of the tribe's 14 bands. "This gets a lot of attention because people want to play it as racism, as not politically correct.
"Our history is being rewritten here. We were two different races. We had two different cultures and we still do. Just because you go to a Polish festival, doesn't mean you are Polish."
Almost a decade since Davis filed the first of several lawsuits against the U.S. government, alleging it had failed to uphold its obligations to protect the Freedmen and ensure the land settlement was distributed fairly, the impasse resists healing.
A federal appeals court in September refused to revive the case from lower court dismissals, effectively leaving it up to the Seminole to hash it out, which for now, at least, doesn't seem likely.
In the meantime, the government has opened up some benefits to the Freedmen that they had been denied, though they are still not eligible to receive the federal Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood cards that are entree to many entitlements, and they are barred from education, housing and health care benefits.
Through it all, some Freedmen have kept the case at arm's length, reluctant to blame the tribe for the predicament, but just as certain of their birthright.
"I am a Seminole," said Lena Hunt Shaw, a Freedmen who sits on the tribal council, "because we all came out of Florida together.
"This litigation has been a blessing in disguise. All of us Seminole people have gotten an education about the Seminole Nation."