Smithsonian Symposium Explores Complicated History of Native American Slaveholders

Ryan P. Smith

John Ross, the Cherokee chief lionized for his efforts to fight forced relocation, was also an advocate and practitioner of slavery.

When you think of the Trail of Tears, you like­ly imag­ine a long pro­ces­sion of suf­fer­ing Chero­kee Indi­ans forced west­ward by a vil­lain­ous Andrew Jack­son. Per­haps you envi­sion unscrupu­lous white slave­hold­ers, whose inter­est in grow­ing a plan­ta­tion econ­o­my under­lay the deci­sion to expel the Chero­kee, flood­ing in to take their place east of the Mis­sis­sip­pi River.

What you prob­a­bly don’t pic­ture are Chero­kee slave­hold­ers, fore­most among them Chero­kee chief John Ross. What you prob­a­bly don’t pic­ture are the numer­ous African-Amer­i­can slaves, Chero­kee-owned, who made the bru­tal march them­selves, or else were shipped en masse to what is now Okla­homa aboard cramped boats by their wealthy Indi­an mas­ters. And what you may not know is that the fed­er­al pol­i­cy of Indi­an removal, which ranged far beyond the Trail of Tears and the Chero­kee, was not sim­ply the vin­dic­tive scheme of Andrew Jack­son, but rather a pop­u­lar­ly endorsed, con­gres­sion­al­ly sanc­tioned cam­paign span­ning the admin­is­tra­tions of nine sep­a­rate presidents.

These uncom­fort­able com­pli­ca­tions in the nar­ra­tive were brought to the fore­front at a recent event held at the Nation­al Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an. Titled Find­ing Com­mon Ground,” the sym­po­sium offered a deep dive into inter­sec­tion­al African-Amer­i­can and Native Amer­i­can history.

For muse­um cura­tor Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), who has over­seen the design and open­ing of the wide­ly laud­ed Amer­i­cans” exhi­bi­tion now on view on the museum’s third floor, it is imper­a­tive to pro­vide the muse­um-going pub­lic with an unflinch­ing his­to­ry, even when doing so is painful.

I used to like his­to­ry,” Smith told the crowd rue­ful­ly. And some­times, I still do. But not most of the time. Most of the time, his­to­ry and I are fren­e­mies at best.” In the case of the Trail of Tears and the enslave­ment of blacks by promi­nent mem­bers of all five so-called Civ­i­lized Tribes” (Chero­kee, Chick­a­saw, Choctaw, Creek and Semi­nole), Smith went one step fur­ther, liken­ing the ugly truth of his­to­ry to a mangy, snarling dog stand­ing between you and a crowd-pleas­ing narrative.”

Obvi­ous­ly,” Smith said, the sto­ry should be, needs to be, that the enslaved black peo­ple and soon-to-be-exiled red peo­ple would join forces and defeat their oppres­sor.” But such was not the case — far from it. The Five Civ­i­lized Tribes were deeply com­mit­ted to slav­ery, estab­lished their own racial­ized black codes, imme­di­ate­ly reestab­lished slav­ery when they arrived in Indi­an ter­ri­to­ry, rebuilt their nations with slave labor, crushed slave rebel­lions, and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sided with the Con­fed­er­a­cy in the Civ­il War.”

In oth­er words, the truth is about as far a cry from a crowd-pleas­ing nar­ra­tive” as you could pos­si­bly get. Do you want to hear that?” Smith asked the audi­ence. I don’t think so. Nobody does.” And yet, Smith is firm in his belief that it is a museum’s duty to embrace and elu­ci­date ambi­gu­i­ty, not sweep it under the rug in the pur­suit of some clean­er fiction.

The Mis­sis­sip­pi home of Choctaw chief Green­wood LeFlo­re who had 15,000 acres of land and 400 enslaved Africans under his domin­ion. (Image: Library of Con­gress / Smithsonian)

Tiya Miles, an African-Amer­i­can his­to­ri­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, agrees. At the Find­ing Com­mon Ground” event, she metic­u­lous­ly laid out pri­ma­ry-source evi­dence to paint a pic­ture of Indi­an/African-Amer­i­can rela­tions in the years lead­ing up to the Civ­il War.

Native Amer­i­cans, she said, had them­selves been enslaved, even before African-Amer­i­cans, and the two groups were enslaved for approx­i­mate­ly 150 years in tan­dem.” It wasn’t until the mid 18th-cen­tu­ry that the bondage of Native Amer­i­cans began to wane as Africans were import­ed in greater and greater num­bers. Increas­ing­ly, where white colonists viewed Africans as lit­tle more than mind­less beasts of bur­den, they saw Native Amer­i­cans as some­thing more: noble sav­ages,” unre­fined but coura­geous and fierce.

Per­verse­ly, Native Amer­i­can own­er­ship of black slaves came about as a way for Native Amer­i­cans to illus­trate their soci­etal sophis­ti­ca­tion to white set­tlers. They were work­ing hard to com­ply with gov­ern­ment dic­tates that told native peo­ple that in order to be pro­tect­ed and secure in their land base, they had to prove their lev­el of civ­i­liza­tion,’” Miles explained.

How would slave own­er­ship prove civ­i­liza­tion? The answer, Miles con­tends, is that in cap­i­tal­ism-crazed Amer­i­ca, slaves became tokens of eco­nom­ic suc­cess. The more slaves you owned, the more seri­ous a busi­nessper­son you were, and the more seri­ous a busi­nessper­son you were, the fit­ter you were to join the ranks of civ­i­lized soci­ety.” It’s worth remem­ber­ing, as Paul Chaat Smith says, that while most Native Amer­i­cans did not own slaves, nei­ther did most Mis­sis­sip­pi whites. Slave own­er­ship was a seri­ous sta­tus symbol.

Smith and Miles agree that much of ear­ly Amer­i­can his­to­ry is explained poor­ly by mod­ern moral­i­ty but effec­tive­ly by sim­ple eco­nom­ics and pow­er dynam­ics. The Chero­kee owned slaves for the same rea­sons their white neigh­bors did. They knew exact­ly what they were doing. In truth,” Smith said, the Chero­kee and oth­er Civ­i­lized Tribes were not that com­pli­cat­ed. They were will­ful and deter­mined oppres­sors of blacks they owned, enthu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pants in a glob­al econ­o­my dri­ven by cot­ton, and believ­ers in the idea that they were equal to whites and supe­ri­or to blacks.”

None of this lessens the very real hard­ship endured by Chero­kees and oth­er Native Amer­i­cans com­pelled to aban­don their home­lands as a result of the Indi­an Removal Act. Signed into law in the spring of 1830, the bill had been rig­or­ous­ly debat­ed in the Sen­ate (where it was endorsed with a 28 – 19 vote) that April and in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (where it pre­vailed 102 – 97) that May. Despite a sus­tained, coura­geous cam­paign on the part of John Ross to pre­serve his people’s prop­er­ty rights, includ­ing mul­ti­ple White House vis­its with Jack­son, in the end the influx of white set­tlers and eco­nom­ic incen­tives made the bill’s momen­tum insu­per­a­ble. All told, the process of removal claimed more than 11,000 Indi­an lives — 2,000 – 4,000 of them Cherokee.

What the slave­hold­ing of Ross and oth­er Civ­i­lized Nations lead­ers does mean, how­ev­er, is that our assump­tions regard­ing clear­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed heroes and vil­lains are worth push­ing back on.

I don’t know why our brains make it so hard to com­pute that Jack­son had a ter­ri­ble Indi­an pol­i­cy and rad­i­cal­ly expand­ed Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy,” Smith said, or that John Ross was a skill­ful leader for the Chero­kee nation who fought the crim­i­nal pol­i­cy of removal with every ounce of strength, but also a man who deeply believed in and prac­ticed the enslave­ment of black people.”

As Paul Chaat Smith said to con­clude his remarks, the best max­im to take to heart when con­fronting this sort of his­to­ry may be a quote from African anti-colo­nial leader Amíl­car Cabral: Tell no lies, and claim no easy victories.”

(How Native Amer­i­can Slave­hold­ers Com­pli­cate the Trail of Tears Nar­ra­tive” was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine’s web­site and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times in accor­dance with their Terms of Use. Amer­i­cans” will be on view at the Nation­al Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Indi­an through 2022.)

Ryan P. Smith recent­ly grad­u­at­ed from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy and Soci­ety. His avo­ca­tions include moviego­ing and cross­word puz­zle construction.
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