Racist Tendencies Common in Too Many Tribes

Cedric Sunray

Last month’s racially motivated killings in Oklahoma, perpetrated by Cherokee Indian Jake England and his white roommate against members of North Tulsa’s black community, once again bring to light the prejudicial tendencies held by many in our Indian communities.

This reality is the literal “Negro Elephant in the Room," which many tribal communities attempt to pass off as issues of sovereignty, enrollment decision making, “and, well we had it as bad as them” rhetoric. However, the real effect is that our children grow up in environments where tribal governments and tribal members broadcast their racist ideologies -- such as in the more recent case of the Cherokee Freedmen—to an audience of young people who are not provided with the full histories and realities of their historical connections to the black community.

I have seen one too many times where the half-black grandchildren of Indian people are even marginalized by their own Indian families or are viewed as the “lone exception” to their prejudicial leanings due to their blood connection.

In 1978, Terry Anderson and Kirke Kickingbird were hired by the National Congress of American Indians to research the issue of federal recognition and present a paper on their findings to the National Conference on Federal Recognition which was being held in Nashville, Tennessee. Their paper, “An Historical Perspective on the Issue of Federal Recognition and Non-recognition” closed with the following statement:

“The reasons that are usually presented to withhold recognition from tribes are 1) that they are racially tainted with the blood of African tribes-men or 2) greed, for newly recognized tribes will share in the appropriations for services given to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The names of justice, mercy, sanity, common sense, fiscal responsibility, and rationality can be presented just as easily on the side of those advocating recognition.”

Professor Don Rankin from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama has recounted by letter a disturbing incident occurring during a June 1995 genealogy seminar conducted by Sharon Scholars Brown at Samford University. His letter states:

“Someone brought up the MOWA Choctaw and their attempt at federal recognition. At this stage, several people had gathered around as we were talking. Ms. Brown responded in an even professional tone of voice that she felt that they would not be successful. When asked why, she responded that they had black ancestors and in her opinion were not Indian. Mr. Lee Fleming, who was at the time the Tribal Registrar for the Western Band of Cherokees and one of the lecturers, agreed with her. I was shocked at their statements.”

Lee Fleming, a Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) citizen, is now the Director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment and was the responsible party for the denial of the MOWA Choctaw petition.

Another CNO tribal member, Darrin Buzzard, remarked in an email in referencing the Cherokee Freedmen, “...they will suck you dry. Their children will suck you dry…protect Cherokee culture for our children. For our daughter, for the American people as a whole. Fight against the infiltration.”

Some tribal members attempt to disassociate their own ancestry from any black connection. At a conference a few years back I was speaking with a member of a federally recognized Northeastern tribe who told me he had no black ancestry, his afro hairstyle not withstanding, I assumed.

In 2005, my wife was invited as a judge overseeing the annual Mississippi Choctaw Princess Pageant. The only entrant of mixed Indian and black heritage amongst the 20 competitors was crowned, much to the dismay of many in attendance. Radmilla Cody, the first Miss Navajo Nation of mixed Indian and black ancestry has relayed the reality of the racial prejudice she experienced from her own people as well.

Aside from perceived gaming competition is the primary reason why historic “non-federal” tribes such as the Lumbee, Chickahominy, MOWA Choctaw, Nanticoke, Houma, Haliwa-Saponi, Unkechaug, and others in the eastern and southern US regions remain without recognition. They all share the “burden” of being either of some or presumed to be of some black ancestry. On the contrary, many federal tribes who are of predominantly white ancestry are never questioned as to their racial reality.

Black ancestry within Indian communities does not nullify or lessen Indian social, cultural, and familial fabrics. Black people, Indian people, poor whites and others have endured great atrocities throughout history.

In the end, the greatest atrocity may be that we don’t recognize that commonality fully in one another and that Jake England, as a young, identifiable Indian with a murdered father, incarcerated mother, girlfriend who committed suicide, and one with responsibilities as a single, teenage father to a young child, is as much a victim as a perpetrator in the historical narrative that is race.

Cedric Sunray is one of four generations of enrolled family members of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama.

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swkyle's picture
Well the racism I've received from white looking Natives has always been condescension, a belief without even knowing me that I'm backward or otherwise unsophisticated, that I'm stupid even though I graduated from Stanford University or that because I'm brown I'm just not acceptable for anything else but color. All of this happened when I was living and working in Washington DC by mostly the staff of the Indian nonprofits and also Native identified attorneys.
swkyle's picture
What I do not understand is how those folks who say "blood quantum" should not be any determination of Indian identity are also the same ones who rely on those distant, distant, distant relatives (blood quantum) for their Indian identity? "Race" it seems is only acceptable when trying to be Native and not acceptable for wondering why those who claim Native ancestry do not find it meaningful that the rest of who they are is white or black?
curtj's picture
Here in Alaska the Indigenous often look down on half breeds with African blood in them. And the half breeds with the blood of illegal European immigrants in them can do no wrong. The children with mixed blood in them didn't have a say on who made them, or have a say on how they were raised. As Indigenous people, we have been booted off our lands so the whites could steal our resources and lands. Since Columbus, we've endured enslavement, murder and genocide against our people so the illegal European immigrants and their descendants could steal our resources and lands for colonization. Theft and Murder. Who are we to discriminate against other people of color when we have been discriminated against all our lives? If, we, as Indigenous people, discriminate against other Indigenous of mixed blood, as we have been, then we deserve to lose what ever we have left that hasn't been seized and stolen. I often thought that as Dine', we were above the pettiness, greed and avarice that the illegal European immigrants brought here, looks like I was wrong.
chico2dc's picture
U call it racism, I call it Nationalism- Pride in tribal identity. If fullblood dont like u cause your not, its your parents fault(they should have tried to have Indian kids), if my kids dont like your kids cause thier not beautifully brown and got black straight hair then thats your fault. Live with it. Dont be like the US gov't and make the tribes and real Indians be like you. We love our culture we love our identity. if i want to hang out with white people, black people, asians, east indians, or what have you, then I'd go any where in the US. I sure dont want to hang out with natives that look like the former. And if so, then I would have to ask myself whats the point of being indians if we look and act and live like white,blacks,asians or what have you. So marry native, and learn or keep your tribal culture.
thechief's picture
Native Americans communities are generally dysfunctional. Be happy you are not included. Crabs in a bucket is a description I have always heard about native communities. Just be who you are and don't worry about being accepted. I am full blooded and all of my enemies are from my own community. Sometimes hanging out with non tribal members is a relief to get away from tribal politics and gossiping.
nanaiya's picture
You might be 4/4 Native 'quinzy" but when you are a deceptive person and a fraud, you dishonor your ancestors and your tribe. THEY known what you are doing. As for me, I am Chahta, Chikashsha and brown. Yes, I am Choctaw, Chickasaw and I am BROWN! More importantly I am honest and do my best to honor my ancestors and Tribe every day by walking in a good and respectful way.
jake65037's picture
Black Indians and Freedmen ARE NOT one and the same. In regards to the Cherokees, Black Cherokees are Cherokee by blood and many are members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The majority of the Freedmen however are not Cherokee by blood, although a small percent of them are because they were put on the Dawes Rolls as Freedmen. However, the overwhelming majority of the Freedmen are the descendants of slaves owned by the small minority of slave owing Cherokees and do not have Indian ancestry. About the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama, they were denied federal recognition because they aren’t Indians, nor descended from Indians. Through no fault of their own, they believe or believed they have Indian blood because their mulatto ancestors had to protect themselves against racist laws in the South, by claiming to be Indians. This was common place in the American South and is one of the top reasons why every other white guy on the street claims to be part Cherokee, Creek or Choctaw, etc. Most of these fraudulent claimants either descend from whites that fraudulently applied for allotments or from blacks whose mulatto offspring protected themselves by claiming to be mixed blood Indians. Some Tribes without federal recognition ARE either legitimate Tribes or descended from Indians. From what I can see however, the legitimate non federally recognized Tribes are outnumbered by about 10 to 1 by fraudulent groups like the MOWAS, whether or not they have state recognition. The writer is lumping us all together. For example, the MOWAS in Alabama are not Indians; however some of the Tribes without recognition in the state of Virginia ARE legitimate. It does a real disservice to those of us who are members of legitimate Tribal communities but lack federal recognition when we are all lumped together.
nanaiya's picture
We are 'generally dysfunction' "thechief" and somehow you care enough to be here? Your own people reject you, and so you come here to talk down on Natives? Sunalei, you claim to be a "lost" Cherokee, but don't know your ancestors names, where and when they lives, but you call yourself a Cherokee? Something wrong with this picture.....
nanaiya's picture
Perhaps we need to reject everyone who is less than 1/32 or 1/64th Indian from the Dawes Rolls. Those on the By Blood AND Freedmen Rolls. But dang, that gets rid of the majority of of Indians from the Five Civilized Tribes....I'm willing. Are YOU?
husbandofmoonlight's picture
The "world" human "genome" having been charted as recently as 2000, reveals that ALL of humanity is in reality by their DNA 99.09% related, this by nature of "factual information" makes "race" simply a matter of "melanin content of the skin, blood type and physical type" and no other differences. The fact that a "negro" person can "donate an internal organ" to a "caucaisian"--(whitie")--and have the recipient live---is a startling example of the scientific facts. Give up the outlandishly ridiculous notion of "race"----it is as out dated as "stone tools"----and should be relegated to the museums. As for Native American DNA it is as distinctive as "African" and as unique and should be held at a much higher degree of respect--- but that will be determined by the "people who possess it"----and no one else. "If the USA were any other criminal nation the 'Americans would invade the USA to keep the world safe; and they would be justified."