Blacks and Indians Should Stand Together Against a Common Oppressor

Steve Russell

Anniversaries matter in the short run as memory markers and in the long run they become traditions. The year 1963 was the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and it was used by activists of the time to take another step toward emancipation on the economic front. This year, on August 28, 2013, we note—if we care to note—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

American Indians have a complicated relationship with African-Americans in general and their freedom struggle in particular. We have in common that we inhabit a nation founded on theft of Indian land and black labor at a time when land and labor were the primary sources of wealth. Those twin thefts have created a paradise for the descendants of the thieves and a multi-generational crapshoot for the descendants of the victims.

For some individual blacks and Indians who were born with or acquired the grit and luck it takes to play a stacked deck against the house, America has fulfilled the great land of opportunity mythos that, ironically, still works better for immigrants than for those of us born here.

Historically, laws that denied education and the right to vote and to testify in court often applied to blacks and Indians alike. Laws against interracial marriage put us in the same category as well.

White people told blacks that Indians were dangerous savages, and so sent the “buffalo soldiers” to fight the Comanche-Kiowa Alliance for white dominance on the Southern Plains.

White people told Indians that blacks were sub-humans, and too many “civilized” Indians, my people included, took up the ignominious historical role of slaveholders.

While blacks and Indians were marked for similar roles as victims, blacks had certain disadvantages that did not burden Indians. African-Americans are tribal peoples completely ripped from their roots. If they escaped, they had nowhere to go, no allies. Being darker than Indians, those who were able to intermarry carried their inferiority of color for more generations.

Slave rebellions were few and short-lived. Gabriel Prosser in 1800; Denmark Vesey in 1822; Nat Turner in 1831. American Indians, with superior knowledge of the land and numerous allies, fought the colonists to a standstill for as long as they could play off various colonial powers against each other. After the Civil War, when the U.S. could finally focus all military might on the rebellious tribes of the Great Plains, the shooting pretty well ended in 25 years.

By the time it ended, Indians had given a good account of themselves in too many military campaigns to count. The shooting wars ended with the defeat of the alliance of the Great Sioux Nation and the Arapaho on the Northern Plains and the Kiowa and Comanche on the Southern Plains, but many peoples fought bravely for generations. For this resistance, we honor names like Tecumseh, Pontiac, Rolling Thunder, Dragging Canoe, Cochise, and Osceola.

One of Osceola’s generals who fits in this discussion was the redoubtable John Horse, a man of Seminole and African descent. The Seminoles, some of whom never did surrender to the white invaders in Florida, often gave African slaves somewhere to go if they wanted to put up a fight for freedom.

After the end of the Civil War enabled the defeat of the Plains Indians, the promise of freedom for African slaves died with Abraham Lincoln and with the neutering of the 14th Amendment by the US Supreme Court. The Jim Crow laws put African-Americans back under the economic thumb of white settlers as sharecroppers on the lands where they used to be slaves.

The promise of an Indian Territory for the “civilized” Indians died with Oklahoma statehood in 1907. Henry Dawes had passed the General Allotment Act in 1887 to destroy common landholding among Indians and enable vast tracts of formerly reservation land to be declared “surplus.” Indians would honor their history by never forgetting the leaders of the litigation and disobedience campaigns against the Dawes Act: the Kiowa Lone Wolf, the Creek Chitto Harjo, and the Cherokee Redbird Smith.

The Dawes Act destroyed tribal economies and put Indians who had previously been prosperous back under the economic thumb of white settlers.

This economic raw deal for blacks and Indians continued to be enabled by color prejudice. Indians could often “pass” after three generations of exogamy; blacks remained subject to the “one drop rule.”

It was economically convenient for the settlers that one drop of black blood rendered a person black and fit only for manual labor. It was similarly convenient that any intermarriage by Indians rendered the offspring white, and therefore ineligible for what compensation was offered when Indians were separated from their property. Because of tribal traditions, this never blossomed into a “reverse one drop rule,” but the federal government did what it could by using Indian blood quantum to determine which tribal citizens would “qualify” to sell their allotments.

This was American prosperity. Labor stolen from Africans bringing wealth from land stolen from Indians, peoples who were taught to hate each other by their exploiters and kept at the bottom of the education and economic ladders with the easy metric of color prejudice, and kept from doing anything about it at the ballot box with laws that declared them unfit to vote.

World War II, 1939-1945, was a global horror. It caused the deaths of millions of innocent people and brought forth what we now call “weapons of mass destruction.” The one good thing to be said for it is the fight was too big for white people to do it alone, and after risking their lives to make other peoples free, nonwhite American GIs came home determined to do the same for their relatives. It was this new determination that led directly to the events of August 28, 1963.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.


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Two Bears Growling's picture
Good Article Steve. I have often said First Nations people & the offspring of Africans stolen from their own lands have a common fight: Prejudice, bigotry & racism. True, as you stated, some of our ancestors did have slaves of African decent. Thankfully we have overcome such ignorance. After all, the Creator made all colors of people. As the Sioux have a saying that translates: " We are all one people." This sounds like a good idea for African-decended & First Nations people to come together for the common fights we both have in common: The fights for equality, against racism, bigotry & prejudice. The fight for justice is never going to be wrong nor the fight against all the evils we all face across Turtle Island.
Two Bears Growling
koolkila's picture
Wonderful piece. I am a native Oklahoman, and Black Indian (Choctaw, Cherokee). I have discussed these same ideas with my friends. I'll be sharing this article with them.
tmsyr11's picture
Steve, we're all behind you to lead us all down this rainbow-colored path. With the all too common speech against 'colonialism' and 'european influence', there is just as much prejudice, bigotry and racism internally amongst First Nations people. Sadly, it is prevelant among family members, and communities. The Common Oppressor is themselves (ourselves) and onto each others. As much as people want to blame the white man for their problems, it doesn't make sense to ally with black people who have equally just as much oppression to them-selves and each others. For indian nations, to blame "Washington" for lacking tribal resources, allows tribal governments to operate irresponsibly in plain view. Indian peoples need and must hold their tribal officials accountable as it is no longer just the "bad white man".
texasouthwind's picture
Mojo Hand's picture
I've always thought that people of color should band together to fight for common goals. yes, each group has its own agenda and different goals, but a show of solidarity is really meaningful, especially when you're a tiny minority group. As an Asian American, I know about how there were lynch mobs for the Chinese in California and all along the west coast, literally forcing the Chinese by violence out of their towns. This country also lynched Native Americans and Mexicans in the western US. And the Japanese Americans were uprooted from their farm land and homes during WW II. Who was there to speak for them? Very few. Given that the Asian American population in the US is about 4-5% and Native Americans around 1-2%, we don't have a lot of numbers. And there is strength in numbers. If anything, the impact of having a demonstration against injustices is greater when you have the numbers. I really think there should be more alliances among minority groups.
Mojo Hand
azpark's picture
Steve Why is it that virtually all your columns are about pointing fingers and assigning blame.I guess that makes for better reading but as the saying goes if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. You are to be congratulated for some of your comments in Sequoyah Rising particularly for taking tribal governments to task but you could make better use of this column if you followed up with some constructive actions that you mention in the book.
swrussel's picture
Azpark, I would hope this would be obvious, but I guess not if it disturbs you enough to post a comment, and one phrased in a manner that cannot be ignored. When ICT was in print, I had a hard 800 word limit if I did not want to be confined to on line. Now, I can get away with more like 1200 words. This limits the narrative arc. In the case of the narrative arc that concerns your comment, you have dropped your comment on part 1. Part 2 will be up on the anniversary and will end with a direct connection to what is going on today. Part 3 will be about organizing. Part 4, if it happens, will give an example of what a tribe could do today. As you know, a major theme of Sequoyah Rising is doing what we can with what we have. I think I demonstrate in that book that tribal governments have lots of power they are not using at all or are using ineffectually. That is extremely unwelcome news, and the narrative arc to it is long. If I fail to genuflect to the Indian-as-victim meme, nobody will read to the end. Any political commentary lacking that genuflection is taken to be a "white point of view" and Cherokees start out with the "white Indian" canard around their necks. I take your point, but (1) op-ed has limitations and (2) I could use some help out here on this limb where I've knowingly placed myself. See Chad Smith's recent attempt to saw it off.
chahta ohoyo's picture
halito steve...you're ranting again...
chahta ohoyo