Blacks and Indians Should Stand Together Against a Common Oppressor

Steve Russell
August 20, 2013

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.