Are Louisiana Tribes Turning a Blind Eye to Racism?

Cedric Sunray

The first time I set foot on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation in Louisiana was in the 1990s. Prior to this, I had seen pictures of some of their tribal members attending Indian boarding schools with members of my own tribe and many others. One striking image I recall was the beautiful, statuesque, low-hanging trees that looked like something out of an old movie about the Old South. I would find out only later that the Old South symbolism I had perceived had never truly left. Like the visitations I had experienced with the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, not too far north from the Chitimacha, racism’s ugliness and its accompanying exclusion had been infesting some Louisiana tribes for many generations.

RELATED: Indian Country Influenced by Attitudes From the Old South

Social and legal prohibitions had been put in place to discourage any form of intermarriage with black people and to distance them from relatives who were perceived to have some black blood. Indians were attempting to shield themselves as best they could from further discriminatory treatment by the whites that surrounded them. By removing their own kin with attachments to the black community and intermarrying with white individuals, many were attempting to reduce the levels of prejudicial hostility they had experienced since the intrusion of whites on their lands. This historical reality has had devastating effects on indigenous families that intermarried with black people amongst numerous tribes in the nation. The Chitimacha are a poster child for such discrimination.

The book, Louisiana: A Guide to the State, illustrates this in a statement: “Among the Chitimacha marriage with Negroes is forbidden, offenders being ostracized and their names permanently removed from the tribal register. On the other hand, the tribe does not object to intermarriage with Caucasians.”

For tribes whose children attended Indian boarding schools such as Carlisle and Haskell, the pressures of conformity to white mainstream norms were pressure-filled experiences, according to this quote from Myriam Vuckovic’s book, Voices from Haskell: Indian Students Between Two Worlds, 1884-1928.

“Marriage was desired and promoted by Haskell’s superintendents if the spousal choice of the girl met with the school’s approval. Haskell clearly made a distinction between “good marriages” and “bad marriages,” the former referring to liaisons with self-supporting progressive Indian or white men, the latter to “camp Indians” or African Americans.”

This is further supported in K. Tsianina Lomawaima’s book, They Called it Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School, which said, “The federal government classified them as Indians in an Indian school but they classified themselves much more minutely. English speakers, Creek speakers, Kiowa speakers, Eastern tribes and western tribes, Full-blood, mixed bloods, beware the taint of African blood…”

Of course, prior to boarding school attendance and the advent of “Jim Crowfeather,” this was not the case. Census records of Chitimacha Indians clearly identify the ancestors of today’s black Chitimacha families. One such person, Edolie Darden, is listed on the 1900 Census, as are two of her children. She is a direct blood relative of the current seated chairman of the tribe, John Paul Darden, as well as councilman Toby Darden. When I spoke with Edolie Darden’s great-grandson, Chester Collins, he said, “The Chitimacha Tribe’s current membership process unfairly discriminates and denies tribal membership to the Darden/Collins/Popleon family, the direct lineal descendants of Frederick and Marie Darden, Alfred Darden, and Edolie Darden. Our aunt Augustine Collins Hines applied for membership in 2001 to no avail as the current enrollment process bars our family and other mixed-Black Chitimacha descendants.”

A look at the historical record would lead any rational person to believe this statement is accurate. On July 30, 2014 a letter of redress was received by the Chitimacha Tribal Council from the descendants of Edolie Darden requesting a change in the current membership process. Included in this letter were historical documents that unequivocally proved the Darden/Collins/Popleon family legitimacy as the descendants of Chitimacha Indians.

An August 27, 2014 response letter from Chairman John Paul Darden offered no change in their current membership policy. He instead chose to evoke the BIA as well as the Interior Department in his response when he pointed out, “We will address those applications in accordance with our BIA approved enrollment ordinance.” In effect, “sovereign immunity” was being used to end any legal contestation. This exclusion ran contrary to a 2009 Constitutional amendment by the Chitimacha to reduce their enrollment criteria from 1/16 Chitimacha blood ancestry to that of lineal descent. Nearly 200 individuals of mixed-white ancestry joined the ranks of the tribe at that time.

One has to go back to the years between 1903 and 1918 to understand the situation fully. During this time, mixed-black members of the Chitimacha tribe were ushered off the tribe’s reservation, and in 1919, those who remained were party to an annuity roll. “Black” Chitimacha names no longer appeared, despite much prior documentation attesting to their inclusion within the tribe. Another annuity roll was crafted in 1926 that continued this legal disassociation. This last annuity roll, coupled with the revised Census Roll of 1959, is now used as the official documentation needed to gain membership into the tribe.

As has happened many times in the history of Indian tribes, rolls created to receive or be divested of money or lands have trumped extensive legal documentation in determining current enrollment practices. Clear documentation has been simply pushed aside for the sake of convenience and prejudice. The Chitimacha Tribe does not contest that the Darden/Collins/Popleon family are their blood relatives. They simply are excluding them.

Chester Collins, head of the family, has this to say about the current situation: “The real and important issue is that it’s never too late to right an egregious wrong against humanity. There are no time constraints imposed against violations of human rights and dignity. What they have perpetrated are crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing against us. The worse thing is for good people to turn a blind eye and do nothing. Some may chalk it up to normal and acceptable policy for sovereign Indian Nations to engage in, but that does not make it right.

“I grew up during the Jim Crow Era in Louisiana fighting for equality and justice and hoping that in the 21st century my children and grandkids would not have to suffer the yoke of racism and discrimination. But here we are, again, going through a similar experience with the tribe of my ancestors. To have blood relatives continue to treat you with such distain, deprive you of your inalienable rights as though the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent human rights gains never occurred is unconscionable. What is more appalling is the American consciousness and government sees nothing wrong with various Indian tribes using sovereign nation status to perpetrate institutionalized racism and discrimination against their own people. I do not believe the federal government nor American people intended for Indian tribes to misuse sovereign nation status to deprive others of their basic human rights. It seems that the abuse that was perpetrated against them, they are now perpetrating against their own blood relatives. We view such behavior and this situation as insanity.”

How long do we continue to turn a blind eye to these situations? How long will historic racism continue to be covered up by contemporary political and economic convenience?

The author is exploring the Red and Black divide in Indian Country over the course of this three article series. Sunray is husband to an articulate and beautiful Kiowa/Ponca woman, father of four, is a full-time teacher in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, and a culturally connected and enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians. His entire personal, community, and professional life has been dedicated to issues of social justice.

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Michael Madrid's picture
We can’t scream, “I’M HUMAN TOO!” from the top of our lungs only to be surprised that some NDNs are/were racist. Racism is a LEARNED trait and guess who was doing the teaching back then? Racist statement? You bet your ass it was! It’s also pretty factual.
Michael Madrid