Thanks to racist policies in the early 20th century, a part of the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma, has found itself in the middle of a racial tug of war. Members of the tribe with African roots are finding themselves in danger of being disenfranchised from the tribe to which they have been fiercely loyal for centuries.
Known as the Freedmen, the “black Indians” have been a part of the Seminoles’ proud history and have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with tribal members since before the tribe was called the Seminoles.
In recent years, the strong tie between those with African roots and a group of “blood” Seminoles has become strained, so strained in fact that after passing a referendum to disenfranchise the Freedmen, the Seminole Nation found its tribal council was no longer going to be recognized by the federal government until Freedmen rights were restored.
Lena Shaw, a member of the Freedmen band, is proud of her heritage. She readily recounts the history of the culture that eventually became known as the Seminole.
“At one time the Seminole roll was one, because they were all members of the tribe,” Shaw said. “Not necessarily slaves as many like to throw around.”
Shaw has learned the oral tradition of her people and the history she recounts is backed up by research she has done on her own from historical accounts and government documents. She is quick to make sure that listeners understand that Freedmen were not the slaves of the Seminole people, but were neighbors and friends and comrades in arms.
“The Seminoles, people of different races and colors and all, came together to help the Spanish keep the U.S. government out of what is now Florida,” Shaw explained. “There were all different groups, even different Native American tribes down there, as well as people of African descent that helped the Seminoles and the Spanish who tried to keep America from taking Florida. The United States was of course successful in taking Florida and then they had to deal with the Seminoles. Those people of African descent were still with the Seminoles. It is true that some of the Seminoles as well as the people, who are called Seminoles today, came into Florida along with people of African descent.
“There were slave owners who believed that their slaves had gone into Florida and that the Indians were protecting them,” Shaw continued. “Now I’m not saying that didn’t happen, but that wasn’t the case with all of them. Some of those people came over with the Spanish people to Florida. In order for the slave owners to try to get these people of African descent out of Florida, a pact was made.
“In order to keep the American people from taking the people of African descent from them, they decided to say ‘We’re your slaves.’ The Seminoles never treated the people of African descent as slaves; they were really equals. In fact one of them, Abraham, a famous interpreter, went with the Seminoles to Washington, DC to interpret the treaty of 1833. As you can see the relationships were very strong and the ties were very strong.
“These people were smart enough to stay together. They fought wars, suffered, bled and died together, people of African descent with the Seminoles. That bond was very strong.
“‘Seminole’ doesn’t mean a person who is what they call a ‘blood’ Indian; Seminole means people of culture,” Shaw said. “There were black people, there were Indian people from different tribes, there were Spanish people, all of these people were considered to be Seminoles. But in this day in time, this younger generation just bandy that word around very, very loosely. That doesn’t hurt me because I know that they just don’t know their history.”
What does hurt Shaw and other Freedmen is the fact that the heritage with which they have grown up is in danger of being legally taken away from them by what Shaw terms a minority within the tribe.
“They want to consider the Freedmen as their former slaves,” she said sadly. “But they never were treated as the Seminoles’ slaves, never in this world. We all came to Oklahoma together and got along well for many, many years.”
In their early years in the Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma, the Seminole were treated as one group. It was not until the early 1900’s that changes began taking place, and the anti-black movement of segregation known as the Jim Crow laws reared its ugly head within the Seminole Nation.
“When the Curtis Act came in to being, the government decided to separate the people of African descent, regardless of how much blood they had in them from what they called ‘blood’ Seminoles,” Shaw explained.
The Freedmen lost the ‘head’ money they had once received as tribal members and the initial separation from their comrades and tribal members opened into an ever widening split between tribal members.
“Oklahoma became a state and they wanted to open up the lands for other people,” Shaw continued. “So in order to do that the restriction was lifted from everybody that was not one-half Seminole blood. That was done in order for the settlers to get more land. The lands were taken away then. After that there were no black Seminoles, white Seminoles or Spanish Seminoles, there were only ‘blood’ Seminoles.”
The breakdown of the Seminole culture, Shaw said, was further escalated when the Dawes rolls began.
“For whatever reason, we believe it was because of the Jim Crow laws and segregation, they separated those of African descent,” Shaw said.
Pictures from the pre-Jim Crow era add weight to Shaw’s beliefs; black, white and Indian students all stare into a turn of the century camera lens that documented the students of one Oklahoma Indian school.
“They all went to school together until segregation became a law,” she said.
The continuing push to keep the Freedmen and Seminoles apart by the government was successful. Even today the two groups struggle to share their history.
“I don’t know why America has treated us so badly, but they have,” Shaw said. “The Indians went to the white schools and the blacks had to go to separate schools. That is the reason why I feel that even today America is still discriminating against us. It appears that even in the Seminole Nation, the federal government knows that wrong is there, but they chose to do nothing.”
Shaw admires Chief Jerry Haney for understanding the history of the two groups and for trying to unite them in the wake of a vote by a federally unrecognized tribal council to kick the Freedmen out of the Seminole Nation. She believes that the greed of a few may mean the end of a centuries-long tie between the black and “blood” Seminoles.
Although the Freedmen have not seen the federal money that assists in everyday living or health care since the days of the old “head” money, they were allowed to have a share of tribal monies earned from various enterprises. When Indian gaming opened up new sources of revenue for the tribe, tribal rolls suddenly began to restrict who was or was not considered to be a Seminole.
When asked in August 2000 why the tribe changed its enrollment policy, Seminole Nation Enrollment Officer Jane McKane confirmed that although the Freedmen are enrolled members of the tribe, they are not provided the same services as tribal members with Seminole blood. The Freedmen did, however, have the right to vote in tribal elections, a right Shaw says they no longer have.
Part of the reasoning behind the changes in enrollment, McKane said, was because of the low blood quantum in those applying for membership in the tribe. “The blood quantum was getting so low that the people who were enrolling weren’t even interested in the tribe. They (the election committee) felt like we were really getting people with no Indian blood. That may be happening from now on I think, because of marriages to non-Indians.”
The exclusion of the Freedmen has become a battle between the BIA and the Seminole Nation. Since the tribe did not receive BIA approval to exclude the Freedmen from the election, the vote was considered illegal. BIA still officially recognizes the formerly elected council and Chief Jerry Haney as tribal leader.
At that election, Shaw said she attempted to vote; she was given a special ballot that was not accepted by the voting machine but instead put into a separate container. “I don’t know what happened to my ballot,” she said. “I don’t even know if it was counted.”
A recent press release announced that the Department of Interior has given limited recognition to the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma and allowed the tribe to keep a Head Start program open until the end of the year, through third-party administration. Both Haney and Shaw believe the agreement was made without the knowledge of the regional BIA office; they point to the fact that it was the DOI, not the BIA that allowed the program to remain open. Haney doesn’t believe that the small concession will change anything in the current deadlock between the tribe and the federal government.
Haney is not in charge these days. Instead, he has been excluded from any executive decisions and ordered by the tribal council now sitting not to act as the tribe’s leader. He said that all he wants is whatever is in the best interest of the tribe. Haney has no intention of running for office again, but wants to see his tribe once again recognized by the federal government, something that isn’t happening now.
“I won’t run again,” Haney said. “I was in tribal government for twelve years. I sometimes think that tribal government service can be like dog years, so really I was in it for thirty six years.”
Haney added that he doesn’t believe the tribal government can continue to circumvent the Seminole constitution by changing it without federal approval.
Although some Freedmen have decided to prove their Indian blood for formal recognition in the tribe, Shaw isn’t opting for that provision. “I am what I am,” she said. “I am what I am and that is the way I want to remain. They had the chance long ago, but they wanted us to stay with them. In Article 2 of the 1866 Treaty, we are named there because they wanted to keep us.”
Shaw goes one step further by saying that she doesn’t believe that the Freedmen can be thrown out of the tribe without an act of Congress, no matter what a few tribal members may think. She also sees the movement to do that as a small one. Her relationship with other Seminole members has remained as strong as her resolve to proudly remain a Freedman.
“The Seminoles were some of the first people to have integration, over four hundred years ago,” Shaw concluded. “I think that is remarkable. I’m not a betting woman, but I bet the Congress will not revoke that treaty.”