Ray Carter | December 7, 2021
Cherokee chief mocks Oklahoma’s anti-CRT efforts
As the Cherokee chief calls for “a full understanding of history,” some experts say that should include classroom instruction about the Cherokees’ participation in chattel slavery of black people, its participation in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, and its broken promises on treaties.
In a recent online post, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., mocked efforts to keep Critical Race Theory (CRT) out of Oklahoma classrooms.
“The solution in search of problem nonsense that is the ban on ‘critical race theory’ continues to sap time & energy and undermine efforts at seeking a full understanding of history and culture,” Hoskin tweeted on Nov. 26. “We’d waste less time banning unicorns.”
Hoskin’s tweet came in response to news regarding the implementation of House Bill 1775, which bans K-12 schools from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and other similar concepts broadly associated with Critical Race Theory.
In touting the need for a “full understanding of history and culture,” Hoskin echoed the arguments of many CRT supporters and/or opponents of HB 1775.
Ironically, one area where Oklahoma students are seldom provided “full understanding,” according to critics, is the Cherokee Nation’s participation in chattel slavery of black people and the tribe’s participation in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, alongside four other tribes—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Muscogee tribes.
Some experts say that chapter of history deserves much more classroom focus.
“In lifestyle and sometimes even physical appearance, many of the slave-owning Indians were indistinguishable from white southerners.” —Olivia DeWitt
“Although there were Indigenous people who integrated states of unfreedom within their communities, as other scholars have demonstrated, these were not exactly the same structures and processes as the practice of chattel slavery. And still, some members of the Five Tribes practiced chattel slavery in their southeastern communities and later on in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma),” said Celia E. Naylor, professor of Africana Studies at Columbia University and author of African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens.
“It is important for students in history classrooms, and for everyone, to understand the complexities of slavery in the U.S. and in Indigenous nations,” she said. “Without reckoning with the complexities of slavery in the past, we will continue to navigate the various iterations of the afterlives of slavery in the present day.”
A 2016 senior thesis by Olivia DeWitt at Southern Adventist University, “Red Masters & Their Black Slaves in a White Man’s War: The Five Civilized Tribes’ Relationship with the Confederacy in Light of Slavery,” highlighted how the Five Tribes’ slavery practices were strongly linked to their decision to ally with the Confederacy. DeWitt suggests history texts have too often downplayed the role of slavery within the tribes.
“History has largely ignored the enslavement of blacks by Indians before and during the Civil War, which some historians have called ‘one of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States,’” DeWitt wrote.
As with the larger white population, relatively few Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muscogee individuals owned black slaves, according to records, but a substantial number of slaves were nonetheless collectively owned by members of the Five Tribes.
The Oklahoma Historical Society reports, “By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the tribes’ members owned approximately ten thousand slaves.”
In a 2014 article, the Atlanta Black Star reported that Cherokees “held more Black slaves than any other Native American community. By 1860, the Cherokee had 4,600 slaves.”
Among the Cherokee Nation, DeWitt found 330 of the tribe’s 13,821 members owned 2,511 black slaves.
“In lifestyle and sometimes even physical appearance, many of the slave-owning Indians were indistinguishable from white southerners,” DeWitt wrote.
The Five Tribes’ cultural embrace of chattel slavery caused them to behave differently from all other tribes during the Civil War era, DeWitt found, writing that the Five Tribes “did not have political motives and were not forced into an alliance; the issue of slavery seems to have been motivation enough to ally against the Union.”
“Out of all the tribes residing in Indian Territory, only the five slave-owning tribes chose to ally and fight with the Confederacy,” DeWitt wrote.
Following the Civil War, the Five Tribes signed treaties promising to give citizenship to their former slaves (referred to as Freedmen) and their descendants. But critics note the tribes substantially failed to live up to those treaty promises.
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Tribes Association, credits the Cherokees with having begun to deal with the reality of the tribe’s history regarding slavery.
“Right now the tribe has a call out in order to get Freedmen people to provide historical materials to throw into a museum,” Vann said. “So I would say the Cherokee Nation is not trying to shy away from the past.”
The Cherokee Freedmen History Project is seeking historical materials, references, documents, and images to address gaps in representation and storytelling at all tribal sites.
Vann said some of the other Five Tribes continue to be far more resistant to recognizing Freedmen descendants. However, she also noted the Cherokees’ willingness to accept Freedmen is a relatively recent development.
“For so long, you had people like Chief (Chad) Smith that opposed Freedmen citizenship,” Vann said. “The attitude was kind of like, ‘We can do what we want to.’ It’s going to take time to get past those years that the treaty was not being followed.”
Smith was first elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1999 and went on to serve three terms before losing a bid for a fourth term in 2011.
Critics of HB 1775 argued the law would prevent teaching students about the history of racial strife in the United States, but supporters noted the bill explicitly authorizes teaching materials covered in Oklahoma’s state academic standards.
‘Teaching History in All of Its Complexities’
When he signed the bill into law, Gov. Kevin Stitt specifically noted, “We must keep teaching history in all of its complexities, and encourage honest and tough conversations about our past. Nothing in this bill prevents or discourages those conversations. In fact, this bill clearly endorses teaching to the Oklahoma Academic Standards, which were written by Oklahoma educators and include events like the Oklahoma City bombing, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the emergence of Black Wall Street, Oklahoma City lunch-counter sit-ins led by Clara Luper, and the Trail of Tears. We can and should teach this history without labelling a young child as an ‘oppressor,’ or requiring (that) he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex.”
Yet, while Oklahoma’s standards devote much focus to the plight of tribes forcibly relocated to the state, the plight of the Five Tribes’ slaves gets less attention.
The standards for Oklahoma History courses include a focus on “the motivations for removal of American Indians and the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830” that resulted in the infamous Trail of Tears where many members of the Five Tribes died during removal from ancestral lands.
But the Oklahoma History standards only include one reference to slavery in the Five Tribes and it occurs after the Civil War’s conclusion when teachers are told that students should be taught to summarize the “impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction Treaties on American Indian peoples, territories, and tribal sovereignty” with “required enrollment of the Freedmen” listed as one of six subcategories for that standard.
Oklahoma’s state academic standards include numerous references to slavery, including a requirement that students be taught about its role in the polarization that led to the Civil War, but nothing specifically notes that the only instances of legal slave ownership of black individuals in the history of Oklahoma occurred within the Five Tribes, not among white citizens.
While American Indian tribes, including members of the Five Tribes, endured much suffering and discrimination through the years, Vann noted the Five Tribes’ former slaves often endured worse than their former masters.
“After Oklahoma statehood, north Tulsa was burned down,” Vann said. “All the black people were run out of places like Davis, Oklahoma, I think Blackwell, Oklahoma, some places like that.”
She noted the same things “didn’t happen” in communities with substantial populations of American Indians, such as Stilwell or Ada. And, unlike their former slaves who often faced barriers to vote in state elections, officials from the Five Tribes soon held prominent positions of power in Oklahoma.
W.W. Hasting represented Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from March 4, 1915, to March 3, 1921, and from March 4, 1923, to January 3, 1935. Hasting was a Cherokee whose father served as a Confederate soldier.
Robert L. Owen represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate from 1907 until 1924. Owen was Cherokee.
Johnston Murray, a Chickasaw, served as governor of Oklahoma from 1951 to 1955.
Thus, Vann said the Freedmen and the Five Tribes had “totally different experiences” in the decades following the end of the Civil War throughout much of the first half of Oklahoma statehood.
Naylor said general history textbooks “still reflect the national amnesia about slavery in this country,” including black slavery as practiced by the Five Tribes.
“Our history books in the U.S. have not sufficiently addressed the issue of slavery and the existence and persistence of the slavocracy in U.S. history,” Naylor said. “Slavery has not been examined comprehensively whether we are considering enslavers and slavery in the Five Tribes or enslavers and slavery in the various regions of the United States itself.”
Vann said the debt owed by the Five Tribes to their former slaves often goes unmentioned as well, saying the death toll on the Trail of Tears would likely have been worse without the work of slaves.
“If these black people had not been chopping wood, building fires, doing the hard work on the Trail, maybe some of the other people would have had to work harder,” Vann said. “Their little bit of strength would have given out, and they would have died.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.