The Paradox of Freedom: Tribal Sovereignty and Emancipation during the Reconstruction of Indian Territory

By Saunt, Claudio | The Journal of Southern History, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Paradox of Freedom: Tribal Sovereignty and Emancipation during the Reconstruction of Indian Territory


Saunt, Claudio, The Journal of Southern History


IN 1937 NINETY-THREE-YEAR-OLD KIZIAH LOVE OF COLBERT, OKLAHOMA, told Jessie Ervin, a field-worker from the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, about her years as a slave. "I can recollect things that happened way back better than I can things that happen now," said the blind and bedridden Love. With particular emotion she recalled her emancipation more than seventy years earlier. Ervin recorded her words in stylized English: "I was glad to be free. What did I do and Say? Well, I jest clapped my hands together and said, 'Thank God Almighty, I'se free at last!'" (1) Love resembled the four million other slaves in North America who celebrated the end of the Civil War, but her story differed from theirs in one fundamental way. She had been enslaved by Indians in the Choctaw Nation, and her emancipation came at the insistence of a foreign and colonial government, the United States.

Several scholars have skillfully chronicled the lives of bondpeople in Indian Territory, but the work has not yet been incorporated into the wider fields of Native American and Reconstruction history. (2) In accounts of Native American history, slavery and emancipation receive scant attention, and imprecise use of language by academics often obscures slaves held by Indians. (3) One historian, for example, fails to include the 18 percent of enslaved Chickasaws in his accounting of wartime refugees in that nation. Another writes that after the Civil War "[t]he Cherokees had lost almost everything but their land, and it was stripped of fences, horses and mills." Clearly these Cherokees do not include the 15 percent who gained their freedom. A third also overlooks the emancipation of slaves: "All the prosperity of the year 1861 had disappeared; the Cherokees were back virtually where they had been in 1839 when they were dispossessed, divided, and driven from their ancient homeland." (4)

These quotations imply that Chickasaw or Cherokee history treats Chickasaws or Cherokees but not their slaves, just as Reconstruction history once comprised only white southerners. Yet it cannot be denied that slaves made up a significant percentage of the population in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and therefore must be included in accounts of the history of the Five Tribes (the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and Seminoles). Inexact yet revealing population statistics illustrate the magnitude of the peculiar institution in the slave-holding nations of Indian Territory. At the outbreak of the Civil War a minimum of 10 percent of the Creek population was enslaved. Among the Choctaws at least 14 percent of the population was in bondage, and among the Cherokees the number may have surpassed 15 percent. On the far end of the spectrum, the Chickasaws enslaved fully 18 percent of their population. The Seminoles represent a special case. Although by one contemporary estimate nearly 30 percent of the population was enslaved, the line between slavery and kinship was less clear in this nation than in any other in Indian Territory. (5) In total, the enslaved population in the Five Tribes numbered perhaps as many as ten thousand. (6)

Like the literature on Native Americans, Reconstruction historiography has also largely overlooked the ex-slaves of the Five Tribes. Classic works by William A. Dunning, E. Merton Coulter, W. E. B. Du Bois, and John Hope Franklin do not discuss the fate of these freedpeople. Neither do more recent monographs. Eric Foner's prizewinning book on Reconstruction, summing up a generation of innovative work, mentions former slaves of Indians only parenthetically. (7) Even though the Civil War greatly affected the lives of Indians' slaves, accounts of the conflict in the West scarcely refer to them. (8)

This article will bring to bear on both Native American and Reconstruction historiography insights drawn from the history of ex-slaves in Indian Territory. The incorporation of ex-slaves into the study of Native Americans exposes a significant internal debate within native tribes about the meaning of freedom. …

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