DON CHEADLE IS A STAR OF THE films Ocean's Eleven and Hotel Rwanda. He was stunned when it was revealed to him on American TV that several generations of his family had been the slaves of members of the Chickasaw Indian ethnic group (commemorated in the statue, right) in Oklahoma. At its height, more than 10,000 African-Americans were kept as slaves by Native Americans. "One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is the treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians," wrote the pioneering African-American historian, Carter G. Woodson, in 1920.
The Cheadles were owned by Jackson Kemp, a wealthy and powerful Chickasaw leader who was said to be so brutal that one in three of his slaves, fearful for their lives, fled at the very first opportunity. "It's crazy," Cheadle told Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard University professor who unearthed the actor's Chickasaw slave history for a TV programme on African-American genealogy.
Cheadle had played slaves in movies and played former slaves on television, but had no idea he had a unique link to slavery. "You feel like the two biggest blights on the way this country started (are) slavery and the genocide of Native Americans," he says.
For Cheadle, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a Hutu who saves Tutsis from genocide in the film Hotel Rwanda, it beggars belief that Indians who suffered so much at the hands of whites would participate in a system which caused Africans so much suffering. After all, Indians faced near genocide at the hands of whites and some, among them the Chickasaw, were forcibly removed from their fertile homeland in the American South and sent west to semi-arid Oklahoma by the US government to make room for white settlers.
"That's mind-blowing," says Cheadle, struggling to understand how Indians, oppressed by whites, became oppressors of blacks. But Kziah Love could help Cheadle understand. A former Chickasaw slave herself, Love told an interviewer in 1937, when she was 93 years old, what life had been like for an enslaved person in Indian Territory. "That was a sorry time for some poor old black folks," explained Love, who remembers living in fear of one particularly violent Indian slave owner.
"I believe he was the meanest man the sun ever shined [sic] on ... He was sho' bad to whup niggers ... He'd beat 'em most to death ... One time he got mad at his baby's nurse and he hit her on the head with some fire tongs and she died."
Almost everything American Indians knew about slavery, they learned from the European-descended people in the country. Within a short time of encountering natives in the American South, the Europeans altered their [natives] way of life beyond all recognition.
The Native Americans had been principally hunter-gatherers with their own spiritual and religious beliefs. Soon they were Christian converts who dressed and acted like whites. So much like the Europeans did the Chickasaw, the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Seminole become, the Europeans even called them, approvingly, "The Five Civilised Tribes".
But to be truly "civilised", Native Americans had to be convinced to become slave owners like the whites and view slavery as good and not an evil. It was the only way to protect and preserve an economic system built on human bondage. Thus did the Chickasaw and other natives embrace chattel slavery and become allies of the white slavers and enemies of enslaved Africans.
"It has always been the policy of this government," admitted the governor of South Carolina, James Glen, in 1758, "to create an aversion in Native Americans to negroes."
Alienating Africans from Native Americans was essential for the slave system to succeed in America, says historian William Loren Katz, author of the book, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. "Their acceptance of bondage was considered vital," he says. …