African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation

By Bays, Brad A. | Material Culture, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation


Bays, Brad A., Material Culture


African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation By Gary ZelUr Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. xix + 343 pp. Photographs, maps, list of abbreviations, notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-3815-2.

There is a maturing literature on the social relations of Native and African Americans and Gary Zellar's African Creeks is a valuable addition. This important book is remarkably well researched, the themes are clear and significant, and it is well written. Zellar examines the Creek Nation from removal to Indian Territory in the early 1830s to Oklahoma statehood in 1907, but his contribution is an analysis of the four decades beginning with the 1860s and pivoting on 1866. That year, in one fell swoop, the Creek Reconstruction treaty gave slaves freedom and full tribal citizenship. This event is what allowed the Estelvste - Muscogee Creek for black people - to enjoy "racial fluidity" on a metaphorical "racial frontier." Zellar argues that, as Creek citizens, the Estelvste were liberated from the postbellum racial caste system of the states and their identity allowed them mobility within Creek society. This ended quickly in the 1890s as allotment and statehood redefined them racially and introduced the southern system through Jim Crow.

The first chapter is long but swift, and moves from Creek prehistory to resettlement in the Indian Territory through the 1850s. Zellar provides context to events from early contact until the Civil War, explaining that Africans entered Creek society as slaves, but within southeastern Indian terms, which allowed them flexibility and mobility. This was a time in which the market economy and Christianity carved rifts in Creek culture to establish Upper (traditionalist) and Lower (progressive) divisions. But African slaves, familiar with Euro-American and Native worlds, served as interpreters and eventually accompanied their masters west in the early 1830s. There, for a time removed from institutionalized slavery, the Estelvste experienced a range of social fluidity. Some remained slaves of Lower Creek planters, but most enjoyed frontier liberty as farmers, traders, and preachers, occasionally intermarrying and raising families.

The American Civil War split the Creek Nation along factional lines as the Lower Creeks sided with the Confederacy and the Upper Creeks sought federal protection. Zellar's account of the African Creeks' role in the war recounts two major events: the 1861 flight to Kansas of Opothleyahola's mostly civilian Union Loyalists, and the Battle of Honey Springs, which returned northern Indian Territory to Union control in 1863. Opothleyahola evacuated a large number of African Creeks ahead of pursuing cavalries of Texas, Cherokee, and Lower Creek Confederates. Many African Creeks returned with the First Indian Home Guard and First Kansas Colored infantry and distinguished themselves at the Battle of Honey Springs and the retaking of Fort Gibson.

The Creek Reconstruction Treaty emancipated slaves in 1866 and required a new constitution that gave freedmen equal citizenship. Nevertheless, as was the case for the Five Tribes generally, the treaty favored pro-development former Confederates by inviting railroads and allotment. Creek traditionalists, who had been loyal during the war, rightly feared railroads and allotment. Here Zellar builds a case for cultural fluidity by showing that the Estelvste worked for both sides.

The most important contribution of the book involves the 1870s and 1880s. As the South shut down Reconstruction and returned African Americans to quasi-slavery, the Creek freedmen enjoyed increasing access to education, thriving communities and churches, and increasing political power. Overrepresented in the nation's House of Warriors, they often decided important votes, so Creek politicians curried their favor. The Creek legislature gave official status to three freedman towns: North Fork Colored, Canadian Colored, and Arkansas Colored. …

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