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The Plight of the Black Seminoles in US

Introduction

Seminoles resided transversely on the southeastern lands of USA for thousands of years. Seminoles is a mixture of different of tribes. Each tribe is distinctive and spoke its own form of a language known as Muskogee. It is estimated that around A.D. 1500, about half a million people used Muskogee language.

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Seminoles or Muskogee-speaking people lived in family groups known as clans. These clans had surnames like Deer or Bear. Within the same clan, no marriage was permitted. When a person is married, he will immediately move to his wife’s clan camp. Mother’s clan will be used to children born for a couple.

The main occupation of Seminole was agriculture and for sports purpose, they engaged in fishing and hunting. They trusted the Great Spirit and the Creator as god which they thought that it safeguarded them through their spiritual leaders like medicine men. Whenever Seminole fell sick, medicine men employed healing arts thereby helping people to recover from it.1

Healing arts included medicines made from natural elements, chants, songs and from plants. Seminoles utilized all most all parts of the animals they hunted. Hides of the animals were dried and used for shelter and clothing. Council meetings were used by Seminoles to frame laws, to find a solution to issues and to deliberate on other issues. Clan elders of each tribe used to govern the council meetings. These council meetings were used to frame rules for the tribe. The governing position for council was given on the hereditary basis.

If a Seminole has an extraordinary talent or wisdom, he may be chosen for governing position. Whenever there is a dispute, tribe members used to approach the council for resolving their disputes. The Seminole council is the supreme authority as it had power to punish those who had broken the rules.2

European Settlement

From 1500s onwards, many Europeans, mainly from Spain and England settled in Muskogee provinces. As a result, many battles happened between Seminoles and European settlers. The Europeans killed many Seminoles and took others as their slaves. The number of Seminoles died due to diseases spread by European was higher than that of those killed during wars. To escape from the European settlers, some Muskogee’s left their villages what is now called as Georgia to Northern Florida.

Muskogee villages were very proximate to creeks villages and hence European colonists named them as Creek Indians. The Spanish colonists called Muskogees as Cimarron, which connotes ‘untamed.’ The Muskogees in Florida liked to have the Spanish word ‘Cimarron’ as their name. In their language, this word became as ‘siminoli’ which also connotes ‘untamed.’ They were free or untamed since Europeans had never ruled them. From 1760 onwards, the English settlers in USA started to call Muskogees as Seminoles.

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Throughout 1700, the Seminole Indians lived quiet lives in many provinces of Florida. Florida based Seminoles had little contact with other Native Americans. Seminoles traded crops, animal skins and other foods with the European colonists. In the meanwhile, Great Britain, France and Spain fought over the control of Florida region. Many battles were fought, and over the years, each of the nations managed parts of Florida.3

The Seminole Wars

A battle was fought in 1813 between Muskogees in Alabama, which was then part of Mississippi Territory and U.S soldiers. The battle was over land claims between Seminoles and white settlers. This battle made thousands of Muskogees as homeless. Many Muskogees eluded to Florida and in collaboration with the Seminoles. Thereafter, peace prevailed in the region for some time. Many European settlers who lived in the southern states held African American slaves. Some of these slaves from Alabama and Georgia escaped their way to Florida. They mingled with the Seminoles, and they were called as black Seminoles.

When attempts by southern state slave owners to get back their black slaves who fled to Seminoles provinces in Florida, a fight broke out. The Spanish Florida was invaded by the US Army. This had been culminated as the First Seminole War (1817 -1818). The Spanish and the Seminoles fought back US Army, but in 1821, Spain gave up Florida to the United States. This paved the way for many American settlers to settle in Florida. The white settlers forced the Seminoles off their land in northern Florida.

The then United States government entered an agreement with Seminoles offering the land farther south. At that time, Seminole population had grown to about five thousand people. This Seminole population was comprised of other Muskogee-speaking people, people who have Seminole ancestry and Lower Creeks. 4

The Indian Removal Act

When Andrew Jackson was American president in 1830, the Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act. This law permitted the U.S. Government to offer land in West to Native Americans tribes who are residing in the eastern United States. This land, mostly situated in Oklahoma, was called as the Indian Territory. The tribes living in their land in the East had to give up their land to receive the land in West.

The law expressed that the tribes had an option about migrating to west from west. Major tribes living in the east including the Seminoles were compelled or maneuvered into surrendering their homelands.

The major upset came in 1832 when the United States sent government officials to Florida. These officials compelled Seminole chiefs to enter an agreement giving up all Seminole land in Florida. The Seminoles were given three year time for moving to Oklahoma. Though they would be given land in the Indian Territory, but they had to enjoy it with other Muskogee tribes.5

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The U.S government agreed to pay a $56 million as compensation to the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma in 1991 towards the cost of lands seized in Florida. This has kindled a legal strife between Black Seminole decedents in Oklahoma and the Seminole nation. The Seminole nation tried to exclude black Seminoles from payment of compensation though the 1866 agreement clearly indicated that Black Seminoles as full members of the nation. Descendants of Black Seminoles from Florida now settled in Oklahoma, Mexico, Texas and the Bahamas.6

Seminole War

Unfortunately, the agreement which forced Seminoles to move to Oklahoma was ambiguous and did not specify in clear terms when the three year period would commence. That created a misapprehension over which year the Seminoles had to leave Florida. Moreover, many Seminoles declined to leave from Florida. This paved to the IInd Seminole War. (1835-1842).

The IInd Seminole War continued for seven years. About fifteen hundred soldiers were lost in the war on American side and about $ 40 million was spent for war. Overall, three thousands Seminoles were forced to settle in the Indian Territory leaving their homeland in Florida. The resettlement was very ordeal as Seminoles had to cross the Mississippi River by boat and then had to travel on land to reach the Indian Territory.7

OSCEOLA (ca. 1804-1838)

Osceola was a hero of Seminoles. He was a powerful Seminole warrior in both the first and second Seminole wars. By way of a trick, the U.S. Army invited Osceola for a peace talk in 1837. With olive branch on hand, Osceola and others were apprehended by U.S Army and was imprisoned. Osceola died in 1838 in prison. He was one the most courageous and revered Seminole leader of his day. All over the world, the newspapers flashed his death.8

Black Seminoles

Black Seminoles are the offspring’s of the slaves from Africa who fled tea plantations in the 1700s and mingled with stripes of refugees of Native American to figure the Seminole society in Florida. Some of the black who took refugee with Seminoles was kept as sharecroppers or slaves while some other served as leaders and warriors in the wars against the whites. Some married to Seminoles women.

Due to Seminole Removal Act, by 1860, all most all the Seminoles were migrated to Oklahoma. In 1866, government entered into a treaty agreement with Seminole leaders that recognized black Seminole as a part of the Seminole Nation and at the start of the 19th century , the U.S. Government started to distribute tribal allotments among all Seminoles.

Although it is uncertain that how many black Seminoles did participate in tribal life , they lived quietly with other members of the tribe until 1976 when a court ordered the U.S. government to ‘compensate’ the Seminole Nation for the land grabbed from them in Florida.

Subsequent government study revealed that about $ 52 million in housing, clothing and medical benefits was to be given to the Seminoles as majority of them lived in utter poverty. Further, government announced that the compensation will be given only to those descendants of the Indians, who originally possessed title to the land.9

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Now, US government is attempting to sort out the issue –whether Black Seminole are having analogous privileges as their native Seminole. The main issues at the hand are whether black Seminoles have the right to elect to the council of tribal , the privilege to franchise in tribal election and the privilege to have their portion in the $42 million compensation announced by the Congress in 1990s for their removal from Florida in 1800’s which made them to relocate in Oklahoma.

The tribal council made a resolution not to recognize about 1500 Blacks Seminoles the privilege to participate in council for tribal who cannot map out at least twenty-five percent of their lineage to native people. Further, black Seminoles devoid of at least 17% of natives cannot exercise their franchises in elections to tribal council or share in the $52 million in compensations. The constitution of tribal was changed to mirror the difference between blood tribe members and Black.10

Agitated by the action of Seminole’s council, the black Seminoles who comprised one-tenth of the Oklahoma Seminoles, filed a suit for a share in the settlement in 1996. In the year 2001, a judge held that black Seminoles were part and parcel of the Seminole population.11

The question, whether Seminole council can lawfully refuse federal compensation to the black Seminole will be determined in an intimately observed federal law suit recognized as Sylvia Davis vs. The United States. This case is too important for observers as it going to answer the American varied cultural past is covered over by the saga of ethnic and racial cleanliness.12

Sylvia Davis was the affiliate of the council for tribal when she put on for $125 of the federal funds to purchase garments for his son, who was just going to join in a school. Her demand was denied by the tribal authorities on the basis that they never belonged to ‘Seminole blood ‘and lack eligibility for federal money. Further, many disabled and aging black Seminoles were refused for medical care and other benefits offered by Federal government which other Seminoles enjoyed freely. Ms. Davis questioned the exclusion of blacks for federal grants, she was informed by the local official that the black Seminoles were not part of the Seminoles and have to return to Africa.13

Modern Americans may be wondered to discern that tribes of Native American had any black associates in their tribes. Though, the black Seminoles posed them as slaves to shun arrest, they were, in reality, complete tribal inhabitants from the early start.

Though, Seminole tribe’s council has the authority to settle on about the membership, that authority is restricted by its accords with the Federal government. It is to be recalled that the 1866 accord between the United States and Seminoles, the Black Seminoles were recognized as full tribe members. Further, the Seminoles tribe’s charter cannot be amended without endorsement from federal government and so far, the federal government has not given its approval for the changes that negate the privileges of Black Seminoles.

The Seminole Nation Council registered a case against the decision of U.S government. It also went for fresh voting for tribal posts, permitting only native Seminoles to franchise. However, Ken Chambers, who was an indirect sibling of Seminole, was chosen as the leader, “the Bureau of Indian Affairs” continued to recognize erstwhile Chief Jerry Haney and is keeping back reparation funds from the tribe. Citing the pending litigation, the Federal officials refused to comment on the happenings.14

Even today, there exist tensions between blood and Black Seminoles when an altercation between two leaders paved to battles among their loyalists. It was the contention of the Chief

Chambers that when Blacks ran away to Florida to getaway from their White owners, it was Seminoles, who protected them and the deuce traditions never mixed really. Chamber alleged that Blacks never had identical privileges within the clan, and they are not permitted to claim their share of compensation.

However, Black Seminoles criticized this and asserted that Seminoles past was interlaced with Blacks. Black Seminoles alleged that unlike other clans in US, the Seminoles were an assorted cluster of refugees of Native American – comprised of members of dissimilar tribes who fled White encroachers by flooding into Florida’s deluges around 1700s. Later, runaway Black slaves from orchards in Georgia and South Carolina bonded with them and jointly, they raised communities in the deluges and finally developed into the present Seminoles.

Black Seminoles admit that their ancestors may be black but the present generation is very a Seminole as all Black Seminoles speak the native language namely Muskogee. Moreover, they follow the traditional eating styles Seminoles and some of the Black Seminoles even sat on the tribal council’s earlier.15.

Today, efforts are being made to release the balance $30 million either in the form of provisions or cash, awaiting admission of the black Seminoles as full voting members of the tribe’s council16.

This definitive illustration of SP identity politics gives birth to thoughtful doubts about the association between ethnicity and race.

However, tribal council members are denying that vote to dismiss the black Seminoles was about race but affirms that Indian tribal identity is associated to a blood –based notion of nationhood. When it is pointed out that black Seminoles seemed to be related by blood, it was pointed out that it was decided by the council on the democratic and majority rule basis. It was argued that tribe does have an intrinsic right to decide who its members are.

Black Seminoles case is more or less analogues to the banishment of Evangelical Indians residing in the New Mexico Pueblan reservations.( Ingram ,2000,p.116). It is to be noted that right to expel persons from a tribal association is dependent on many elements. It is rationalized only when a) those being expelled are regarded by the tribal associations as an external danger to the association and its cultural uniqueness. B) Feasible exit options are existing to those being barred.17

However, in the case of black Seminoles, their expulsion from the tribe refuses the required provisions, thereby stripping them of a feasible exit option. More significantly , expulsion appears tot be morally unfair as the black Seminoles pose no threat to the identity of the community as in the case of New Mexico Pueblan evangelicals.18

The Seminoles council’s appeal to ‘blood quantum’ not taken into account that this racial notion was inflicted on Native American tribes in opposition to their aspirations by the U.S. government to restrict land title claims as much as possible as only “ pure bloods “ were eligible to be qualified for full allotments under the General Allotment Act of 1887. It is to be noted that prior to their contact with whites, racial ideas of tribal membership were alien to tribes. It was a normal practice followed by tribal to adopt children, women and even men, whether from non-white or white was a normal practice prevailed among tribal.19

Further, in Oklahoma, where majority the Seminoles were residing, the occupants- Indian, white, black and –almost resided, employed and were entombed jointly until the birth of state government. Then, the fresh State Charter made fundamental separation in the earlier incorporated Seminole culture. Thus, due to this, every Oklahoma residents were segregated into ‘freedmen’ and ‘blood Indians.’ This is a colorable segregation in majority clans but an obvious infringement of annals for the Seminoles, who were racial from the start.

The malice against black Seminoles can be partially demonstrated by ethnic self-disgust and lack of knowledge of history. However, the court papers submitted in relation with the federal proceedings indicate that at least some officers in the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” may have connived with tribal chiefs to conceal the omission of blacks from Congress, which was to be honored by accord provisions to consider the black Seminoles as associates of the clan when it granted compensation to Seminoles of Florida.20

Bibliography

David Ingram. Rights, Democracy, and Fulfillment in the Era of Identity Politics. New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004.

Davies, Carole Boyce. Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora. New York: ABC –CLIO, 2008.

Jeff Guinn. Our Land before We Die- the proud story of the Seminole Negro. New York: The Penguin Group, 2002.

Daniel Littlefield. Africans and Seminoles: From Removal to Emancipation. West Port Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Bruce Edward Twyman.The Black Seminole legacy and North American politics, 1693-1845. Washington DC. Howard University Press, 1999.

Kevin Mulroy. The Seminole Freedman A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

Jet Magazine, “Black Seminoles in Oklahoma Fight For Equal Rights in Tribe.” Jet Magazine, 2002, P 35-36.

Staples, Brent, “The Seminole Tribe, Running From History. “ New York Times, 2002.

Wilcox, Charlotte. The Seminoles. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2006.

Footnotes

  1. Charlotte Wilcox, “The Seminole “, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2006), 5.
  2. Ibid, 5.
  3. Charlotte Wilcox, “The Seminole “, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2006), 9.
  4. Charlotte Wilcox, “The Seminole “, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2006), 10.
  5. Ibid, 12.
  6. Carole Boyce Davies. “Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora.” (New York: ABC –CLIO, 2008,194.
  7. Charlotte Wilcox, “The Seminole “, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2006), 15.
  8. Charlotte Wilcox, “The Seminole “, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publication Company, 2006), 14.
  9. David Ingram. “Rights, Democracy, and Fulfillment in the Era of Identity Politics. (New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004), 56.
  10. Jet. Magazine. “Black Seminoles in Oklahoma Fight For Equal Rights in Tribe”. New York: Johnson’s Publication. 2002, 35.
  11. David Ingram. “Rights, Democracy, and Fulfillment in the Era of Identity Politics. (New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004), 57.
  12. Staples, Brent. “The Seminole Tribe, Running From History. “ New York Times, 2002, C12.
  13. Staples, Brent. “The Seminole Tribe, Running From History. “ New York Times, 2002.
  14. Jet. Magazine. “Black Seminoles in Oklahoma Fight For Equal Rights in Tribe”. New York: Johnson’s Publication. 2002, 35.
  15. Jet. Magazine. “Black Seminoles in Oklahoma Fight For Equal Rights in Tribe”. New York: Johnson’s Publication.2002, 36.
  16. David Ingram. “Rights, Democracy, and Fulfillment in the Era of Identity Politics. (New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004), 57.
  17. David Ingram. “Rights, Democracy, and Fulfillment in the Era of Identity Politics. (New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 2004), 57.
  18. Ibid, 57.
  19. Ibid, 57.
  20. Staples, Brent. “The Seminole Tribe, Running From History. “ New York Times, 2002

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