natural allies, intertwining tragedies

November 22, 2018
1.9K Picks

The water debacle in the city of Flint, Michigan and the proposed pipeline in Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas have brought similarities in the plights of African Americans and Native Americans into sharp historical focus. Today the U.S. government has continued to try to divide these allies by framing a clean water and health issue for both Native Americans and African Americans into a municipal mismanagement issue and a land-rights issue. The historically divisive policies of the U.S. government have continued to make people who should be natural allies into victims of intertwined tragedies.  

Policies enacted to create conflicts between Native Americans and African Americans started before the U.S. became country.  The stated goal was to keep Blacks and Indians “separated and mutually hostile.” Individual colonies encouraged this policy. Colonists in South Carolina were so worried about alliances between slaves and Indians that they passed laws in 1725 and 1751 prohibiting holding slaves near Native Americans on the frontier.  In 1758, South Carolina Governor James Glen stated, “It has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion of the Indians to the Negroes.” Virginia offered Indians who caught escaped slaves 35 deerskins as a reward. North Carolina rewarded Indians with three blankets and a musket.

White fear of the potent coalition was well founded. Uprisings involving slaves and Native Americans had been highly successful. The Yamasee War of 1715, a war carried out by a force of Yamasee, Muscogee, Cherokee and Shawnee Indians nearly cleared the Southeast of British settlers. One of the reasons for the conflict was British settlers selling Native Americans into slavery in the Caribbean.  Had it fully succeeded, as planned by a coalition of Indians and slaves, the Natchez Uprising in 1729 would have ended slavery in the entire Louisiana Territory, which would soon span one-third of the U.S. The first, second and third Seminole Wars (1816-1819, 1835-1842 and 1855-1858) ended in humiliating defeats for the U.S. Army at the hands of coalitions of Indians and escaped slaves.

Sitting Bull and family (photo: public domain)

The second and third Seminole wars were a continuation of a U.S. government policy started in 1830 by Andrew Jackson one of Trump’s heroes.  In 1830 then-President Jackson signed the Indian Relocation Act. This law rounded up and forced the relocation of many tribes including the Five Civilized Tribes to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. Jackson started this relocation with the Louisiana Choctaw, who called the relocation “a trail of nothing but tears and death.” This infamous relocation policy is still known as the Trail of Tears.

The Indian Relocation Act and Trail of Tears triggered a series of tragic events for African-American slaves. By the mid 1830s, with the majority of Native Americans west of the Mississippi, millions of acres of Indian land in the South opened up for cotton production. Slaves in the Upper South, the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri became highly valued commodities for Deep South cotton-producing states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana.  It suddenly became highly profitable to buy slaves in the Upper South and move them to the Deep South for sale. As hundreds of thousands of slaves were “sold down the river,” this movement of slaves became known as the Black Trail of Tears. Many slave families were broken up by sales “down the river,” never to be reunited. For many current-day African American genealogists this was the historical moment beyond which no trace of their family lines can be found.

The exception to the relocation and both the Native American Trail of Tears and the Black Trail of Tears was the powerful coalition of African Americans and Native Americans known as the Seminoles and Black Seminoles. The Seminoles and Black Seminoles remain the only group to successfully win and defend their freedom and hold onto their sovereign land through armed conflict with the U.S. Army before the end of slavery.

By the 1860s lands west of the Mississippi were in constant upheaval, due to Native American resistance. Plains Indians, especially the Lakotas, entered into pitched battles with white interlopers, settlers and the U.S. Army. Because of the need for troops to defend the Union in the Civil War, it was impossible for the U.S. Army to impose any coherent policy upon the Indians of the West. Another tragic intersection of Native American and African American history would occur after the Civil War.

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (photo: public domain)

In 1866 the Union Army sent troops into the South to enforce the rule of law and the rights of newly freed slaves. During Reconstruction African Americans made strides to change the slave society of the South.

In the West, Lakota Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse fought to stop the building of the Northeast Railroad across their land. Their successful resistance shut down construction. This shutdown spooked investors in Jay Cooke and Company, America’s largest bank and financial firm and holder of Northeast Railroad bonds. Investors began to sell their Northeast Railroad bonds, which caused Jay Cooke and Company to fail and declare bankruptcy. Other banks around the country, fearing more defaults began calling in their loans which contributed to the Panic of 1873.

The Panic of 1873 was the beginning of a six-year-long depression. During this time 89 of 364 railroad lines went out of business. Southern Democrats—slavery sympathizers, former Confederates, and ”Redeemers”—used the chaos caused by this depression,  by the contested Presidential elections of 1876 and by Native American uprisings in the West, to press for the remaining U.S. troops to be removed from the South.

Without U.S. troops to enforce it, by 1876 Reconstruction in the South was over. The dream of real Reconstruction—equality among citizens—was never realized. Southern Democrats seized control of state legislatures throughout the South and regained economic and social control of African Americans there.

Buffalo Soldier, 9th Cavalry, Denver (photo: public domain)

With the end of Reconstruction the redeployment of troops from the South concentrated U.S. Army efforts on the Indians in the West. They began to conduct a genocidal war against any tribe that resisted. By the 1880s the last bands of Plains Indians surrendered and were forced onto reservations. A noble people were reduced to paupers on tiny fractions of their ancestral land.  It is no coincidence that the rise of racism and terror against African Americans in the South began as Native Americans in the West were completely subdued.

A tragic irony of the redeployment of Army troops from the South to the West were the Buffalo Soldiers. (Buffalo Soldiers is the name Cherokees originally coined for the African American soldiers because of their hair looking like Buffalo hair.) Army service and pay was a huge opportunity for recently freed slaves and many freedmen joined the 10th Cavalry Regiment, in addition to the units that had been mustered during the Civil War. Western Indians respected Buffalo Soldiers as fierce warriors and often avoided engaging them in battle.  The bravery and fighting skill of the Buffalo Soldiers helped the U.S. Army subdue Native Americans in the West.

Black Army troops were used to destroy and intimidate the Native Americans just as Native Americans had been encouraged to turn in runaway slaves. Troops taken away from protecting rights of African Americans in the South during Reconstruction, were used to destroy and steal the land of Native Americans in the West.

Buffalo Soldiers in Montana (photo: public domain)

The U.S. government’s divisive policies separated the Native American fight for rights and land from newly freed slaves struggle for their own rights. Two natural allies, African Americans and Native Americans, were prevented from possibly forming coalitions that could have changed American history for the better.

This nation’s past is full of suppression, under-reporting and lack of representation of news on Native American and African American issues. Today, with a President and an administration that outright lies about events, we face similar circumstances — yet we also have no excuses. As informed consumers of history and current events, we must use our modern advantages to make sure modern-day divisive policies — such as travel bans, voter suppression and racist immigration acts — do not succeed. This would be a fitting way to reverse some of the tragedies and missed opportunities that Native Americans and African Americans have suffered throughout our intertwined history.