American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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African Americans

Mixed genealogy between African Americans and Native Americans is not unusual. For example, Crispus Attucks, son of an African American father and a Massachuset Indian mother, was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, the first death in the cause of the American Revolution. Attucks' father was a black slave in a Framingham, Massachusetts, household until about 1750, when he escaped and became a sailor. Attucks' mother lived in an Indian mission at Natick, Massachusetts.

Poet Langston Hughes, singer Tina Turner, actor James Earl Jones, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson all have some black–American Indian ancestry, although their specific tribal affiliations are not known. The Pequot founders of Foxwoods, in Connecticut, the largest Indian casino in the United States, are mixed African-Indian, a fact that has provoked some critics to challenge their Indian bona fides (Benedict, 2000).

The notable abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on a farm on Lewiston Road, Tuckahoe, near Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland, in February 1818. He was the son of an unknown European-American father and Harriet Bailey, a slave who may have been partially Native American. No traces remain of the Native tribe or nation with which he may share ancestry. As a boy, Douglass's owner, Aaron Anthony, referred to him as his "little Indian boy."

In some cases, Native Americans and escaped slaves made common cause with Native Americans in sizable groups. One such example is the black Seminoles, who are sometimes called Seminole maroons by ethnologists, who live today mainly in Oklahoma, Texas, the Bahamas, and Coahuila, Mexico. Their ancestors were runaways from the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia between the late seventeenth and mideighteenth centuries who sought refuge in Spanish-controlled Florida. The name "Seminole," derived from the Spanish word cimaroon, meaning "fugitive" or "wild one," was incorporated into the Native language. The word "maroon," in English, stems from the same Spanish word.

Fugitive slaves from Charleston arrived in Spanish St. Augustine, Florida, as early as 1687, where many began new lives as free men and women in a multicultural community. Some of the men worked as cartwrights, jewelers, butchers, and innkeepers, while women were employed as cooks and laundresses. Some owned small businesses. In 1838, the Spanish authorities established a settlement for escaped slaves, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, where roughly 100 men, women, and children came into contact with various bands of Native Americans living nearby.

The Seminoles, originally one of the five Civilized Tribes (the others being the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek) were chased into Florida in 1818 by armed forces under the command of General (and later U.S. President) Andrew Jackson. Florida was under Spanish jurisdiction (the area was ceded to the United States in 1821), and the invasion provoked a diplomatic furor. The Seminoles, many of whom were descended from Creeks, had elected to ally themselves with the Spanish rather than the United States, an act of virtual treason in General Jackson's eyes.

Jackson's pretext for invading Florida (over Spanish diplomatic objections) was the pursuit of freed slaves as well as the Seminoles. For several decades, escaped slaves made common cause with the Seminoles, sometimes mingling and at other times establishing a separate identity and preserving their own cultures and traditions. In the meantime, the Seminoles fought the U.S. Army to a stalemate. To avoid capture, the black Seminoles developed skills at guerilla warfare. They also became very adaptable, finding ways to survive in new environments, such as the Florida Everglades, that other people regarded as uninhabitable or marginal.

In addition, the Seminoles gave shelter to escaped slaves. The pretext of Jackson's raid thus was the recovery of stolen human property. After the U.S. purchased Florida from Spain, slave-hunting vigilantes invaded the area en masse, killing Seminoles as well as blacks. Later, in the 1830s, when President Jackson proposed to remove the Seminoles to Indian Territory, they refused. Moving deep into the swamps of southern Florida (an area that ironically was being used as a removal destination for other Native peoples), the Seminoles fought U.S. Army troops to a bloody stalemate during seven years of warfare. They were never defeated, and they never moved from their new homeland.

In 1823, Seminole leaders agreed to the Treaty of Moultrie Creek that ceded land and created reservations for the Seminoles. Later, as a result of U.S. removal policies, the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832) required all Seminoles to leave Florida for Indian Territory within three years. According to the treaty, Seminoles with African American blood were to be sold into slavery.

Escaped slaves joined the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), a guerilla campaign during which the blacks served prominent roles as advisors, spies, and intermediaries. At one point, General Thomas S. Jesup said it was "a Negro and not an Indian War." Jesup eventually promised the former slaves freedom if they would emigrate to the Indian Territory as part of the Seminole nation.

The war against the Seminoles was one of the most expensive Indian campaigns that the U.S. Army had waged to that time. In addition to the 1,500 soldiers killed (one for every two Seminoles eventually removed to Indian Territory), the government spent an average of $6,500 for each Native person transferred to Indian Territory. At a time when the average job paid less than $1,000 a year, this amount represented a small fortune.

Following the First and Second Seminole Wars (1817–1818 and 1835–1842), some of the black Seminoles escaped to the Bahamas. Others were separated from their Native American allies and transported to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), where they became known as Freed-men. Some moved to Mexico where their descendents, known as Indios Mascogos, still live. After the Civil War, some black Seminoles moved to Texas, where, during the 1870s and 1880s, they served with the U.S. Army on the Texas frontier as the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. Today, members of the black Seminole community in Texas refer to themselves as Seminoles to set themselves apart from other blacks and to emphasize the pride that they have in their unique history of having escaped slavery.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Black Indians: An American Story. No date. A documentary film directed by Chip Richie, produced by Steven R. Heape, written by Daniel Blake Smith, and narrated by James Earl Jones. Available at: _Indians_An_American_ Story.htm; Benedict, Jeff. 2000. Without Reservation: The Making of America's Most Powerful Indian Tribe and Foxwoods, the World's Largest Casino. New York: HarperCollins.; CCNY Libraries. 1998. "The Black Seminoles' Long Road to Freedom." Available at: Accessed January 9, 2007.; Forbes, Jack D. 1993. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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