Annual Meeting Preview: “Contested Communities: Rethinking Relations between African Americans and Native Americans during the Nineteenth Century”

This session takes place on Thursday, April 4, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting and is solicited by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and Histories.
#AM3179

Chair and Commentator: Mekala Audain, The College of New Jersey

The Romanticized Trope of “Indians” in Black Abolitionists' Fight for Citizenship in 1830s and 1840s
Arika Easley-Houser

Can People of African Descent be Settlers?: Envisioning Freedom in the West as Imperialism by Proxy
Alaina Roberts, University of Pittsburgh

“To Do Something Among Themselves, By Themselves, and For Themselves”: Education Activism by Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedpeople in the Long 19th Century
Nakia Parker, University of Texas at Austin

“Contested Communities: Rethinking Relations between African Americans and Native Americans during the Nineteenth Century”

This panel, “Contested Communities: Rethinking Relations between African Americans and Native Americans during the Nineteenth Century,” was organized to honor the work of 2018 Huggins-Quarles Prize winner, Nakia D. Parker. It is an auspicious time for such a panel, as relations between African Americans and Native Americans, and the intricacies of Native American identity and mixed-race identity have recently been in the news, from the Cherokee Freedmen’s successful court case last year and the Creek Freedmen’s new, analogous case filing, to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s dubious claims of Native ancestry. Many Americans are now interested in exploring the complexities of Native American and African American identity and citizenship politics.

The field of Black-Indian history has grown substantially since Daniel Littlefield, William Loren Katz, and Jack Forbes wrote some of the first works on the topic in the late 1970s. A cadre of primarily Black female historians: Tiya Miles, Celia Naylor, Faye Yarbrough, and Barbara Krauthamer, as well as Claudio Saunt, David Chang, highlighted gender, capitalism, and interracial sex as lenses through which to understand the history of Black slavery among the Five Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations). Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds, edited by Tiya Miles and Sharon Holland, would provide an illuminating introduction to this field for the uninitiated. This panel builds on the foundation of these scholars by examining three facets of Black-Indian history that have yet to be fully unraveled: land claims and settlement, education, and rhetoric.

While previous scholars have compared white abolitionists’ work against Indian Removal and for Indian rights with their work on behalf of Black emancipation and rights, Dr. Easley-Houser’s paper, “The Romanticized Trope of ‘Indians’ in Black Abolitionists' Fight for Citizenship in 1830s and 1840s,” treads new academic ground in centering Black abolitionists and their own rhetoric and strategies regarding citizenship and autonomy. Part of this strategy involved casting African Americans as civil members of an orderly society, in contrast to Native Americans.

Ms. Parker and Dr. Roberts’ papers both excavate the experiences of Chickasaw and Choctaw freedpeople, a group less studied than their counterparts in the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations. During the post-Reconstruction period, Chickasaw and Choctaw freedpeople largely had to advocate for themselves, for social programs and access to education, land, and citizenship. Ms. Parker’s paper, “‘To Do Something Among Themselves, By Themselves, and For Themselves’: Education Activism by Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedpeople in the Long 19th Century,” demonstrates that freedpeople utilized the politics of respectability to portray themselves as industrious and deserving, and in doing so mobilized their own communities to finance their own venues of education.

The Chickasaw freedpeople who populate Dr. Roberts’ paper, “Can People of African Descent be Settlers?: Envisioning Freedom in the West as Imperialism by Proxy,” also used respectability to make a claim of deservedness. After tending Chickasaw land with their blood, sweat, and tears, Chickasaw freedpeople were willing to negotiate with the U.S. government to supersede Indian sovereignty and portray themselves as more hardworking than Native people, if it meant they could create their own vision of freedom through landownership. As part of a larger book project, Dr. Roberts will further explore the land claims of not only people of African descent, but also white settlers, and the Five Tribes, who created narratives of Indigeneity that overtook the claims of the Native people who resided in Indian Territory before their arrival in the Removal Era.

Together, these papers consider the ways in which people of African descent in the nineteenth century sought rights and belonging in Native spaces and against the backdrop of Native representations. We hope that these papers and accompanying discussion will spur attendees to question their ideas about citizenship, education and advocacy, and racialized space.


Alaina Roberts, University of Pittsburgh

Posted: December 14, 2018
Tagged: Previews, Conference, OAH Works, AfAm