The ugly truth about slavery

ca. 1860s, Near Savannah, Georgia, USA --- Slave Family In Cotton Field near Savannah --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

IN the last week of September 2013, the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Centre at Norfolk State University (NSU) held a conference called ‘1619: The Making of America’.
That year is historically significant because it was the first year Africans were brought to the colonies and it was the year America’s first legislative body was founded.
For decades, scholars peered at the painful and complex topic of American slavery through a purely ‘black-white’ lens — in other words, black slaves who had white masters. 
The sad reality that some Native Americans, (in particular, the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole, or ‘the Five Tribes’) also participated in chattel and race-based slavery was rarely acknowledged in the historical annals. Only in the latter part of the 20th Century did historians begin to address this oversight.
Several groundbreaking studies recognised the momentous repercussions of this practice for Native and African-American populations.
Barbara Krauthamer, a professor of Native-American and African-American history at the University of Massachusetts, has carried out extensive research on the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.
In her submissions in the book, Black Slaves, Indian Masters, Krauthamer tracks the enslavement of blacks by Choctaw and Chickasaw slaveholders in the 18th Century. 
In addition, Krauthamer skilfully debunks the myth that the main cause for American-Indian participation in slavery stemmed from their desire for European, and later American goods, unable to resist the inescapable forces of the market economy and capitalism.
She argues that the decision to engage in chattel slaveholding resulted from a conscious and deliberate choice on the part of Indian slaveholders to embrace racial ideology that, “degraded blackness and associated it exclusively with enslavement”.
For some influential and wealthy members of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, adopting race-based slavery provided the most efficient way to maintain an increasingly tenuous hold on political and cultural autonomy in the face of aggressive American expansion, while pursuing self-interested economic and diplomatic goals.
While some have tried to whitewash slavery under Native-American masters, the truth is that life under the yoke of an Indian master was no different from enslaved life under whites.
By the mid-19th Century, laws existed in American-Indian nations that banned intermarriage between blacks and Indians.
For example, Choctaw lawmakers allowed white men to achieve citizenship through marriage to a Choctaw woman, but forbade, “a negro or descendent of a negro” from enjoying the same privilege.
Likewise, in the Chickasaw tribe, the punishment for “publicly taking up with a negro slave” was a steep fine, whipping, or the ultimate punishment, banishment from the tribe and the dissolving of all kinship ties.
There are slave narratives detailing instances of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Native-American owners.
So why were Native-Americans allowed by the white establishment to own slaves.
The Native-Americans knew the land well; their knowledge became a lucrative business, especially for the Chickasaws who had keen navigation skills.
They were hired by white slaveholders to traverse the terrain to capture blacks who had escaped from slavery.
The Chickasaw then also began to hold enslaved Africans of their own and the system they established closely approximated that of white slaveholders on cotton plantations.
Cherokee is the largest native tribal nation in the United States. 
They also held more black slaves than any other Native-American community. 
By 1860, the Cherokee had 4 600 slaves. 
The Creek also adopted the enslavement of black people.
Most of the enslaved Africans were owned by wealthy and prominent men, many of whom wielded considerable political power.
Black people were forced to work primarily as agricultural labourers, cultivating cotton for their masters’ profit and food for consumption.
The Seminole held some black people as slaves.
However, a unique relation evolved between them and enslaved Africans who had fled to Florida escaping from slavery on white plantations.
Many black people found a comparable form of freedom among the Seminoles and they were allowed a form of sanctuary in exchange for paying an annual tribute of livestock, crops and military assistance.
The Choctaw, who sided with the Confederacy during the American civil war, held blacks as captives from warfare.
When they adopted elements of European culture, such as large farms and plantations, they also incorporated the system of chattel slavery of people of African descent.
Even emancipation and the end of the civil war did not bring immediate relief to the enslaved living in the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.
Although the Choctaw and Chickasaw sided with the Confederacy during the conflict, the US considered them to be separate polities; therefore, the abolition of slavery as stated in the 13th Amendment did not apply in Indian territory.
Instead, the Choctaw/Chickasaw treaty of 1866 outlined the details of emancipation, citizenship and land claims for the Freedmen, but inextricably (and problematically) linked these issues with Indian sovereignty, land rights, and annuities — one could not be obtained without the other.
This knotty situation became further complicated with the passage of laws enacted by Choctaw and Chickasaw political leaders that seem eerily similar to the ‘Black Codes’ of the Reconstruction era South.
Former slaves in Choctaw country who did not have a work contract could be arrested for ‘vagrancy’ by the lighthorsemen (police force) and then be auctioned off to the highest bidder—slavery by another name.


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