A Digression about the Creek Freedmen

Note: We will be posting only on Mondays and Fridays for a bit. 

As we were reading on Friday in Dago’s Outlaws on Horseback:

It was commonly believed that a mixture of Creek and Negro blood was a dangerous cross, and that the offspring of such a union was sure to be ‘mean.’ It was true enough in the case of Lukey Davis, but there would seem to be little reason to accept it as generally so. For several hundred years there had been a strong infiltration of Negro blood into the Creek tribe, more so than with the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw. Few Creeks were a hundred per cent Indian. Undoubtedly intermarriage had some effect on Creek culture. That it worked any tribal character change or was responsible for the inflamed criminal instincts of some Creeks, such as those with whom Rufus Buck surrounded himself, must be dismissed as absurd.

Members of the Creek (Muscogee) Nation in OK around 1877. They included men of mixed Creek, European and African ancestry.

EvX: These are two interesting claims: first, that Creeks are heavily mixed, and second, that some people believe this an inauspicious mix. (Our author makes numerous statements throughout the book to the effect of not believing that criminality runs in families.)

This leads us to a modern-day controversy:

The Creek (aka the Muscogee,) were known as one of the “5 Civilized Tribes,” along with the Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw, for their high level of cultural sophistication and swift adoption of European technology. The five tribes are descended from the Mississippi Mound Builders Culture whose cities and towns once dotted the south east, before European diseases and Spanish-horse-mounted raiders from the Great Plains brought it down. And like their European neighbors in Georgia, they had slaves:

After the [Revolutionary] war ended in 1783, the Muscogee learned that Britain had ceded their lands to the now independent United States. … Alexander McGillivray led pan-Indian resistance to white encroachment, receiving arms from the Spanish in Florida to fight trespassers. The bilingual and bicultural McGillivray worked to create a sense of Muscogee nationalism and centralize political authority, struggling against village leaders who individually sold land to the United States. He also became a wealthy landowner and merchant, owning as many as sixty black slaves. …

In the summer of 1790, McGillivray and 29 other Muscogee chiefs signed the Treaty of New York, on behalf of the ‘Upper, Middle and Lower Creek and Seminole composing the Creek nation of Indians,’ ceding a large portion of their lands to the federal government and promising to return fugitive slaves, in return for federal recognition of Muscogee sovereignty and promises to evict white settlers. …

In 1805, the Lower Creeks ceded their lands east of the Ocmulgee to Georgia… A number of Muscogee chiefs acquired slaves and created cotton plantations, grist mills and businesses along the Federal Road.

The Seminole tribe fused about this time in Florida from a combination of Creeks, various other local tribes, and runaway slaves:

Led by Chief Secoffee (Cowkeeper), they became the center of a new tribal confederacy, the Seminole, which grew to include earlier refugees from the Yamasee War, remnants of the ‘mission Indians,’ and escaped African slaves.[20]

Many Muscogee refused to surrender and escaped to Florida. They allied with other remnant tribes, becoming the Seminole. Muscogee were later involved on both sides of the Seminole Wars in Florida. …

The Red Stick refugees who arrived in Florida after the Creek War tripled the Seminole population, and strengthened the tribe’s Muscogee characteristics.[34] …

The Seminole continued to welcome fugitive black slaves and raid American settlers, leading the U.S. to declare war in 1817. … In 1823, a delegation of Seminole chiefs met with the new U.S. governor of Florida, expressing their opposition to proposals that would reunite them with the Upper and Lower Creek, partly because the latter tribes intended to enslave the Black Seminole. Instead, the Seminole agreed to move onto a reservation in inland central Florida.

But enough about the Seminoles; let’s get back to the Creek who are called Creek:

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, [Creek Chief] Opothleyahola refused to form an alliance with the Confederacy, unlike many other tribes, including many of the Lower Creeks. Runaway slaves, free blacks, Chickasaw and Seminole Indians began gathering at Opothleyahola’s plantation …

Because many Muscogee Creek people did support the Confederacy during the Civil War, the US government required a new treaty with the nation in 1866 to define peace after the war. It required the Creek to emancipate their slaves and to admit them as full members and citizens of the Creek Nation, equal to the Creek in receiving annuities and land benefits. They were then known as Creek Freedmen. The US government required setting aside part of the Creek reservation land to be assigned to the freedmen. Many of the tribe resisted these changes. The loss of lands contributed to problems for the nation in the late 19th century.

So in 2001, the Creek tribal government changed the rules:

Creek Freedmen is a term for emancipated African Americans who were slaves of Muscogee Creek tribal members before 1866. … Freedmen who wished to stay in the Creek Nation in Indian Territory, with whom they often had blood relatives, were to be granted full citizenship in the Creek Nation. …

The term also includes their modern descendants in the United States. At the time of the war and since, many Creek Freedmen were of partial Creek descent by blood.[1] Registration of tribal members under the Dawes Commission often failed to record such ancestry. In 2001, the Creek Nation changed its membership rules, requiring all members to prove descent to persons listed as “Indian by Blood” on the Dawes Rolls. The Creek Freedmen have sued against this decision. …

Most of the Freedmen were former slaves of tribal members who had lived in both upper and lower Creek territories in the Southeast. In some villages, Creek citizens married enslaved men or women, and had mixed-race children with them. Interracial marriages were common during this time, and many Creek Freedmen were partly of Creek Indian ancestry. …

Beginning in 1898, the US officials created the Dawes Rolls to document the tribal members for [land] allotments; registrars quickly classified persons as “Indians by Blood”, “Freedmen,” or “Intermarried Whites.”…

The peace treaty of 1866 granted the Freedmen full citizenship and rights as Creek regardless of proportion of Creek or Indian ancestry. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation in 1979 reorganized the government and constitution based on the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. It changed its membership rules, requiring that members be descendants of persons listed as ‘Indians by Blood’ on the Dawes Rolls. They expelled Creek Freedmen descendants who could not prove descent from such persons, despite the 1866 treaty, asserting their sovereign right to determine citizenship.[3] Since the Creek changed their membership rules in 2001, they have excluded persons who cannot prove descent from persons listed on the Dawes Rolls as Indians by Blood.

An illustration of the Cahokia Mounds Site in Illinois, part of the Mound Builder Culture

Who belongs? For that matter, who has the authority to determine who belongs? Are you a real goth, or just a poser? A real American? A real Creek? It’s rather silly signalling when we’re talking about teenagers at the mall; it’s a significant question when “belonging” to a group entitles a person to significant benefits. Americans enjoy the benefits of protection by the American Armed Forces, welfare if we need it, and a free trade/free movement zone within the 50 states, for example. Creeks enjoy the benefits of scholarships, housing assistance, health care assistance, and of course culture and community.The Creek likely don’t regard treaties with the conquering US government as actually determining who is a “real” Creek–and money can be a strong incentive for tightening the membership rules.

Here’s an interesting article about the functioning of the Creek Government and its budget:

Today, the Muscogee Nation operates a more than $106 million budget and has more than 2,400 employees. It has tribal facilities and programs across eight districts of the Muscogee Nation and serves more than 60,000 enrolled tribal members.

As for the second claim, that Creek-African mixes were likely to be unpleasant people, if there is any truth to it at all, it was most likely due to which Africans ended up in the Creek Nation and which particular Creeks they married. Many of the whites who crossed into Indian Territory and married into the various tribes seem to have been “difficult” people (often criminals) escaping the US legal system. The same may have been true for blacks who chose to move to Indian Territory, or were sold to the Creeks by white plantation owners. Overall, though, Creeks aren’t genetically that different from related tribes like the Cherokee, so there’s nothing exceptional about a black/Creek mix besides the individuals involved.

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