AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
From Africa To The American West
"Black and Indian Relations"
It has been said that African-Americans had a favored status among some Native American cultures because of their skin color. It has also been said that African-Americans took it easy on the Indians during western expansion because they sympathized with them. Prior to The Civil War, laws generally dictated what relationships African-Americans were allowed to have with other cultures in America, including Native Americans, but after the war, the relationship between African-Americans and Native Americans makes a dramatic shift.
The two views of negative and positive opinions, and everything in between, can be found in narratives and notes from Native Americans and African Americans in the west. I would like to present one negative view each from a Black and Indian perspective and one positive view each. My first narrative is of a former Black slave to a Cherokee Indian master, the slave being Cherokee freedwoman Sarah Wilson. It's not a secret that Native Americans from the so called "Civilized Tribes," kept slaves and like African-American and White slave owners, some were innocuous relationships and some were abusive, Sarah Wilson’s narrative show the harsh side of a Cherokee slave owner:
".... They would have hangings in Ft. Smith courthouse, and old Master would take a slave there sometimes to see the hanging and that slave would come back and tell us all scary stories about the hanging. ...One time he whipped a whole bunch of the men on account of a fight in the quarters, and then he took them all to Fort Smith to see a hanging. He tied them all in the wagon, and when they had seen the hanging, he asked them if they was scared of them dead men hanging up there. They all said yes, of course but my old Uncle Nick was a bad Negro and he said, "No I ain't afeard of them nor nothing else in this world," and old Master jumped on him while he was tied an beat him with a rope and then when they got home he tied old Nick to a tree, and took his shirt off and poured the cat-o-nine tails to him until he fainted away and fell over like he was dead. I never forget seeing all that blood all over my uncle, and if I could hate that old Indian any more I guess I would, but I hated him all I could already I reckon."
Sarah Wilson was not happy as a Cherokee slave in the Arkansas/Oklahoma area, but another Black/Indian contact in Kansas produced what I call the authentic Black West Thanksgiving, that being the first year of the founding of the Black settlement town of Nicodemus. The following excerpt explains:
"...The best known historically black town in Kansas, Nicodemus was named for a legendary figure who came to America on a slave ship and later purchased his freedom. Founded in 1877 by a group of colonists from Lexington, Kentucky, the town had a population of 600 people by 1879. The first winter was particularly harsh and had it not been for the food, firewood and other staples received from Osage (Indian) Nation, the settlers would have perished. By the second year many of the men had found jobs either farming or working with the railroad and the settlement became increasingly self-sufficient."
Black Western matriarch Lulu Sadler Craig, one of the early settlers of Nicodemus, Kansas also had something to say about the Native people:
"...Indians didn't give us any trouble," Craig recalled. "Winter was hard to take," she said and without the dugouts "we would have frozen."
Ms. Craig went on to be an educator and at least one story recorded by her of the early settlers of Nicodemus has been turned into a children's non fiction reader by author Barbara Brenner called "Wagon Wheels." Several successful Black Western stories would not have become if it had not been for the charity of the Osage Nation.
Native American View
Now that I have discussed two Black perspectives of Indians, I would like to present two Indian views of Blacks. Perhaps the only honor as great for a soldier than the one bestowed by their compatriots for courage is the honor bestowed by the soldiers' enemy, and to many Western Indians the Buffalo Soldiers were enemies. Frank N Schubert, author, presents information about Captain Dodge and Buffalo soldiers fighting Utes in Colorado, this excerpt describing the arrival of Buffalo soldiers to a skirmish perhaps gives an idea of how the Utes viewed Blacks:
“...while Dodge rode into view and through the entrenchments, not one Ute raised his rifle. They just watched with curiosity, according to Emmitt’s informants, as the strange soldiers came. “The Buffalo Soldiers,” Emmitt wrote, “ were something to wonder about and to laugh about- perhaps something to be a little angry with-but they were nothing to be afraid of.” Several warriors called out at once “To-Maricat’z! The black whitemen! The Buffalo Soldiers! After Dodges men arrived, the Utes even sang songs that ridiculed them and showed an awareness of the impact of racism on the Maricat’z (whitemens”) social structure.
I need to come into the early 20th century to present the positive Indian view of African Americans. Hampton Institute in Virginia is one of the more than one hundred plus HBCs (Historically Black Colleges) founded after the Civil War. The alma mater of Booker T. Washington, it was one of the few that recruited Native Americans from the Northern Plains for what they called "re-education." Researcher Jon L Brudvig collected first person accounts of Native Americans students who attended Hampton Institute, one student, an Oneida named Clayton Layman wrote this about his experience at a presentation in 1921:
"...Members of the faculty, visitors and fellow students. I am very grateful for the opportunity of congratulating the colored race on their rapid progress in the last fifty-eight years. Since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the colored people have made more progress than any other race in existence during so short a time. The Negro and the Indian have been associated in this school since 1878, and on the whole have gotten along very nicely. Both races have progressed very rapidly in spite of the lack of schools for the colored race and the disability of the Indian to speak the English language both of which were great hindrances to the progress of each race."
I'll close with a statement by a female Native American blues musician named "Pura Fe'" published in the "Native Peoples" magazine for May/June 2005. Even today there are many divergent views about Blacks from Native Americans and visa versa, some vitriolic and some, like Pura Fe's, a reminder that people of different cultures found their common humanity the one saving grace in the face of early American brutality:
"...I am a Tuscarora from North Carolina. The Tuscarora were known for harboring runaway slaves and refuges - black, white and Indian - and played a part in the slave uprisings here. Southeastern Indians and African Americans share history and blood. The music I play is a fusion of all those strands in one body and soul. It is what I am. ...The mixture of African and Indian blood was like the creation of a new race that gave birth to this rich musical culture, a race that's largely been forgotten."
Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee