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African-Native American Research Forum Archive

Black Seminoles

(Cross-posted from another List)

Black Seminoles Of Oklahoma Deserve Justice

By Ron Daniels

Over the years I have consistently advocated full justice for the indigenous peoples
of this country and hemisphere. The dispossession and wholesale destruction of
Native Americans by European adventurers and colonialists is one of the most genocidal acts in human history. I have often reminded my readers that when most European settlers in this country were hostile to Africans Native Americans often took in the "fugitive" slaves shielded them and permitted them to become an integral part of their communities. As a result of this Black-Red affinity relationship and
alliance the blood of Native Americans runs in the veins of the majority of African Americans. Therefore most black people in America have an African-Indigenous heritage.

Unfortunately in some instances the U.S. government has sought to deny this heritage or to discriminate against "Black Indians."
Such is the case with the Black Seminoles currently residing in Oklahoma who are also called the "Seminole Freedman." Their's is perhaps the most fascinating illustration of the Black-Red alliance and the government's determination to treat Black Indians differently. According to Dr. Joseph Opala an anthropologist who has devoted years to researching the Seminoles this particular nation of Indians is an amalgamation of Africans from the Gullah culture of South Carolina who escaped in large numbers to seek refuge in the Everglades and remnants of various Indian bands from the Southeast who also took up residence in the same region. In fact the name Seminole means "wild wanderers" or runaways. Though the Africans often maintained a distinct presence within the Seminole Nation through widespread intermarriage many of them became indistinguishable from their indigenous brothers and sisters.

After two major wars in which the U.S. government attempted to subdue what was perceived as a dangerous alliance of Native Americans and runaway slaves the Seminoles agreed to safe passage to the territory of Oklahoma with the Black Freedman being included in their number. In 1866 Congress created the Dawes Commission to "enroll and validate the membership" of the so called "Five Civilized Tribes" is the U.S. When the "Dawes rolls" was completed in 1906 the Seminole Freedmen were validated as part of the Seminole Nation. Since arriving in Oklahoma the Black Seminoles have continued to play leading roles in the affairs of the Nation. They are issued tribal cards by the Seminole Nation vote in tribal elections and hold positions on the Tribal Council on an equal basis with other members of the Nation.

The problem of discriminatory treatment and injustice lies within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)which is charged with administering federal policy as it relates to Native Americans. Despite the fact that the Black Seminoles were recognized as full members of the Seminole Nation by the Dawes Commission the BIA has ruled that the Seminole Freedmen are not entitled to share in some $56 million which was awarded to the Seminole Nation as compensation for land taken from the Nation in Florida in the 1820's and 30's. The government dispenses these funds through Judgment Fund Benefits which include monetary grants for housing health care and education. The BIA has consistently refused to honor the request of any Black Seminole who has applied for benefits under this award thereby systematically discriminating against Seminoles of African descent. In an effort to rectify this injustice the Black Seminoles filed a racial discrimination lawsuit in 1995 Davis v. The United States against the U.S. government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The suit contends that the Seminole Freedmen have been unjustly excluded from benefits to which they are rightly entitled. The Oklahoma Black Legislative Black Caucus and the Martin Luther King Coalition recently expressed their full support for the Black Seminoles and announced plans to launch a nationwide campaign to secure justice in their case.

The New York based Center for Constitutional Rights has been asked to write an amicus brief is support of the Black Seminole's case and to take leadership in mobilizing the support of other public interest legal institutions and advocacy organizations in doing likewise. The case which was initially dismissed in the United States District Court is on appeal to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver and may well end up before the Supreme Court of the U.S. before the issue is settled.

No matter what happens in the courts it is important for African Americans and all people of
goodwill to support the struggle of the Black Seminoles for justice. The uncompromising refusal of the BIA to honor the requests of the Black Freedmen for equal benefits may well be a calculated political decision which has very little to do with the merits of their claim. Just as the federal government was hesitant to grant reparations to the Japanese for fear that it would give impetus to the demand of African Americans for reparations so in this instance the government is reluctant to do the right thing for the Black Seminoles for fear that other Black Indians associated with various Native American Nations will begin to make similar claims. However the Congress of the United States could remedy this injustice if enough political pressure is brought to bear to achieve this outcome. The Black Seminoles deserve justice and the National African American Community should support their cause.

[26 Jun 1999]

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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