Of all the historical injustices suffered by minorities in America, the story of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen is perhaps one of the most obscure.
Last week Ronald Graham Sr., president of the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band (MCIFB), gave a lecture regarding his unique heritage and the plight of his ancestors. Despite an audience of only half a dozen attendants, Mr. Graham was enthusiastic to share his story. “This is a good crowd,” he joked. “Hell, I’ve delivered the same presentation to just one person.”
Graham, as he’ll tell you himself, appears African American. As a proud genealogist and historian, he’ll rightly tell you that he’s also an eighth Native American. It is this mixed heritage which most defines the study of his work.
Graham has pieced together aged documentation of his family line, and in doing so, has found evidence of systemic racism and discrimination generations old.
The Muscogee Creek Nation, having been deemed a part of the Five Civilized Tribes by the federal government, was entitled in 1898 by the Curtis Act to 160 acres of land per citizen. The Dawes Commission was created to fulfill the lofty goal of this allotment.
No sooner was the Commission established than it was advised to segregate the Creek Nation between two different rolls: The Creek Nation Indian Roll and the Creek Nation Freedmen Roll. The freedmen were those who had descended from African slaves in the service of Native Americans.
When the Civil War had come to a close three decades earlier, the MCN had agreed that “persons of African descent… residing in said Creek country… and their descendants… shall have and enjoy all rights and privileges of native citizens…and the laws of said Nation shall be equally binding upon and give equal protection to all such persons.”
The segregation of the rolls between Indians and their African members was in direct violation to this agreement, and yet was largely uncontested. After all, the Federal government was not required to allot the parcels of 160 acres to freedmen.
The Dawes Commission looked only at a person’s physical features, such as their nose, hair and skin color, to make this designation. They ignored the often high ranks the freedmen held within the tribes, and their valuable contribution to the Creek community.
Among the examples Graham shared was an invaluable Creek interpreter, and even a freedmen chief. Besides physical features, members of the commission invented a number of ways in which to designate an individual as a freedmen, thus separating them from their privileges as a Muscogee Creek Indian.
The illiterate were totally at the mercy of the commission, which often manipulated surnames, cheating family members of their birthright.
One man, named Richard, unwillingly had his children bestowed with four different surnames: Richards, Richardson, Dickson, and Dixon.
“I know exactly who stole my family’s land,” Graham said. “I know the name of the judge who sold it and I know how much money he made off of it.”
He described the blood quantum, the measure of Creek Indian blood which a person possessed, as a weapon of institutional racism.
“White blood, at that time, was thought to be a measure of intelligence,” Graham shared.
The blood quantum was a federally-hosted war on the tribes which cost the freedmen most of all.
By the mid 1900s, the Creeks themselves considered the freedmen a nuisance. A federal document from the time states “that a group of Indians are favorable to organizing under the Oklahoma Welfare Act…but they want to find some way to eliminate the Freedmen.” This notion was contested at the time.
Today, the MCIFB is attempting to be federally recognized as an independent tribe after being voted out of the Creek Nation. They are also lending their support to the Cherokee Freedmen, who may soon suffer the same fate of exile from their culture.
To document the plight of his people, both contemporary and historic, Graham is currently writing a book titled Lost Blood, in which he hopes to shed light on the suffering and triumphs of these unique, unknown peoples.