Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A question of Race- the Freedman Question

A case involving descendants of Cherokee Freedman is being decided. I can't speak to that case, I do not know enough about the Cherokee, but I can address the question as it applies to the Choctaw.

As like most matriarchal tribes, the Choctaw citizenship guidelines were always that you take the tribe of the mother. The only exception to this occurred when the tribe accepted children of Choctaw men and white woman, but only if they were married. Before the Dawes act, before registration, some Choctaw men adopted their illegitimate children to make them tribal members. There are children of Choctaw men with white woman who weren't married who were denied membership to the nation during the Dawes enrollment.

But what is the freedman question? First you have to understand how it came to be. During the civil war, most of the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and other tribes who were in what is now Oklahoma supported the south. Slavery was as prominent within those nations as without, and some economists suggested that as farmers with slaves, the Choctaw were more successful. When the Civil War ended, the nations had to agree to a new treaty with the United States. In a large part, they were penalized heavily for their participation. One of the stipulations of the treaty of 1866 was that they must allow all former slaves to be full members with equal rights in their nation.

It's ironic because the United States didn't offer the full equality to their former slaves in the south until the Civil rights movement, but I digress. So the former slaves were given a choice of remaining or leaving. Those that remained were called freedman. Now comes the tricky part. There is without a doubt many descendants of freedman who are part Choctaw who are on the freedman rolls. Dawes testimony for the freedman was at times as contested for the freedman as much, if not more, than some of the applicants of the Choctaw. The question was whether the applicant was a freedman or a statesman (meaning born outside the Choctaw nation).

Not every freedman is not on the Choctaw rolls though, because it comes down to the Choctaw tradition. You take the tribe of your mother. So if you take the tribe of your mother, and your father was Choctaw, but your mother was a freedman, you are on the freedman rolls. If your mother was Choctaw, you are on the Choctaw rolls. It is understandable that descendants who were as much as half Choctaw to begin with may resent the difference in the status on the Dawes, which ultimately effects their rights within the tribe today. However, I would argue, that if they were to state all descendants of Freedman be given equal rights to their respective nation, then all descendants of unmarried women who were denied because their parents weren't married, even though testimony stated their father was Choctaw should be included.

That would open up a hornets nest that won't happen. The court may decide that the Cherokee nation must give equal status to the Freedman descendants, we will have to wait and see. It's a tricky question, because, while many were in fact part native, many were not. I can understand how from some people's standpoint, despite living in the nation, you don't carry the genes of the nation, you don't belong. Yet, it was never right to deny those that had native blood because it belonged to their father and not their mother. Ultimately, it's not an easy issue, and I don't know that there is an easy answer.

A Divided nation- a look at Choctaw politicians

The Choctaw nation between 1825-1830 was one that was divided politically. There is a lot of information on the period in history books, but today I want to look at four of the prominent mixed Choctaws who were involved in that period. All are my relatives.

James L. McDonald is perhaps the least known by non historians, sadly, since what we know about him shows that he was in fact one of the shining stars for the Choctaws. Educated in Washington he was the first Choctaw to obtain a law degree. The little correspondence you find from him lies in letters in the Peter Pitchlynn Collection, Thompson McKinney's records, and in correspondence with the government. His correspondence on the behalf of my ancestor Peggy Trahern show that it was his influence, along with that of Robert M. Jones that included Peggy and her sister Delilah in the supplement to the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. His letters show a man torn with his failings with alcohol, who loved his people and sadly, is rumored to have killed himself over the love of a white woman who shunned him.

James wrote that all Choctaws needed to be encouraged to emigrate because he felt (rightly) that the government would not honor the 14th article of the treaty. He was considering a run for politics, and was very outspoken against Jackson. Which is why I say he was rumored to have killed himself. Honestly I am not so sure. A lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi (except for his youth in D.C.), James came from a politically advantage lineage. (His mother Molly was given land in both 1820 and 1830, as was James and his nephew James M. Hamilton). Unlike most of his counterparts, he had years of exposure to the very decision makers the Choctaw were fighting. He was perhaps the best educated for his time, and he was known to have felt the conflict between his native and white lineage. He may have been disposed to melancholy, but just before his death, he didn't appear to be so despondent in his letters.

Robert M. Jones, a first cousin of James L. McDonald and paternal half nephew of my ancestor Peggy, is unlike his cousin James, well known among Choctaw descendants and historians. It is from Jeff Fortney, PhD that I know that Robert spoke of his childhood on his father's trading post on the Natchez Trace, and that Robert spoke English from childhood. Like all four, Robert M. Jones was undeniably a patriot for the Choctaw, but, it is reasonably argued from the wealth he acquired, he wasn't above profiting from them either. Despite his business acumen, Robert M. Jones spent a lot of time on behalf of relatives that were in the Choctaw tradition not his relatives.

Sadly most of his correspondence burned with his mansion, but what we do have shows that like James, he is well spoken, well educated, and his desire to further the education among the Choctaw can't be denied. His involvement in politics appears more in relation to schools than tribal leadership. His letter about the confrontation between Mushulatubbee and Greenwood Leflore at the Choctaw trading post shows respect for the elder leadership, despite disappointment with it. For me, this is perhaps one of his most redeeming qualities. I don't really like Greenwood Leflore or David Folsom when I look at their actions. Not very academic, but I am not one, so I can feel however I want to.

Jones had a lifelong friendship with another relative, Peter Pitchlynn. Peter Pitchlynn's mother was a first cousin of my ancestor Susan Riddle. Where Jones and McDonald I believe had familial ties to either Apuckshunubbee or Franchiamastabe, Pitchlynn was a great nephew of Mushulatubbee. It is from his journal, and much less the letters in his collection (few are from Peter), that we can glimpse this man. He acknowledged both his mother's Uncles (the Folsoms, who weren't traditional relatives) as relatives, along with his mother's brother, Captain Joseph Kincade. In a letter to an unknown relative, he speaks of his mother who wanted all her children to speak English in their home. He states because of this, not all of his siblings were fluent in Choctaw.

Pitchlynn like Jones had a similar education. His correspondence shows a man much more literate in grammar than his father John Pitchlynn when you look at letters written by both. According to the correspondence, his great Uncle had stepped down in favor of Peter Pitchlynn but reneged on it during these trying times. We don't have letters from Peter that show his opinion on the matter, but we do know that there was not an armed conflict to remove Mushulatubbee, or if there was, I haven't ran across it.  During this time, there are letters to Washington D.C. where David Folsom is writing that Mushulatubbe and Tappenahoma aren't fit for office, but no one has ever suggested that Peter wrote anything like that.

I think like James McDonald and Robert M. Jones, Peter Pitchlynn had a different patriotic approach to the push for the Choctaws to remove. After the treaty, Peter Pitchlynn spent many years in Washington D.C. attempting to get the government to honor the treaty. As much as  Jones, if not more, you can definitely argue that Peter profited from the Choctaws as well. Choctaw leaders never saw anything wrong with gifts, or taking money for their services, and especially in this day and age, looking back at a lot of their actions is prone to make one raise their eyebrows at the wealth accumulated by some. Nevertheless, I don't think any mixed blood did more for the Choctaws when you look at Peter's work with the Choctaw Academy, as Chief, with developing the Choctaw school system and with his tireless work in Washington D.C. Work that his family tried to get a large sum of the Net proceeds for. Definitely you can argue they were asking for more than their fair share.

The last mixed blood I want to talk about is Pierre Juzan. The eldest son of my ancestor Peggy and her husband Charles Juzan, Pierre was educated at the Choctaw academy as well. However, if one reads his correspondence it lacks the polish and grammar of the other three. Many have said that he was fluent in four languages, but to me, his grammar suggests that he learned English later, his verb usage is similar to someone who hasn't spoken English as a young child. It is quite possible he learned French or Spanish from his father, but then, the Spanish were out of the Choctaw nation, though not far away, by the time Pierre was born.

Pierre is the opposite from his contemporaries. There isn't a lot of documentation and correspondence from him, but what there is shows he had strong ties to his maternal uncles Oklahoma and Tappenahoma, and that unlike those mixed bloods who stepped forward to lead, he supported another full blood (unlikely a relative) Nitakechi. Where Greenwood Leflore and David Folsom openly, and Robert M. Jones, Peter Pitchlynn and James McDonald in correspondence, criticized the full blood contingent during this time, nothing shows that Pierre was ever involved. He was a far more traditional mixed blood than the others, whether because of his Kunsha roots, where there are far fewer mixed bloods of prominence, or because of his beliefs, we don't see the same rebellion against the establishment from him.

Where I haven't seen much on what Robert M. Jones and Peter Pitchlynn did during removal, we know that Pierre and his brother William were involved. And we also know from testimonies in the court of claims, Pierre was brutal in enforcing removal. Ironic, because it doesn't appear that removal was something that Nitakechi or Pierre supported. It is almost as if, once done, they were going to make sure that their villages complied, even if it meant beating and humiliating the village chiefs in the process. If Peter Pitchlynn and Robert M. Jones represent a new approach to leading the Choctaw nation, Pierre Juzan represents a traditional one.

There is nothing that I know of that links a relationship between Robert M. Jones and Pierre Juzan, despite the fact that he shares the same relationship with him as my ancestor James N. Trahern did. I am not clear if it's a rejection of the relationship, which does not exist in Choctaw terms, or if it is just lack of proof. I know that James N. Trahern resided with Jones for a time after he returned from the Choctaw Academy. James spent 9 years there, so he would have definitely been influenced by Christianity in a way that the Juzan family was not in 1830. Such an effect would effect a view on family relationships from a Choctaw one, to a European one.

All of these men, even Greenwood Leflore and David Folsom, were undeniably patriotic. Although I will argue that the children of Louis Leflore were the least traditional of all the families. Yet despite that love of their people, they didn't always see the direction and leadership needs of their nation the same. Choctaw history is not bloodless. Until the Dawes act, it wasn't uncommon to see murder occur over political, and not so political reasons. There was a rift between the mixed blood and full blood components that started at least by 1825 if not before, until the Dawes Act which for a time, effectively ended the Choctaw nation as a tribe. (The position of chief was abolished with the Dawes Act until 1934).

Some may argue that the Choctaw nation isn't an example, I would argue maybe it can be an example that American's can learn from. I think that the nepotism, the division, the violence, and the struggles that the nation went through are lessons that every one can learn from.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The White House was built by Slaves

I have seen a lot of posts on Facebook about Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC. Several posted that it was so long ago and she should just get over it already. Rather than see it for what it was, a statement on the progress our country has made, many have felt she was taking it to a racial thing. Not only do I not agree, but I really don't think that a lot of Americans get it.

It has often occurred to me the irony that 96 percent of my ancestry treated 4 percent as less than civilized human beings. I can't explain how it feels to realize that one part of your heritage believed that the other part was savage, uncivilized, and a threat to society. To know that thousands died being forced from their homes. That even when they became educated and christian they were still only "exceptional for their race".

So it's not hard to me to understand how the grandchildren of a Holocaust victim still feel the pain of the systemic genocide practiced against them. Or how the descendants of a Japanese American may still resent the internment camps during World War 2. Or how those who lived through segregation in the south still feel the anger at lynchings and Jim Crow laws. I don't have to be a Jew, Japanese or African American to understand their feelings. I just have to be a human being.

Perhaps it's easier for me, because it doesn't matter that 184 years ago the Choctaws lost their ancestral home, or 111 years ago the final act that took away their tribal lands and divided them. It still makes me angry when I think about it. I understand how it doesn't matter if it was 5 years ago or 50 years ago. The fact that injustice was done isn't restricted by time. How we act upon it however is important.

The United States has some dark history. We have not always treated people of all religions equally. We definitely have not always treated all races equally, whether they were African American, Native American, Mexican, or Asian. We have not always welcomed immigrants with open arms. Before World War 2, they enacted a requirement that immigrants must be able to read and write to enter, stopping an influx of Europeans trying to escape what ultimately was the death of thousands during World War 2.

As a child I remember the arguments over the Vietnamese boat people and letting them in the United States. There was a time if you were Irish, Catholic, Jewish or Eastern European and you immigrated you were considered less than other whites. This country has not been known for it's tolerance and treatment of others. We still are intolerant. We see those who practice hate against people that are gay, lesbian, or transgender. We define all people of a religion as terrorist. We label Mexican American's with derogatory terms. And after all this time, after a lifetime (mine) of Civil rights, race is still an issue in pockets of America.

More people need to actually learn about their country's history, as much of it is never taught in classes in public schools. or even in Universities. More people need to understand that in hindsight history often shows with glaring clarity the darker side of our nation. We need to do better. We can do better. And it starts with understanding how far we have come.