Black Slaves, Red Masters; When Native Americans Enslaved Black Americans (video)

Watch Black Slaves, Red Masters Documentary

Actor Don Cheadle learns that his ancestors were enslaved by Native Americans at 5:30 into the video below:


Native American adaptation of African slaves

The earliest record of African and Native American contact occurred in April 1502, when Spanish explorers brought an African slave with them and encountered a band. 

Native Americans interacted with enslaved Africans and African Americans in every way possible.  In the early colonial days, Native Americans were enslaved along with Africans, and both often worked with European indenturedlaborers.  “They worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, shared herbal remedies, myths and legends, and in the end they intermarried.”  Because both races were non-Christian, Europeans considered them other and inferior to Europeans. They worked to make enemies of the two groups. In some areas, Native Americans began to slowly absorb white culture. 

Family of Mixed African American and Native American heritage. (The Oklahoma Historical Society has this image in their American Indian archives and lists the people as being from the Czarina Conlan Collection Photographs. Cheyenne Indians – (L. to R.): Mrs. Amos Chapman, her daughter Mrs. Lee Moore as an infant, Mrs. Chapman’s sister, and an unidentified young black girl. Photo by “Soule View Artist”. 1886. [2554].)

Benjamin Hawkins, Superintendent of the tribes south of the Ohio River from the late eighteenth century through the early nineteenth, encouraged the major Southeast tribes to adopt chattel slavery in order to have labor for plantations and large-scale agricultural production, as part of their assimilation of European-American ways.  The Five Civilized Tribes adopted some practices which they saw as beneficial; they were working to get along with the Americans and to keep their territory. The Cherokee was the tribe that held the most slaves. In 1809, they held nearly 600 enslaved blacks.  This number increased to almost 1,600 in 1835, and to around 4,000 by 1860, after they had removed to Indian Territory.  Cherokee populations for these dates are: 12,400 in 1809;, 16,400 in 1835; and 21,000 in 1860.  The proportion of Cherokee families who owned slaves did not exceed ten percent, and was comparable to the percentage among white families across the South, where a slaveholding elite owned most of the laborers.  In the 1835 census, only eight percent of Cherokee households contained slaves, and only three Cherokee owned more than 50 slaves.  Joseph Vann had the most, owning 110 like other major planters.  Of the Cherokee who owned slaves, 83 percent held fewer than 10 slaves.  Of the slave-owning families, 78 percent claimed some white ancestry. 

In 1827 the Cherokee developed a constitution, which was part of their acculturation. It prohibited slaves and their descendants (including mixed-race) from owning property, selling goods or produce to earn money; and marrying Cherokee or European Americans. It imposed heavy fines on slaveholders if their slaves consumed alcohol.  No African Americans, even if free and of partial Cherokee heritage, could vote in the tribe.  If a mother was of partial African descent, her children could not vote in the tribe, regardless of the father’s heritage.  Such laws reflected state slavery laws in the Southeast, but Cherokee laws did not impose as many restrictions on slaves nor were they strictly enforced. 
The writer William Loren Katz suggests that Native Americans treated their slaves better than European Americans in the Southeast. Federal Agent Hawkins considered the form of slavery the tribes were practicing to be inefficient because the majority didn’t practice chattel slavery. Travelers reported enslaved Africans “in as good circumstances as their masters.”  A white Indian Agent, Douglas Cooper, upset by the Native Americans failure to practice a harsher form of bondage, insisted that Native Americans invite white men to live in their villages and “control matters.” Katz thought that slaveholding contributed to divisiveness among tribes of the Southeast and promoted a class hierarchy based on “white blood.” Historians such as Greg O’Brien believe that class division was related more to the fact that several of the leadership clans accepted mixed-race chiefs, who were first and foremost on these tribes, and promoting assimilation or accommodation.
In the nineteenth century, European Americans began to migrate west from the coastal areas, and, despite treaties, encroach on tribal lands. Bands along the frontier, in closer contact with traders and settlers, tended to become more assimilated, often led by chiefs who believed they needed to change to accommodate a new society. Some mixed-race chiefs had family relationships to elected American officials. Others were educated in American schools, to learn their language and culture. These were the most likely to become slaveholders and adopt other European practices. Others of their people, often located at more of a distance, held to more traditional practices. Cultural divisions were the cause of the Creek Wars (1812–1813), and other Southeast tribes suffered similar tensions.
With the US increasing pressure for Indian Removal, tensions became higher. Some chiefs believed removal was inevitable and wanted to negotiate the best terms possible to preserve tribal rights, such as the Choctaw Greenwood LeFlore. Others believed they should resist losing ancestral lands.  For instance, members of the Cherokee Treaty Party, who believed removal was coming, negotiated cessions of land which the rest of the tribe repudiated.  This conflict was carried to Indian Territory, where opponents assassinated some of the signatories of the land cession treaty, for alienating communal land. The tensions among the Native Americans of the Southeast was principally about land and assimilation rather than slavery. Most chiefs agreed that armed resistance was futile. The Five Civilized Tribes all took their African-American slaves with them to Indian Territory(present-day Oklahoma) during removal.
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