Seminoles With African Ancestry: The Right To Heritage
By: Bakari Akil II
Date: December 24, 2003
There has been an ongoing debate among Seminoles with African ancestry and Seminoles with Native American ancestry regarding the legitimacy of the "Black Seminoles." The arguments have reached crisis proportions as families have split along racial lines, Blacks Seminoles have been voted out of tribal councils and can no longer fully participate in life as a Seminole and some have even lost rights altogether in the Seminole nation.
These happenings have truly become crucial due to recent actions in the Seminole nation's favor such as the $56 million dollar settlement granted due to loss of land and forced relocations by the US government. In addition, as the case with many Native American groups who have been able to profit from "reparations" resulting from restitution granted due to US governmental persecution through the 17th - 20th centuries, there has been reconsideration on who has the right to claim to be a Native American, especially those with African ancestry.
As I have written on this issue previously, instead of writing a full column arguing the merits of Black Seminoles right to exist, similar to my article "Seminoles, Native Americans and African Bloodlines," I will instead cite powerful testimony of a prominent American individual who lived during the early 19th century. It is my contention that his account can lend a clear and credible voice on the debate of who is and who is not a "Seminole."
In the book, published in 1858 entitled, The Exiles of Florida: The Crimes Committed By Our Government Against The Maroons Who Fled From South Carolina and Other Slave States, US Congressman Joshua Giddings authors a powerful account which weighed in on the discussion of the plight of the Seminoles in the United States. He clearly outlines their origins and history up until that point in the middle of the 19th century. Here are his words:
The constant escape of slaves, and the difficulties resulting therefrom, constituted the principal object for establishing a free colony between South Carolina and Florida, which was called Georgia. It was thought that this colony, being free, would afford the planters of Carolina protection against the further escape of their slaves from service.
These Exiles were by the Creek Indians called "Seminoles" which in their dialect signifies "runaways" and the term being frequently used while conversing with the Indians, came into almost constant practice among the whites; and although it has now come to be applied to a certain tribe of Indians, yet it was originally used in reference to these exiles long before the Seminole Indians had separated from the Creeks.
The Indians that removed themselves from the Creek confederacy that Congressman Giddings referred to were a relatively large group residing within what is now Alabama and Georgia. Opting for self-rule they migrated to Florida Territory and were able to reside under an area which Spain claimed ownership. He further explains:
From the year 1750, Seacoffee and his followers rejected all Creek authority, refused to be represented in Creek councils, held themselves independent of Creek laws, elected their own chiefs, and in all respects became a separate tribe, embracing the Mickasukies, with whom they united. They settled in the vicinity of the Exiles, associated with them, and a mutual sympathy and respect existing, some of their people intermarried, thereby strengthening the ties of friendship, and the Indians having fled from oppression and taken refuge under Spanish laws, were also called Seminoles, or "runaways."
Here we have powerful testimony from a US congressman who in 1858, had no future stake in the claim of who has the right to be called a Seminole, whether African (Black) or Native American. What he did have an interest in was ensuring that there was an account of what happened to these "Exiles" who were Black and trying to enlighten and raise the consciousness of others to their plight. As he did in the past, I believe his words do the same now.
To demonstrate the loss Black Seminoles experienced, then and now, we will conclude with these passages from his book:
The Exiles thus free from annoyance, cultivated the friendship of their savage neighbors; rendered themselves useful to the Indians, both as laborers and in council. They also manifested much judgment in the selection of their lands for cultivation-locating their principal settlements on the rich bottoms lying along the Appalachicola and the Suwanee Rivers. Here they opened plantations, and many of them became wealthy in flocks and herds.
He further writes that by 1815:
Their plantations extended along the river several miles, above and below… Many of them possessed large herds, which roamed in the forests, gathering their food, both in summer and winter, without expense or trouble to their owners…..Here were the graves of their ancestors, around whose memories were clustered the fondest recollection of human mind. The climate was genial. They were surrounded by extensive forests, and far removed from the habitations of those enemies who sought to enslave them; and they regarded themselves as secure in the enjoyment of liberty.
In closing, this testimony by Mr. Giddings provides justification for the re-evaluation of the removal of those of African ancestry from the ranks of the Seminole nation and also to remember what sparked the relationship of Africans (Blacks) and Native Americans in the first place. The current destitute conditions that Seminoles of both African and Native American ancestry have been forced to endure as a result of oppression and persecution both past and present should not create a divide that causes either group to make decisions and take actions based on the lowest of human values but based upon the values and morals that guided their initial cooperation and brotherhood in the first place.
To deny Seminoles with African ancestry the right to exist, to claim their birthright, to prosper with the Seminole nation and to "break bread" with their history and heritage is not only a travesty of justice, but is inhumane as well.
To Read More About the Seminoles Refer To:
Seminoles, Native Americans and African Bloodlines By Bakari Akil and
The Christmas Eve Freedom Fighters Of 1837 By William Loren Katz
Giddings, J. (1858). The Exiles of Florida: The Crimes Committed By Our Government Against The Maroons Who Fled From South Carolina and other Slave States (Republished 1997). Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press.
Akil, B. (2002, May 17). "Seminoles, Native Americans and African Bloodlines." Retrieved December 23, 2002 from , Global Black News Web site: http://www.globalblacknews.com/SeminoleBakari.html