Sunday, November 28, 2010

Earlier Map Discovered on Mysterious Negro Settlement in Indian Territory




On August 8 of this year I posted an article about an interesting African American settlement located on the banks of the Canadian River, in what is now Cleveland County Oklahoma.

In that article, the earliest map was that I had found was a map from 1879 revealing a settlement simply referred to as the Negro Settlement.  This settlement was reflected for several decades, and then as suddenly as it appeared---it disappeared from the maps and from the pages of history. In fact, it never appeared on the pages of the state's history.

Mr. Jason Clark, a California based researcher, who owns  land in the nearby town of present day Slaughterville Oklahoma saw the article and wrote to me after reading the article.  While on a recent trip home to Oklahoma, he did some searching at the courthouse, and he located an earlier map of the same area. This map reflected a similar location, to a degree, with two interesting notations on that map: one reflected Negro Huts,  designation "Negro Huts" and less than a mile away, on home of the map, noted as "Negro House."
Was this a boarding house, or a structure for one family?  Right above the notation for Section 29 were the
"Negro Huts".  The question is---were the "huts" on this earlier map reflecting the same settlement?



Like the other maps, there was a road coming from a northeasterly direction, but nothing called the Cheyenne Agency Road. The road on this earlier map was simply referred to as a Wagon Trail.

This was less than 10 years since the end of the Civil War, and also for the release of slaves from bondage in nearby Chickasaw Nation.  Many Chickasaw Freedmen did live several miles to the south of this point, but this was not in a Chickasaw Freedmen, community. It was south and west of any Seminole Freedmen areas, and it was not near any Choctaw Freedmen areas.

So the  mystery still continues as to what this community was, and who the inhabitants might have been.  Were the Negro Huts simply near the designated Negro House by accident or was there a relationship between the occupants?


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hagar Meyers - Unsung Heroine of the Green Peach War

A Close up of Hagar Meyers on a Census Record


Her name has not appeared in many places.  But she might be the very person who brought the Green Peach War to an end and saved hundreds of lives in the process. Her name was Hager Myers, a Creek Freedwoman.

Hagar Meyers in 1930 census is shown living with son H.S. in Muskogee, Oklahoma

What is her story? Can she be found? Does she have descendants?

The one reference to her is found in the Indian Pioneer Papers.  A elder gentleman, Scott Waldo McIntosh was interviewed for the W. P. A project.  He was a Creek Citizen and he was part of the faction of Creeks that followed Isparhecher, during the years of the Green Peach War. He was also the son of William McIntosh a Creek leader, and in addition---he was also a Creek Freedman. Having been close to the Creek leaders, many incidents he witnessed first hand.  His telling the story of the Green Peach War was an interesting piece to read---but he made a reference to a woman, that possibly brought the war to an end, and she is the focus of my search.

He spoke of Isparhecher, or "Spieche" (the way the name is often pronounced). In his interview he stated:








The man telling this story, was Scott Waldo McIntosh, also a son of William McIntosh. He had been present during many critical events that occurred in the latter 19th century in the Creek Nation, and his interview was extensive, numbering more than 20 pages.

(The narrative switches sometimes from his voice to that of the interviewer speaking about Mr. McIntosh.) It is quite clear that Mr. McIntosh had a strong sense of historic preservation as he spoke about the need to care for the old burial sites as well as the battle grounds. Then he made another appeal for the recognition of Hager Meyers:

Source: Excerpts from Indian Pioneer Papers
Interview with Scott Waldo McIntosh, 
(Vol. 58 Interview #6559)

Considering that Mr. Harrison had been with Isparhecher during the Green Peach War and was there when they did surrender, he had no need to invent the story, and it is quite possibly accurate. With that being so---can anything be learned more about Hagar?

I am not certain as to when she died and where she is buried.  There does not appear to be a burial for her in Ft. Gibson, though Mr. McIntosh had suggested it. She is probably buried at Old Agency Cemetery, which has fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. It is the community where she lived, and quite possibly is where she is buried.

In 1930, Hagar and her husband John Myers were living with their son, H.S. Myers, in the Muskogee area. Some twenty years earlier, in 1910, Hagar and husband John, were in the Agency community in the Muskogee area.

1910 Census, Muskogee Oklahoma


In 1900, they lived next door to their oldest son, Henry, still in Muskogee, in the Creek Nation.

1900 Census, Muskogee Oklahoma

Since there was no Federal Census prior to those years, Hagar, might possibly be found on the Dawes Rolls:
Sure enough on Creek Freedman Card #1057, John and Hagar are found.



The reverse side of the card reveals information about her parents. Her father was Harry Lewis, and her mother Diana Kernal was a slave of Creek Indian, Sukey Kernal, Her husband John was the son of G.A.G. Myers, who was a US Citizen and not a citizen of any of the tribes in Indian Territory.


Unfortunately---as many of the Creek interviews are missing---there is no interview for the family.

In the 1936 City directory for Muskogee Oklahoma, Hagar Myers is found living in Rte. 1 in the Agency community.

Entry from 1936 Muskogee City Directory


Nothing more is known about this woman, who apparently lived a quiet life, and died where she had spent most of her life. Without a small reference to her, by a witness to the surrender of Isparhecher in the Green Peach War, her name would not be known. But the actions of this woman forcing her way behind the lines, to get a message to Isparhecher, a massacre was prevented and lives were saved.

It is hoped that someday some descendants of the Meyers line may produce a photo of this woman. Her life was a simple and humble one.

She showed courage one day during a time of conflict, and worked her way through a line of soldiers to deliver a message of Isparhecher.  Lives were saved, and someday her name, thanks to Scott Waldo McIntosh, we can call her name.

May you continue your rest in peace Hagar Meyers.  
Many are here today, for the courage you showed on one day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Freedmen of Tishomingo, Struggle to Educate their Children

1887 Letter pertaining to the Freedmen of Tishomingo
Source: National Archives, College Park MD

More than $300,000 were given to the Choctaw & Chickasaw people to assist in determining the fate of their former slaves.  Many in the tribe wanted to simply remove the former slaves to the Leased District. This would remove all traces of slavery having occurred on their soil. The tribes were eventually given Federal US funds to assist with this process, but the agreement was not honored, the Freedmen received no assistance, and 20 years later, their fate had not yet been determined. The  funds were received and apparently used, but not for the benefit of the Freedmen, and so many in 1887, remained still destitute with an undetermined future.

The letter above indicates that in the 1880s, the primary concern for those in Tishomingo, was the children. They wanted their children to be educated, so they would not grow up illiterate and without opportunity.
Some 20 years after freedom came, the Freedmen of the Chickasaw Nation were in a very sad state.

Many resided now in a land where they were resented for their freedom, and and at the time that the slaves were freed in 1866 (a full year after the Civil War) many were simply turned loose with no provisions, no money, and after a lifetime of servitude, no skill in negotiating pay for work.  Some wanted to leave and live in peace, others wanted to remain in the land of their birth, and where their parents and loved ones were buried

Most shared one primary desire, however----they wanted their children to learn. Teachers, were in need as much as food, clothing and shelter, and their needs were so strong that they sent a representative to Washington to plea on their behalf.  The representative was W. N. Jackson, and he traveled meet officials in the U.S. Indian Service, and to speak on their behalf.

The letter continues to describe their fate, and it was acknowledged in this letter that this impoverished population had continued to suffer from poverty, and neglect.

2nd page of letter from US Indian Service
Source: National Archives, College Park MD

The struggles continued for the Freedmen, of all of the tribes, but there were unique struggles in store for those in Chickasaw Freedmen communities.  Generations later, many chose to leave "Little Dixie" as the region was called by those who suffered under state enforced Jim Crow laws. However, there are a few documents that remain, that reflect the struggles of a people who were determined to live, raise their children in dignity and to move ahead.   

Today, many of the descendants of the Freedmen of Tishomingo and many other communities, now study to find those long buried stories, including those stories of their family struggles to survive.  

This letter reflects a very small portion of that larger story.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Looking for Lindy's Son. The Search for a Choctaw Slave




Very little data is available describing the lives of the African slaves of Indian Territory. However, an often over-looked source of data comes from the Indian Pioneer Papers, that interviewed early white, black and Indian Citizen about their lives and their families.  Many of the people interviewed often related stories of what they knew of slaves, owned by their own  family, or referred to some of their former slaves who were still living.

In the case of Chirstine Bates (nee Folsom) she spoke about her life in the Choctaw Nation, and how her father, a preacher eventually amassed property and including 50 slaves.


She describes the perils of life during the Civil War, and she then mentions of of the former slaves by name.  Lindy Butler was one, who Ms. Bates recalled, and she pointed out that Lindy, the slave had born 21 children. One of the children was still living at the time of the interview (in the 1930s)


Well, as a genealogist and researcher, I became interested in Lindy Butler and her children.  How amazing that she was able to bear so many children while she was a slave.  She undoubtedly contributed to the wealth of the slave master significantly, as her children, her issue would have belonged to him. Unless of course they were leased out to another family as often happened with slaves---they could be given away or rented or sold at the whims of the slave owner.  Lindy was probably long deceased in the1930s, but there was a reference to one of her children---Ed. And Ed, as one of her children, was probably only a small boy by the time that emancipation came. The fact that the daughter of the slave owner was aware of not only "Aunt Lindy Butler" but that she knew what had become of at least one of her children, suggests that all contact might not have been hostile after freedom came.

So, could I find Ed in the records?  As the son of  a Choctaw slave, he would have been a Choctaw Freedmen himself.  Could I find his file?

I began to search to find Ed Butler, son of Lindy Butler, a Choctaw slave.

Using the Native American CD, created by the Friends of OHS that contains a searchable database of all Dawes Rolls enrollees, I examined the surname Butler.  There were 2 possibilities. Two Freedmen were named Ed Butler.


Either of the two Eds could have been, the right one, for both were in their 40s.  Either might have been the son of "Aunt Lindy", the slave.  In addition both of those men, were clearly put on a Freedman Roll, because there was a policy--even if the former slave had the blood of the slave owner---the data was not to be shown.  (This policy now contributes to the exclusion policy practiced by the 5 slaveholding tribes to this day.  The years of forced labor meant nothing, then and now, and those with documented ties to the tribes, if they are African slave descendants, are they are forbidden admission to the nation where their ancestors lived, toiled and died.)

Considering therefore, that it was decided during the Dawes Enrollment years to never include data about any Indian parentage if the person had any Negro blood, to find the right Ed, (son of Lydia) in this case meant a careful examination of the records was required. Seeing the names of these two "Eds" on the Dawes Rolls with the blood category being left blank, meant therefore, that they were indeed Freedmen.  But Freedmen from which tribe?

I looked first at Ed Butler on Card 1039.  Going farther into the database indicated that he was Choctaw Freedman.



Could I find him among any records? Could Ed, the Choctaw Freedman be Lindy Butler's son?  I had to examine his Dawes Card.

Enrollment Card of Ed Butler, Choctaw Freedman

At first glance this might not have been the right Ed Butler.  He was a former slave, in the Choctaw Nation. He lived in Atoka and was enrollment with his children.  However, the card states that he had been enslaved by someone called, "Mrs. Robb.  Hmm........the reverse side of the call would have more information.

Side 2 of Enrollment Card of Ed Butler, Choctaw Freedman

On this side, information pertaining to the parents of Ed Butler can be found.  His father's name was Lemon Butler.  His mother's name was Linda Butler.  Linda-----as in Lindy?

If Linda was possibly the same Lindy-----then this was one of her 21 children!!!

BUT----who was Mrs. Robb?? I then realized that many times children and their parents did could have had different owners.  And in the case of a woman who may have been widowed--remarriage before her death could have occurred, also.  So Mrs. Robb is a mystery.  But there was another clue---Israel Folsom, the slaveholder.

Known in the Choctaw community, to be an ordained minister, Israel Folsom was a man of prominence in Blue County, where he lived.  I was surprised to also find an image of him, actually several images of him.

Israel Folsom



Enrollment Card of Christine Bates, interviewee 
of Indian Pioneer Papers and daughter of Israel Folsom


I had to also stop and reflect.  Israel Folsom had a relative--possibly a cousin---Joel Folsom.  Joel Folsom was the son of Solomon Folsom, also in the same clan of Choctaw Folsoms.  I mention Joel only because he married Emeline Perry--whose family was the slaveholding family of my ancestors

Biographies of Israel Folsom, indicate that he was well respected by most who knew him, and one can only hope that the fate of his slaves was not one of harsh treatment or misery.

At the time the census enumerators came into his community to count the slaves to put on the Slave Schedule, it does appear that he was not cooperative and the census enumerator had to obtain information on his slaves from others. (See note on side panel, below.)

Slave Schedule 1860, Blue County, Choctaw Nation
Note made alongside that of Israel Folsom

Side Panel of Nation, pertaining to the slaves of Israel Folsom


I was pretty confident that I had found the right Ed Butler, son, of Linda (Lindy) Butler, who was a slave of Israel Folsom.  But---there was another Choctaw Freedman with the same name.  To be sure, it was imperative that I investigate the other Ed Butler, as well. It was evident that the other Ed Butler was not the son of Lindy, slave of the Folsoms. this Ed Butler was enslaved by another leading Choctaw---Peter Pitchlynn.

Ed Butler, former slave of Peter Pitchlynn

It also appears that the parents of Ed Butler were also Pitchlynn Slaves.

Reverse side of Ed Butler's Enrollment Card
reflects his parents who were both enslaved by Peter Pitchlynn

So, I had found in the records, Ed Butler, son of Lindy Butler.  I only hope that in his lifetime, his fate and that of his children were remarkably different.  By statehood, they would have been entitled to schools, and a few more opportunities.  Did they remain in the region after statehood?

 The descendants of Ed and Lindy will have to tell the rest of that story. Hopefully someday they will discover their history and tell what happened to the next generations.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Old Choctaw Plantation Part of Oklahoma Archaeology Site

Robert Jones, Choctaw Slaveholder and Wife Susan Colbert Jones
Source: Oklahoma Historical Society 


A large antebellum plantation in the Choctaw Nation, is now being explored for the long forgotten history lying on it's soil. Robert Jones was a wealthy plantation owner, and said to have been the largest slave holder in the Choctaw Nation.

An announcement from the Oklahoma Historical Society mentioned a current dig, that began October 7-10th of this year, at the site where the home of Robert M. Jones is said to have been. The announcement from OHS indicated that two state agencies were involved, including the Oklahoma Archealogical Survey, and the Ft. Towson Historic site. Volunteers also from the Oklahoma Anthropological Society were also involved in the effort. A spring dig at the will take place as well. One of the goals of the dig, was to actually locate the site of the original Jones home. Apparently the original home was destroyed in a fire in 1912. The report from the OHS Extra, an electronic newsletter, indicate that the home site was found.

There is no indication as to whether any remains of slave cabins or other artifacts from the slavery era were actually sought by participants, but I would hope that all who have an interest in the entire history being told, will also tell the story of the slaves, and will encourage the exploration more in depth history of the antebellum black presence on what is now, Oklahoma soil.

Therefore, I am compelled to ask the questions:

Who were the slaves of Robert Jones and his wife Susan?
Where did they live?
Did any who survived ever refer to him or her as their slave holders?
And what was their life like?


Well Robert Jones had several plantations:
 Walnut Prairie Farm
 Shawneetown Farm,
 Kiamitia County Farm
 Lake West Farm (Blue County)

Yes, many of his slaves did survive, and quite a few mentioned him as their slave owner during the years of the Dawes Commission. What follows is a Dawes Enrollment Card of one of the slaves of Robert Jones.

Enrollment Card of Nip Tucker, Janis, I.T.
He was born a slave of Robert Jones

Reverse side of Nip Tucker Enrollment Card
Both of his parents were also enslaved by Robert M. Jones


 Robert Jones had African slaves working on all of his estates. The slave schedules from 1860 provide a glimpse into the vast numbers of slaves that he owned.


The Slaves of Robert Jones - 1860

Robert Jones Slaves Shown on 1860 Slave Schedule
(Walnut Farm and Kiamitia farms shown)
Source: National Archives 1860 Slave Schedule, Choctaw Nation

More slaves of Robert M. Jones.
These slaves are a continuation of those enslaved at Shawneetown
Source: National Archives 1860 Slave Schedule, Choctaw Nation


End of Robert Jones' slaves listed in Shawneetown, 
and list of those enslaved at Kiamitia.
Source: National Archives 1860 Slave Schedule, Choctaw Nation


A closer look at his farm in Shawneetown, makes one pause only wonder what the quality of life must have been for the female slave in her 90s, counted with no name---but only as property.  One must ask---what service could a 90 year old woman have provided for Robert Jones and Susan Colbert Jones, his wife?


Close up view of some of the slaves listed on slave schedule, owned  by Robert M. Jones,  
living in Shaweetown, Red River County, Choctaw Nation, 1860.

The current archeological project at the old Jones estate sounds interesting, and the remains of the old home were actually found by workers on the dig. 

My hope is that there will be more exposure about the project and strong encouragement of the initiative.  Hopefully historians, anthropologists, archaeologists will jump at this opportunity to explore slavery in an area that has never been studied in depth---slavery in the west---in Indian Territory.  

Like all subjects, the study of slavery in Indian Territory, merits objective examination and involvement by scholars of many disciplines.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Who Will Meet me on the Cultural Bridge?



After attending the sotrytellers symposium in Muskogee Oklahoma last month, the concept of being met on the bridge was a wonderful metaphor that continuously comes to my mind.  

I was glad to be there with colleagues from the Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen community, and with colleagues whose focus is to research, and document our own history.  We arrived in Muskogee with no expectations of warmth or inclusion, and with no concerns for exclusion rejection to come from native sectors.  And on one level we surprisingly did find inclusion thanks to the Five Tribes Museum, and on another level the exclusion expressed from others, came as no surprise.

The fact is: We were there, because our ancestors were there. Period.

But what I was left with, was the need to find those incredible stories of survival and persistence, and also of resistance, exhibited by Africans brought into Five Tribes as slaves.

  I realized that if we don't tell our stories their history might be altered---by fiction.
  
The story of Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle, was a heart warming one---- but, if not noted by those of us who come from both Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaw communities---if  we don't do what we must do--history might be altered. If we do not tell our stories, inaccuracies might be recorded as truth.  We must share those stories of what happened-----all of the stories of what happened.


As Joyce Bear, former cultural preservationist of the Muscogee Creek Nation, told her stories from her grandmother---we too have to find those stories from our own grandmothers.  One could not help but be moved when hearing the story of little Creek children and how they were abused during the time of the removal.  

BUT----there are also, those stories of little slave girls, being sold as breeders, and at the age of 10 when no babies came, they were sold again----discarded as a bad purchase. Mary Grayson's mother was such a child, and I can only ask---who wept for that child?  


(Excerpt from WPA Interview with Mary Grayson 1937)


Who tells her story?  

Who sees her humanity?  

Who cares that her 10 year old body was ravaged by her Creek owners, taking her west on the removal?  

She suffered just as much as the Creek children also moving westward at the same time. 

So---------shouldn't her stories also be told?

Whose eyes fill with tears when some people speak of the time when the fires were lit?
  
Well African eyes also saw those same flames. Who speaks for them?


Stories such as Crossing Bok Chitto are heartwarming, but again we must be careful.  We have to look at all resources to tell the other stories.  Slavery happened, and terrible things occurred.  But there were exceptions, and Crossing Bok Chitto tells a story of one such exception. 


BUT that exception was not the norm---there was no strong sense of abolitionism in the 1820s in Mississippi. 

The slave uprisings in Choctaw country as late as 1861, in fact speak to the desire for freedom, felt in the bosoms of the enslaved.  

The ads for runaway slaves in papers such as the Choctaw Intelligencer speak to the efforts to keep them in bondage.

Choctaw Intelligencer, 1850


Runaway Slave Ad, Choctaw Intelligencer 1850


BUT when we tell those stories, we also must be fair.  As much as slavery prevailed it must be noted most Choctaws did not own slaves. There were relationships that prevailed and some of those relationships continued after slavery ended in 1866.  There were family ties, there were friendships and there were communities where former slaves lived with their Choctaw compatriots.


We don't have to sugar coat it, we only have the obligation to tell what happened.  However, there do remain, many challenges to telling what happened.

Today---so many of us are now strangers to each other.  


There is now a fear of interaction, between descendants of those once enslaved, and the Choctaws, and Chickasaws who lived among each other.  

Interestingly, if one was to visit black communities in Tishomingo, today, or attend a family gathering, one will find Pashofa served alongside the collard greens. At the family potluck one brings the cornbread while another brings the fry bread.  Grape dumplings are served in both black and Indian communities.  And many folks  in both communities have the great uncle who knows where to go and get the best sassafrass out in the country.

But now today----we don't greet, or receive greetings, we rarely smile at each other and keep a strange and safe distance from each other.  

And we heard repeatedly ---when push comes to shove there is a need to go "behind closed doors."  One of the Chickasaw speakers talked about the insistence upon telling the history---though admitted that she never knew even what clan she was from.  And of course there was the reminder, that some stories will not be told, they are reserved for certain people.  The message was sent and it was received.

None this was a surprise, to hear, and it was perhaps a defensive mechanism.  Recent years and lawsuits have brought out feelings of discomfort-----and even mentioning slavery in Indian country lets out a secret-- that five tribes, specifically THE Five Tribes held others in bondage, practicing the same institution---black chattel slavery.

Ok----slavery happened. Period. It was the times.  

With that said----people survived.  People lived and people shared many things, including land, life and in many cases family.

No one wishes to knock down your closed doors.  We too have doors that close.  We too have stories to tell, and we too, have prevailed.

We have more in common, than not in common.

So I wonder, who will meet me on the Cultural Bridge?






Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Ancestral Poem - Their Story Has Not Yet Been Told......

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I was inspired after attending the storyteller's conference that more than ever, we, who descend from those Africans enslaved in the Five Tribes, we should tell the stories---the stories of what happened to them, the stories of how they survived, and the stories that helped them to thrive.  


All of the stories from the historic to the folklore, contain a rich cultural tradition of the African mixed with the Indian cultures in which so many were immersed.  It was after all, the only land, and the only world that our grandparents knew.   I therefore felt compelled to share this video and the accompanying poem that I wrote 


An Ancestral Poem


I know where my ancestors come from
But their story has not yet been told.
           
From a warmer land, suddenly taken,
Home no more forever forsaken.
In 1830 with Choctaws they came,
By '65 they remained still in chains.

I know where my ancestors come from.
But their story has not yet been told.

When Dancing Rabbit made the Choctaws leave,
they came too, once again so bereaved.
When Treaty of Doaksville brought the Chickasaws west
My people came---some purchased in haste.

I know where my ancestors come from
But their story has not yet been told.

They were Chahta Lusa in towns like Skullyville
Chicksa Lusta some were called in Doaksville.
In towns of both nations, their life was all toil.
But in '66, they stood on free soil.

I know where my ancestors come from
But their story has not yet been told.

Many clans they formed when finally freed
New settlements formed as free air they now breathed.
To Congress they wrote for the right just to learn
In bosom’s breast to live freely, they yearned.

I know where my ancestors came from
But their story has not yet been told.

Stevensons, Cheadles, Shoals and Kemps,
Christians, and Jones and Ligons and Camps
Eubanks families near Cavanaugh Hill
Came Waltons, and Burris and sons of Darneal

In towns like Berwyn, Milo, Poteau, and Howe,
McAlester, Idabel, and Ardmore, they’d vow
To live on the land and finally own
40 acre allotments forever their own.

 I know where my ancestors come from
But their story has not yet been told.

To those who dismissed them as slaves, of no worth
Our fathers and mothers who lost twice on this earth
These men, and women and children did thrive.
No more can the state, nor these nations hide
Their brethren, -- once family-- still part of the tribe. 

I know where my ancestors come from
And their story is NOW being told.


© Angela Y. Walton-Raji 2009

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From the Trickster, to Grape Dumplings-Reflections from the Storyteller Conference


The weekend of September 23-24 was an enlightening experience and one that illustrated for several of us, the similarities between two peoples more than the differences

Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Descendants Carlotta Kemp Wheeler, Terry Ligon,
Joyce Shelton Settles, and Reuben Noah, (Choctaw Citizen)
.

This conference brought storytellers from all of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma, it was also an opportunity to learn and to appreciate the value of culture, of continuing traditions, and to sharing one's history and culture with the community. Although there were some speakers who spoke to the exclusivity of their practice i. e. "I don't tell my stories to outsiders"---it was clear to me, that more than ever, African Americans with ties to Indian Territory, have a rich history to celebrate, share, and invite others to enjoy as well.

But there is one primary difference that I felt:  With the African storyteller, there is no tradition to exclude others, because African people--whether they are from Indian Territory, or the Low Country of the Carolinas, or the Creoles of Louisiana---African Ancestored people have a tradition of welcome, trust and are we people of an hospitable spirit.

Interestingly what was evident as one who sat and enjoyed the presentations, I could not help but smile at the references to the creation stories, and the trickster stories.  Why?  Because the trickster stories from Africa to the Caribbean are alive and have a rich tradition, as well.  I smile when I recall Ananse the spider---who was sometimes the disguised as a rabbit--- and those stories that have charmed children from Western Africa to the West Indies.  Like most tricksters---Anansi (pronounced Ah-NAHN-see)  can take on many forms---sometimes as human, sometimes as another creature and Anansi stories (called "Nancy" stories in the West Indies)  have warmed the hearts of children for hundreds of years. How amazing to listen to the panelists who spoke of the tradition of trickster stories that also prevail within Muscogee Creek communities.

For myself as a Freedman descendant who studies the customs of African people of the Five Tribes, the similarities are evident to those of us who know.  

There are the similarities in our culture from the communities themselves---from language, religion and diet.  An example---the diet of Africans from the Territory is one that is just as rich rich in pashofa, grape dumplings, or possom grapes, as it is in greens, cornbread and barbecue. And all of these are still part of of our own family events to this day.

But----what also became evident to me, this weekend--- was the separation that now exists.  

Where at one time, we were people who once lived near each other, and once knew each other--- we now live apart, and now are strangers when only two generations ago---our ancestors were friends, and in many cases, they were family. But statehood, the Dawes allotment process and decades of enforced segregation made old friends now strangers, and former compatriots are now persons who distrust each other---preventing those similarities from being known to each other.  The "you are not of us" theme was there as some of the panelists spoke, and though not blatant, it was there, to those who know.

It was a delight to see scholar Daniel Littlefield present, hear him speak.  But on Saturday, it was painful to see how when he spoke, others on the same panel either pulled the cap over their faces, or physically backed away from the table, as if his remarks were not of value. The intolerance was evident, blatant and unnecessary. 
Author, and professor, Daniel L. Littlefield

There were the references to those "non-Indian writers" were made, and Dr. Littlefield addressed those references head on, and pointed out the fact that he was one of those non-Indian writers who has written for over 50 years, and has continually been honored by the tribes, and his  scholarship has yet to be criticized by Indian scholars, Indian tribal leaders and the Indian community.  The somewhat hostile treatment of such an esteemed writer and scholar in this way was a disappointment.

But---- the good part about the conference, was to note that that the determination of the storytellers to keep alive was genuine. And I personally reflected and realized that the stories that have been told in our homes that came from our grandparents, & their parents need to be told even more than ever. 

Though many of us are now strangers to each other we don't have to be.  

There were a few who did meet us half way across the bridge, as the plenary speaker suggested. But many never set foot on the metaphoric bridge. We were there in the middle of the metaphoric bridge already---for we had traveled over 1000 miles to be there, and to listen and to learn. Though very few bothered to extend a hand of of friendship--for it is not their way---what a loss of opportunity. 

As much was referenced to "the old ways" it should be remembered:
 No culture, is static. Those cultures that are static, are extinct.  The human experience is dynamic and it does grow and change as contact with others brings about that dynamic change.  And life, is change.
I often find the stories of those now gone, from the many narratives and documents left behind. And there on the landscape of NE Oklahoma one finds the evidence of the blending of people who lived near each other. As Muscogee heritage specialist pointed out, in many communities the African slaves brought their stories with them, and one even now hears the stories of Brer' Rabbit and others in Creek communities.  Indeed, as the Africans brought their traditions and culture with them, many former slaves took the Indian traditions and customs that they had learned back into their families and communities as well.  

No culture is static--that which is static is extinct.

All in all, the conference was an enlightening one.  The resounding theme for me----we must tell our own stories.  For it is from those stories that we have the evidence of our past, of our presence and ultimately of our future.

Special thanks go to the staff of the  Five Tribes Museum for hosting the reception and co-hosting the conference.  They are people whom we admire and appreciate and look forward to seeing again in the future. Their graciousness and their gesture of friendship and acceptance took courage and was appreciated by those of us who traveled to be there.  Their inclusion of our exhibit reflecting the history of the Freedmen is indeed a step in telling more of the dynamic and complex story of Indian Territory.

I am grateful also to those who did meet us half way across the bridge and whom we look forward to meeting in the future:

Dorothy Alexander, Poet & Publisher


Reuben Noah, (Choctaw)
Five Tribes Museum Staff

Mary Robinson, Executive Director
Five Civilized Tribes Museum


It should also be mentioned that we had the chance to meet artist and illustrator Jeanne Rorex. She is the author who illustrated the book by Tim Tingle, Crossing Bok Chitto and is known for her artwork the Sisters Series reflecting African-Native American families.

Angela Walton-Raji & artist Jeanne Rorex


Image from The Sisters Series

No culture is static. That which is static is extinct. 

The lessons learned have been profound. Now is the time to tell our stories!



Saturday, September 25, 2010

Identity, Tradition and Preservation Discussed at Storytellers Conference






Bacone College Chapel was the site of the first  Five Tribes Story Conference which began yesterday in Muskogee Oklahoma. This event brought together an interesting combination of professors, storytellers and researchers. The opening Plenary was by Tim Tingle, (Choctaw) author of the book Crossing Bok Chitto.

Those attending the conference were literally from all over the country, from Maryland to California, Wisconsin, Texas, and many places in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Tim Tingle, author delivers plenary address. 

Author Tim Tingle, in the opening session, shared the origin of his storytelling experience, and how he came to develop the story of Crossing Bok Chitto, a story of African & Native friendship and freedom.

A number of panels were presented with interesting discussions about how each person found methods of depicting stories and acquiring stories to tell.
Panelists: Choogie Kingfisher (Cherokee)
Lorie Robbins (Chickasaw)  Peter Coser (Muscogee)  Phillip Harjo (Seminole)

Several discussions came from the panelists discussing a variety of issues of identity, and tradition, and most interestingly a discussion of how became professional storytellers in their adult years, particularly.  Some remarks reflected a tradition of native creation stories, and there were a number of references relationships with elders as story sources and resources.

History was often discussed, though not much discussion about the African presence in the tribe, many participants in private conversations were very much aware of this part of the Five Tribes history as well as culture.  An interesting point that I noticed was a frequent reference to historical research, which was critical to many as a resources for them as storytellers.

A greater need occurred to me, is the need for more stories to be told about those of African Ancestry---to tell our stories and to share our own perspective of what has happened to our own people, who played a strong influence on the history of the tribes---as participants in the history, the culture and in cases of Creek and Seminole histories---the politics of some of the tribes.

Our own stories of Cow Tom & Sugar George (Creeks) Abraham (Seminole), Dick Brashears (Choctaw) and Henry Kemp (Chickasaw) are among the many stories of Africans of Indian Territory that also need to be told.  Their names need to be heard again on the land where they lived and died.  The presence of Africans on the Trial of Tears deserves to be told---because we were there.  Hopefully we will have more than mere images of their headstones---but will come to appreciate them more as men and women who contributed to the places and communities where they lived.

Gravestone of Cow Tom, Creek Freedman

The best element of the conference was the chance to interact with old friends, meet new friends, and a new sense of devotion to telling our own historical stories.

Terry Ligon & Daniel Littlefield engage in
Thought provoking discussion at lunch



Members of Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Association
& History Daniel Littlefield

I most appreciated the chance to meet others and personally feel renewed, to return to the work that must be done.
Muscogee Creek Freedmen Ron Graham 
met Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen
Angela Walton-Raji, Joyce Shelton Settles, Terry Ligon


Author Sarah Elizabeth 

Yesterday's lectures reflected the need for all people to take their own history and culture seriously, to embrace their own history, and to tell their own stories.