The complicated history of Black people enslaved by American Indians
(FORT COFFEE, Okla.) “In order to get where you’re going, you need to know where you came from.”
Verdie Triplett is a Chickasaw Freedmen and Choctaw by blood, but you won’t find his name on any citizenship roll.
The only official link to Triplett’s American Indian heritage is a footnote on his ancestor’s Freedmen roll card, which states “Separated from Silas Darneal, a Choctaw Indian”. Typically, if the mother was Black and the father was American Indian, the father section would have just been left blank.
“I could look at my grandmother, who was the blood Indian, and I could see that she didn’t look Black, you know?” Triplett told VNN. “I was like now wait a minute; something is not right. You do not look like a Black woman. But we never did ask any questions and they didn’t tell us anything.”
He said the closer the conversation got to slavery, the less people said.
Triplett said he learned about his Indian heritage 15 years ago, through a cousin who started researching their ancestry. His cousin connected him to genealogist and author Angela Walton-Raji, who was able to provide him with family history he never knew he had.
“All these years I thought my family had been enslaved by white Americans,” Triplett said. “But it was shocking to me to realize that they had been enslaved by Chickasaw Indians and Choctaws. And that had a devastating effect on me.”
Triplett told VNN his research has been a rollercoaster of emotions, particularly when it led him to a shocking personal discovery.
“As a kid, my dad was a self-employed farmer,” Triplett said. “And he used to haul hay for different people. Cut, rake, and bale hay for different people. And as a kid, ten years old, I would be helping him. And he would do contracts with the people that owned the John Rings Plantation in the 60s. And I would be on that land working and didn’t realize that I would be working on the same land that my great great grandfather was a slave on.
“Just knowing that history, driving through a place where my great great grandfather was a slave, I have a glimpse of anger initially. Then sadness. Then empathy. Just driving through it, just right around the corner from me.”
How and why did American Indians become slave owners? Both were enslaved in the past.
In 1913, Almon Wheeler Lauber wrote that, once enslaved, American Indians had higher death and desertion rates than Black people.
In his book “Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States”, Lauber said, “the dominant idea of Indian life was the love of liberty. Heredity and environment cooperated to make the Indian a creature opposed to all restraint when exercised by an exterior force".
Once it was discovered that American Indians weren’t as favorable to slavery as Black people, pro-slave trade entities took steps to ensure they would become slave owners rather than allies.
In his book, “Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage” historian William Loren Katz writes turning Africans and Native Americans against each other was essential for the slave system to succeed in America, a practice that dates back to the British colonists.
“They kept the pot of animosity boiling,” Katz said. “Whites turned Indians into slavehunters and slaveowners, and Africans into ‘Indian-fighters’. Light-skinned Africans were pitted against dark-skinned, free against enslaved, Black Indians against ‘pure’ Africans or ‘pure’ Indians.”
The federal government encouraged American Indians to embrace the institution of chattel slavery (enslaving and owning humans and their offspring as property) to help “civilize” them.
And traders traveled and pushed slavery to the tribes as much as the goods they were trading.
Researchers say slaves were more commonly owned by elite, mixed blood families, and that relative few full blood American Indians owned slaves. For instance, Pitman Colbert, considered the largest Chickasaw slave owner, was descended from a white trader named James Logan Colbert.
Slavery was legally abolished in 1863, but it was not actually abolished from American soil until 1866.
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the proclamation of freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865. In actuality, the last slaves to be freed were released by the Choctaw, following the federal government’s signing of “Reconstruction” treaties with the so-called Five Civilized Tribes in 1866.
Freedmen history wasn’t taught when Triplett was in grade school. The only way he could learn more, before the records were digitized and put online, was to go to the National Archives in Fort Worth and search through dusty boxes of microfiche.
Overall, Triplett said, the knowledge has been fulfilling for his life. Now he helps others in his community find the same fulfillment.
Today, Freedmen history is part of the Oklahoma state school curriculum, taught in 8th grade.
Meanwhile, Freedmen like Triplett continue to seek full citizenship within the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muscogee (Creek) Nations. The Cherokee Nation accepted their Freedmen as full citizens in 2017 following a lengthy court battle.
“Our ancestors earned it with their slave labor,” Triplett said. “They toiled for free. And the fact that they came into an agreement with the US to make them citizens. That was part of the agreement. The Treaty of 1866 stated that.”
He said although the tribes are an oppressed people, they were also oppressors themselves, and that still needs to be rectified.
“What we are experiencing today is apartheid on American soil,” Triplett said. “It’s no different than South Africa. And what I really don’t like is the fact that my federal tax dollars go to them. Every year. So, in essence I am paying them to discriminate against me. And I don’t think that’s right.”
You can learn more about Freedmen history at the Muscogee Creek Freedmen History Exhibit in Broken Arrow this Saturday, July 9, at 6 p.m.
This story is part of VNN's Community Voices series, dedicated to reporting diverse perspectives of social issues.
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