Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005) 23-47
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Seminoles and Africans under Seminole Law:
Sources and Discourses of Tribal Sovereignty and "Black Indian" Entitlement
Susan A. Miller
The Seminole Nation1 has been much criticized in American news media after amending its constitution in July 2000 so as to remove two communities of African Americans, known as Seminole Freedmen, from membership in the Nation and representation on the General Council. A series of op-ed pieces in the New York Times and a segment of the television news magazine 60 Minutes II, for example, have portrayed the situation as a case in which American Indians motivated by racism and greed attempt to exclude entitled African Americans from a tribe and its benefits.2 That portrayal is based in a counterhistorical narrative propounded by advocates for the Seminole Freedmen. Journalists have accepted the story prepackaged by its proponents and have relayed it uncritically to their audiences. Parties to this public discourse have all but ignored the sovereignty of the Seminole Nation and treated the matter instead as an issue of U.S. public policy. Voices invoking tribal sovereignty have had little access to the media that carry the discussion.
Although the legal issue rests on an article of a treaty between the Seminole Nation and the United States signed in 1866, the court of public opinion admits arguments irrelevant to that case. "There have been blacks among the Seminole tribe all along. It's a totally multiracial tribe," says Jon Velie, attorney for the Freedmen, inaccurately.3 He represented the Freedmen in a lawsuit designed to gain them access to funds of the Seminole Nation,4 but while the case made its way through the U.S. court system, a vigorous publicity campaign has aroused U.S. [End Page 23] public opinion in favor of the Freedmen's cause and against a strawman representing the Seminole position. "[The Freedmen] are citizens of the Seminole Nation," says Velie, "and all citizens should be treated equally." Who could disagree with equal treatment under the law? The uninformed observer must conclude that the Seminoles are too venal or ignorant to practice simple fairness. The ad populum appeal on behalf of the Freedmen is the counterhistorical narrative of a "multiracial" history of Seminole-African/African American relations. The narrative extends into the past well before the relevant date of 1866 to a spurious origin of the Seminole Nation.
As a member of the Seminole Nation, trained as a scholarly historian and employed on an American Indian studies faculty, I "write back" in this article to address that flawed historical narrative and the associated defamation of my people. I examine the history of the Seminole-African-United States relationship, focusing on the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century through the treaty in 1866 that forms the legal basis of the Freedmen's present claim. My method is to review the discourse of Freedmen entitlement in light of the relevant scholarship. Where scholars have ignored the Seminole Nation's sovereignty and the legitimacy of the Seminole government and legal system of that time, I interpret the scholarship to take account of those factors. That is, I use an American Indian studies approach.
The inherent sovereignty of tribal peoples and their right to practice their indigenous systems of government and law are key factors in the question of African American entitlement to American Indian identities and tribal resources. Those factors are ignored, however, in the discourse of "Black Indian" identity. That slight is essential to the hegemonic function of that discourse. This article considers "Black Indian" discourse as but one thread of the hegemonic historical narrative that props up American colonial power in Native America. The really big factor that is being ignored, then, in discussion of the Seminole-Freedmen issue is the colonial nature of U.S. relations with the American Indian tribes and other indigenous peoples-including the Seminole Freedmen communities.
I want to make clear that when I address the pseudohistorical narrative advanced on...