- The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832–1929
David A. Chang explores the connection between race and landowner-ship in Creek country during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He finds that land and citizenship were intertwined in complicated ways and that land policy could have a profound influence on the way people conceptualized race. Chang’s three-part study uses the lens of nationalism to explicate the meaning of Creek tribal sovereignty to different groups, with particular emphasis on capturing the thinking of nonelites.
Chang begins by describing changes in Creek notions of property. Traditionally, Creeks owned property communally; in each Creek talwa, or town, matrilineages worked communal fields divided into family sections. Women generally performed the agricultural labor, sometimes with the assistance of Creek men. In the eighteenth century, a Creek person had use-rights property in land; that is, one could not own the land but could own the products of her or his labor from the land. Creeks also practiced the enslavement of persons of African descent; however, initially the status of such slaves was neither permanent nor inheritable. In fact, many enslaved people in eighteenth-century Creek country were able to move from slavery to freedom, marrying into Creek families and being accepted into the larger Creek community. By the time of the Civil War, conversely, Creeks engaged in a form of racialized slavery that closely resembled the practice in the American South, and many elite Creeks subscribed to a notion of private property in land and people that had not existed in Creek thinking prior to the nineteenth century. But the idea of communal property in land persisted. In the decades after the Civil War, conservative Creeks and black Creeks, who had largely centered their communities in three new “Colored” towns and thus controlled seats in the Creek bicameral legislature, united politically to protect their access to common lands (40).
Through allotment policy, the division of lands and assignment of individual deeds, the federal government sought to obliterate communal land-ownership and extinguish tribal governments while conveniently opening up more land for white settlement. Creeks fought this policy tenaciously, and Chang posits that in this struggle “many Creeks adopted an increasingly rigid racial sense of Creek nationhood” to argue that “Creeks of different races had different and unequal rights to land” (82). The process of allotment itself, enumerating each member of the Creek polity as “Creek Freedman” or “Creek by blood” and including individual “blood quantum,” [End Page 468] served to reinforce ideas about race and racial hierarchy. Thus, as Chang skillfully demonstrates in this section, one can see the transformation of a Creek leader such as Chitto Harjo of Arbeka, who actively fostered black Creek involvement in the Snake movement to oppose allotment at the turn of the century but in 1906 complained before a Senate committee that “the Government is cutting up my land and is giving it away to black people,” people who, according to Harjo, had come to Creek country as slaves and had no right to the land (102).
The book’s final section devotes a chapter each to Creek, black, and white relationships to the land in the wake of allotment. Rather than become the yeoman farmers in households headed by Creek men that many federal supporters of allotment had hoped for, many Creeks eventually sold their allotments, and still others rented or leased the mineral rights to their land instead of farming it themselves. The eligibility of black Creeks to receive land allotments often created tensions between Creeks and “States Negroes,” as black Creeks termed African American migrants to the region (159). The Oklahoma state constitution erased this distinction in 1907, however, when it codified segregation and described all people of African descent as “negro” and all others as whites, a move that ensured that the indigenous population would not be subject to Jim Crow laws in...