Native Southerners

By Theda Perdue

Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 1, 4-8

Southerners do not think very much about Indians unless, of course, they are vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains or perhaps south Florida where the Cherokees and the Seminoles/Miccosukees maintain tourist attractions. Instead, Southerners tend to associate native peoples with the region's distant past (Pocahontas) or with the West (cowboys and Indians). Yet in 1980 the South's population included almost 190,000 people, excluding nearly 170,000 others in Oklahoma, who identified themselves to census takers as Indian. Of these, approximately 14,000 live on reservations while others maintain their ethnic identity without federal recognition, a land base, or a governing structure. The South's native peoples are enormously diverse, yet they share a complex ancient culture and a recent history that has challenged them to preserve that cultural tradition in remarkably creative ways.

Today's Southern Indians are descendants of people who have lived in the region for thousands of years. In the millennia before the arrival of Europeans, they developed an agriculturally based economic system and organized themselves into large centralized chiefdoms. These native Southerners were not hunters who roamed the forests in isolated bands: they were farmers who lived in towns. Only recently, in fact, has the South once again become as urbanized as it was on the eve of


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European "discovery." The rich bottomlands, a long growing season, and ample rainfall made it possible for the region to support a population as dense as many areas of Europe. In

Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983)

, historical demographer Henry Dobyns, for example, suggested that the current state of Florida was home to nearly a million people. Quite clearly, the South was not a wilderness in 1492.

The demography, economy, government, and belief system of these people promoted a sense of community and cooperation: they joined together in performing large tasks such as planting and harvesting and they maintained public granaries for visitors and villagers who fell on hard times. The responsibilities and obligations of kinship governed one's behavior; a strong community ethic balanced considerable individual autonomy; and cosmological order demanded temporal harmony. They did not operate in an individualistic way; the community ethic was foremost.

European invasion disrupted this way of life in several ways. Most profound was the impact of disease. Native Americans had no resistance to the diseases of Europe, and they suffered horrendous casualties not only from common killers such as smallpox but also from milder diseases such as measles. Dobyns and other demographers have suggested that as many as 95 percent of native Americans died in the first hundred years of contact with Europeans. In addition to disease, warfare and slave-raiding claimed victims. Furthermore, Europeans, particularly the English, demanded native land and allegiance. A growing dependence on European goods left Indians little bargaining room, and so they relinquished territory and sovereignty.

Sidebar: Indians in Slavery

In the South, the colonial economy quickly came to depend on agriculture. In the early years, native peoples sustained this economy through their land, which the colonists seized by the foreign practice of treaty-making, and native labor, acquired by enslavement. Indian prisoners of war took their place alongside African captives in the tobacco and rice fields of colonial plantations. In 1708, for example, South Carolina's population of 9,58O included 2,900 Africans and 1,400 Indian slaves. In

The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians in the Old South (New York: The Free Press, 198I)

, historian J. Leitch Wright asserted, however, that the number of Indian slaves actually could have been much higher because of imprecision in recording the race of slaves. Furthermore, he contended that many of the characteristics of African American culture may be native in origin rather than African because of the high proportion of native people in the slave population.

By 1820, the native population in the South had declined to approximately 100,000 people. Many of those who survived belonged to five powerful nations-the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles-who had begun to adopt European culture in varying degrees. Except perhaps for the Seminoles, they had centralized their governments, recorded laws and established courts to enforce them, and engaged in commercial agriculture. Some welcomed missions and schools,


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adopted the English language, and bought African slaves. These peoples came to be known as the "civilized" tribes, yet their "civilization" offered little protection from the land hunger and racism of the white South. In the 1820s and 1830s, the vast majority of these people, through fraudulent treaties or by force, surrendered their homelands in the South and moved to what is today eastern Oklahoma.

Remnants of some of these peoples remained in the South. A group of Cherokees held on to land in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, some Choctaws retreated to the swamps and sand hills of central Mississippi, the Creeks living along Poarch Creek in southern Alabama retained their homes, and the Seminoles took refuge in the Everglades of south Florida. In addition to these remnant nations, other native peoples who had not been subject to the removal policy struggled to maintain their status and identity as Indians in a South that increasingly defined itself as biracial, that is, black and white.

Sidebar: Coping with a "Biracial" Society

For those Indians who constituted sizeable communities of readily identified historical peoples, the task was somewhat simpler. The Eastern Cherokees, for example, never had to defend their "Indianness" although the means by which to incorporate them into North Carolina's political system was long in doubt. However, the native people, now known as Lumbees, who lived in Robeson County had considerable difficulty in resisting designation as "free people of color," that is African American, in the ante-bellum period. With their origin in question and their culture largely indistinguishable from that of frontier whites, North Carolina questioned their claim to be Indian. In the Civil War, the Confederate army welcomed Cherokee enlistment, but officials conscripted Lumbees as forced laborers building coastal fortifications. The Lumbees responded with a guerrilla war that lasted through Reconstruction. Historian William McKee Evans has suggested that North Carolina's failure to defeat the Lumbees insured their designation as "Indian," since Southern racial ideology made failure to win an Indian war more acceptable than inability to subdue a black uprising. The result was state recognition of the Lumbees as "Indian," creation of separate Indian schools in Robeson County, and establishment of Pembroke University as a teacher training school for Indians. The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, has never extended full recognition or services to the Lumbees, and they have continued to experience racial harassment despite their highly publicized rout of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s.

Smaller, less powerful Indian peoples have had a far more difficult time than the Lumbees in achieving recognition as "Indian." Until the second Reconstruction of the 1960s, many southern Indians shared the indignity of segregation with other non-whites. When facilities specified "white" and "colored," law and convention forced most Indians to use the latter. White officials usually barred them from "white" schools; their own racism plus a desire to preserve their ethnic identity meant that Indians rarely attended segregated schools. Parents sometimes raised funds for private "Indian" schools, but the precarious financial situation of most Indian communities limited this option. In the late nineteenth century, the Catawbas in upcountry South Carolina welcomed Mormon missionaries who promised help in educating their children, but other communities struggled along with far less satisfactory solutions.

Native Americans also found that they had few political rights in the segregated South. The fifteenth amendment presumably protected the right of non-reservation Indians to vote (reservation Indians were "wards" not "citizens" of the United States until 1924), but many native peoples had difficulty exercising the franchise. The same prejudices and tactics that kept African Americans from the polls denied


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the vote to Indians. Those who lived on reservations finally received the right to vote by Congressional act in 1924, but many found that the grant of citizenship was an empty gesture. Southerners simply applied the literacy test and poll tax to Indians with predictable results, or they invented new legal subterfuges in order to exclude native peoples from the political process. The Democratic-controlled counties of western North Carolina were so desperate to keep the Republican Cherokees from voting that the legislature insisted that the 1924 act did not apply to them. A separate Congressional act in 1930 that specifically enfranchised the North Carolina Cherokees still did not mean ready access to the polls. As recently as 1988, some Lumbee leaders were calling for a United States Justice Department investigation of political corruption and discrimination in Robeson County.

The lack of educational opportunities, legal segregation, and political disfranchisement compounded the economic problems experienced by Southern Indians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Living on marginal lands, they barely survived through subsistence farming or sharecropping. Sometimes they even lost what land base they had to unscrupulous individuals or state governments eager to profit from the sale of lands for which no recorded titles existed. Most Southern Indians lived far from urban areas, and whatever industrialization and prosperity came to the "New South" passed them by. Furthermore, racial discrimination excluded most Indians from all except the most menial jobs. While New Deal programs brought some relief to Southern Indians who lived on reservations, most native Southerners lived so marginally that they barely noticed the waxing or waning of the Great Depression.

The boom in tourism that followed World War II provided minimal economic benefits to the Seminoles and Cherokees whose locations near national parks made them tourist attractions. Certainly tourism meant employment opportunities, but the jobs usually paid poorly and the work was seasonal. Furthermore, tourists' expectations of Indians forced native peoples to project a stereotypical image that many found demeaning, and the tasteless shops, restaurants, and motels built to cater to the tourists gave native communities a cheap carnival atmosphere. Most Southerners have driven down the strip in Cherokee, North Carolina that is lined with shops selling foreign-made "Indian" souvenirs and Cherokees dressed in polyester Plains Indian garb for tourists to photograph. While some may have been appalled, this was most expected of Indians and Indian reservations, and until recently, the limited economic resources of the Cherokees gave them little alternative to catering to these expectations.

Sidebar: Debating Federal Termination

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some native peoples did manage to secure a reservation, a commonly held tract of land whose title was protected by the federal government, and the services of the Bureau of Indian Affairs including schools, health care, and financial support for various tribal ventures. In the 1950s the federal government's termination policy threatened these benefits. Most Southern Indians who had federal recognition sought to avoid the termination of their relationship with the federal government and the allotment of their assets, including land, to individuals. Among the Cherokees and Seminoles, however, considerable dissension existed from different quarters. Highly acculturated Cherokees sought termination because they felt that federal restrictions on the alienation of land thwarted free enterprise, while very conservative Seminoles organized a separate Miccosukee tribe in order to disassociate themselves from federal programs they believed undermined traditional culture. Neither the Cherokees, Seminoles, nor Miccosukees were terminated, but the Catawbas of South Carolina and the Alabama-Coushatta were.

Mississippi Choctaws, Eastern Cherokees, Florida Seminoles, and Miccosukees today have federally recognized reservations on which most of their members live. Other peoples such as the Tunica-Biloxi and the Poarch Creeks have won federal recognition and are acquiring land to be placed in trust. Only people whose names appear on the official membership rolls of these tribes enjoy federal status as Indians. The health, education, and other benefits that accrue to these people are limited to those indi-


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viduals who are on the rolls; that is, a Cherokee grandmother does not automatically entitle a person to BIA services unless her/his name appears on the roll. These benefits are not a special kind of Indian "welfare" but represent payment for ceded lands and fulfillment of federal obligations.

Most native Southerners do not have federal recognition. Some Southern states operate state reservations; other states acknowledge Indian groups within their borders but provide relatively little in terms of services. State reservations, recognition, and organization of Indian councils, however, represent official acceptance of these people as Indian by the larger society. Furthermore, most non-recognized tribes have incorporated pursuant to state law. Nevertheless, federal recognition is a goal for many because of the expanded services and sovereignty involved.

Federal recognition, which can be pursued administratively through the Bureau of Indian Affairs or legislatively in Congress, is difficult for Indian peoples to achieve. First of all, they must demonstrate identification as a specific native people through time. In other words, a group of people cannot merely assume an Indian name and expect federal acceptance as Indian. Furthermore, they must demonstrate that they have long occupied a particular site as an Indian tribe and that a tribal government has exercised continual influence over the group. Historical circumstances make these provisions almost impossible for most native Southerners to meet. Many tribal groups in the South are composites of remnant peoples who joined together to forge a new tribal identity. This is true not only of nonrecognized peoples but also of some such as the Catawbas, whom the BIA at one time recognized, and the Seminoles. Furthermore, many native peoples fail to occupy traditional lands through no fault of their own; indeed, whites forced many of them to relinquish their homelands. By the same token, state governments denied political authority and sovereignty to tribal governments, and so their inability to govern often had little to do with the wishes of their own people.

Federal recognition, however elusive, offers native Southerners an opportunity to reaffirm their Indian identity in a political and economic sense as well as their public image as Indians. Federally recognized tribes come under the jurisdiction of the federal government which, in recent years, has been more protective of the civil rights of minorities than state and local governments. This is particularly important to peoples like the Lumbees who have been subject to overt racism in recent years. Furthermore, federally recognized Indians can govern their own lands and establish their own priorities for their communities. Federal recognition gives tribes a corporate identity under which they can file suit, enter contracts, and apply for grants (this also applies to the tribes that have incorporated under state law), and it usually removes them from the jurisdiction of state law. Since federally recognized native peoples acquired far greater control over their own affairs in the 1970s, these advantages have provided a means to challenge the poverty and impotence they historically have suffered.

As a result of the expanded sovereignty that federal recognition provides, many Southern Indians have significantly improved their economic situation. The most controversial exercise of sovereignty and economic ingenuity is the opening of bingo parlors on Indian reservations. The pioneers in this enterprise were the Seminoles. In the 1970s, at their reservation just north of Fort Lauderdale, the Seminoles set up a "smoke shop," where they sold cigarettes without paying state tax, and a high-stakes bingo parlor, which violated state law. Later they added establishments at their Big Cypress reservation near Fort Myers and on tribal land in Tampa. The state of Florida tried to close the businesses, but in 1982 the United States Supreme Court ruled that bingo and smoke shops were legal and were not subject to state law. Since then, the Cherokees have followed suit and opened a high stakes bingo parlor in North Carolina, as have the Poarch Creeks in Alabama.

Bingo is big business for Indians whose reservations are so remote and poor that few other economic opportunities exist. In 1985 Seminole tribal chairman James Billie told the Florida legislature that the Seminole tribal income was over seven million dollars; of this, two-thirds came from bingo. The effects on the tribe have been significant. The employment rate has increased by twenty percent. More Seminole children can afford to go to college, and bingo revenue has provided services ranging from health care to day care. Each enrolled Seminole also receives an annual dividend which she/he can use to improve her/his life through the purchase of a new stove or the payment of college tuition. The tribe also offers loans to members who want to begin their own businesses. Indeed, the Seminoles


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have used bingo revenue to expand and diversify their economy because they realize that bingo is not a very secure source of funding for the long term, particularly if the state legalizes gambling. The Seminoles like many other native Southerners are adapting their traditional corporate ethic to the modern economy. Rejecting a rigid free enterprise ideology, the tribe actively tries to improve the economic life of all its members, and it marshals community resources to accomplish that goal.

In some ways the Choctaws pioneered this approach to solving tribal economic problems. In 1969 the Choctaws formed a development corporation that built over four hundred houses and upgraded another two hundred. Furthermore, the Choctaws have used tribal land and federal loans to construct an eighty-acre industrial park. One of the industries that located here manufactures hand-finished greeting cards while another makes electrical harnesses for GM automobiles. Many Choctaws work in these industries but so do non-Indians: today the Choctaws are the largest employer in Neshoba County. In addition to providing employment these industries generate profits that fund tribal services. In an era of federal budget cuts, such non- government sources of income are essential. This is a major reason why the Cherokees, for example, acquired a mirror company that is not located on the reservation. Although its factories will employ few Cherokees, the income the company produces will help improve the lives of all the people who live on the reservation through expanded services.

The growing independence and self-confidence of native Southerners has led to a renewed interest in their past and a desire for more authentic representations of their culture. Native peoples have become involved in protecting archaeological and historic sites. The Cherokees, for example, joined environmentalists in trying unsuccessfully to stop the Tellico reservoir in east Tennessee. Although Cherokees no longer live there, the valley contained some of their most important eighteenth-century village sites. The Seminoles acquired land in Tampa and built a cultural center (and a bingo parlor) because the site had historical significance for them. Many native peoples have constructed modern museums and "living villages" in order to help visitors understand their ancestors' way of life. Powwows and community centers strengthen community bonds and ties to the past.

Perhaps the most authentic way in which Southern Indians have embraced their past and reasserted their culture, however, is in using their traditional communal ethic, which emphasized the welfare of the group over the individual, to modify the institutions of twentieth-century America. Native peoples such as the Choctaws have employed the tools of capitalist America to provide social services, offer educational and economic opportunities, and preserve ethnic integrity and independence. Contrary to current conventional wisdom, they have improved substantially the standard of living on their reservations not through trickle-down economics and free enterprise but through direct aid and a commitment to community. Although some leaders verbally have rejected the idea of preserving distinct native cultures and communities and have advocated assimilation, the effect of native economic expansion has been to reaffirm "Indianness" and offer us an important model for economic development. Native peoples, not white bureaucrats, clearly are the best engineers of their own futures. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' stringent requirements for recognition deprive most native Southerners of the institutional structure needed to benefit fully from this model. Because the South has so many non-recognized Indians, it is a matter of regional concern and may well be a pressing cultural and racial issue of the twenty-first century.