“We all have to recognize our privilege in perpetuating the settler-colonial state of the U.S. We are all either settlers or indigenous.”

As an ethnicity, race and migration major, I often hear some variation of the previous statement in my classes, typically to the nodding and quiet agreement of the professor and other students. Meanwhile, as usually the only Afro-Indigenous person in the class, I could only wince.

Settler colonialism refers to the process in which Indigenous peoples are [violently] replaced with settler populations in a colonial project. Rooted in racial superiority, the settlers forcibly remove and depopulate the Native peoples. Further, they occupy and cultivate their lands, typically for economic and sociopolitical advantage. In most instances, [white] settlers are therefore the architects and main benefactors of the capitalist system that takes advantage of non-white lands and peoples.The United States is arguably the most visible example of a settler-colonial state, and is by and large proud of that fact  and see the moniker as “a nation of immigrants.”

Settler colonialism is a sociopolitical framework similar to how people think about race. While it is helpful to think of racism as an absolute binary, one is either racist or anti-racist, I contend that the binary of settler and indigenous is not as productive, specifically in that it erases the histories of Generational African Americans and Black Natives.

The binary of being a settler or indigenous means that those who are not Native American, or in other words those who immigrated, are all settlers. However, immigration implies the movement was consensual or voluntary. In contrast, the ancestors of Generational African Americans, where they themselves indigenous peoples of West and Central Africa, were most often prisoners of warring tribes who were sold to traders and brought over in chains. Furthermore, once they got here, they did not settle but worked the stolen land in service of the European colonizers. They did not benefit from the system, and were thus not settlers. However, they were not indigenous to the United States either.

Perhaps the most egregious implication of a settler-indigenous binary is the notion that Indigenous peoples cannot participate in the settler colonial project. The complex interactions between Generational African Americans and various tribal nations fly in the face of this framework.

It is true that tribal nations would hide runaway slaves and subsequently integrate. However, there exists another historical narrative. European Americans are the most popularly associated as slave owners, but Native Americans also held slaves in not-insignificant numbers. Tribal nations in the South were dubbed positively by white settlers because of their adoption of western practices, as Grant Foreman wrote in The Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole. These “Five Civilized Tribes,’ [The Creek Nation is also known as The Muscogee] of the Southeastern United States adopted many colonial attributes, including race-based chattel slavery. Historian William G. McLoughlin also found that Cherokee families even owned slaves at a higher rate than the general South.

After the abolishment of slavery, the Black populations formerly enslaved by the Five Tribes traveled with them on the Trail of Tears to the Midwest and intermarried. They were subsequently called Cherokee Freedmen, Choctaw Freedmen, etc. based on their tribal affiliation.

The Dawes Roll was a late 19th to early 20th century inventory of the populations of the Five Tribes in order to determine allotment of land. Names and blood quantums were marked. Unfortunately, visibly Black or Freedmen were listed exclusively in the Freedmen category without documentation of blood quantum, despite often having living Indigenous parents. This was later used to prevent voting rights to Five Tribes Freedmen because they subsequently lacked the “Certificate Degree of Indian Blood” card required for citizenship and voting.

The descendants of Freedmen, like myself, are still fighting for recognition. Only in the last few years did the U.S. District Courts rule in favor of Cherokee Freedmen, and Gary Batton, the current and 47th chief of the Choctaw Nation, went as far as to write to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2020 saying that the Choctaw Freedmen issue is an American issue, not one perpetuated by the Nation. It is noticeable that this was during the height of racial unrest following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

Being non-Indigenous does not mean one is a settler — a perpetuator of settler-colonialism. Conversely, being Indigenous — the original proprietors of the land — does not preclude one from perpetuating settler colonialism on other non-benefactors, specifically through anti-Black capitalism. Anti-Blackness is at the very core of our country. This Black History Month, I ask everyone, including other Black people, to interrogate their anti-Black biases, and how their stories are rooted in the subjugation of Generational African Americans. 

EC MINGO (Cherokee Freedmen and Afro-Seminole Creole) is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact EC at ec.mingo@yale.edu.